Liberal Education

Collective Muscle: How Partnerships between Faculty Members and Athletic Coaches Can Serve Our Academic Missions

After a recent men’s water polo practice at Brown University, a member of the team approached the coach with a question. Was that his physics professor he’d seen in the bleachers observing the team as they worked out? The coach explained that the professor had attended the practice as part of the university’s faculty–athletic coaches group, a learning community that aims to bring together academics and athletics in common service of the liberal arts educational mission. “In the classroom, my team member typically hides his identity as an athlete because he worries he will not be taken seriously as a student,” the coach says. But seeing his physics professor at practice, the athlete told his coach, made him feel “whole.”

The academic and athletic missions of colleges and universities are often portrayed in opposition. One illustration of this tension is the recent “Varsity Blues” admissions scandal, in which illicit athletic recruiting subverted equitable admissions processes. Other less newsworthy examples of tensions around collegiate athletics include student-athletes’ need to miss classes or exams for games, as well as some faculty perceptions about athletic “cliques” in majors or courses (when members of the same team, for instance, sit together in a class). But are the athletic and academic missions of colleges and universities really so antithetical?

For the past two years, we have convened a faculty–athletic coach learning community at Brown University that recognizes the complementary role that many athletic coaches and faculty members play. One of us, Kerrissa Heffernan, after serving as a women’s rugby coach and faculty member in education at Brown, spent three years as director of engaged sport at the university’s Swearer Center for Public Service. The other of us, Mary Wright, is the director of Brown’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. Through our work with the learning community, we have uncovered more similarities than differences in teaching and coaching contexts. For example, educators and coaches both consider such questions as: How can students practice key skills before high-stakes performance tests? What are effective ways to motivate diverse students to do their best? What are approaches to cultivating inclusive communities? Further, although athletics is often thought of as an extracurricular activity, our observations and discussions suggest that, like faculty members, coaches are often engaged in teaching key liberal arts competencies such as problem solving, writing, persuasive communication, and critical thinking.

A faculty-coach learning community

Over coffee one day, the two of us found ourselves discussing how the idea of “practice” is common to athletics and the science of learning. This seemed particularly pertinent at Brown, which offers the nation’s second-largest collegiate athletics program, with thirty-eight varsity sports and approximately eighty-seven coaches. Twenty-seven percent of undergraduates at Brown participate in varsity or club sports. Our initial conversation led us, in the fall of 2017, to formally ask selected faculty and coaches to participate in a learning community that would involve a yearlong series of discussions about teaching and coaching. In an effort to create engaging and deep conversations, we tapped our connections in the Brown community to help us identify faculty who played sports in college and also to identify head coaches with a reputation for being good teachers. The inaugural group included nine faculty from all ranks—from full professors of physics and history to senior lecturers in engineering and nonfiction writing—and seven coaches from both revenue sports (men’s baseball, for example) and nonrevenue sports (women’s rugby, for example). In its second year, the group grew to ten faculty, nine coaches, an alumnus who competed in two Paralympics, and a student who competed in two Olympics. Nine members of the 2017–18 community stayed on through 2018–19, meeting monthly. The group plans to continue to meet with joint faculty-coach leadership.

Beyond grappling with the role of athletics in Brown’s teaching and learning agenda, we aimed to explore the similarities and differences between coaching and teaching in order to develop connections between faculty and coaches. We structured the initial conversation around personal narratives, with different prompts for faculty and coaches, to uncover areas of alignment. For instance, we asked coaches, “Thinking back to when you were a student, what is one thing that a faculty member did that really helped motivate you to perform at your best?” For faculty, we asked, “Thinking back to when you were on a team, what is one thing that a coach did that really helped you learn?” In these discussions, both faculty and coaches noted times when they were injured or struggling and a trainer, dean, or instructor helped pull them through by reminding them of their academic identity. Other common themes that emerged included the value of an instructor or coach getting to know a student-athlete “as a person” to help him or her achieve high expectations.

All learning community participants read James M. Lang’s Small Teaching, which contains chapters such as “Practicing” and “Motivating” that are applicable to both coaching and classroom contexts.1 Throughout the year, the large-group discussions focused on a variety of questions:

  • What does it mean to be a “good coach”? A “good teacher”?
  • What is the teaching/learning contract with the athlete/student? What is most difficult or misunderstood about these relationships?
  • How do you motivate students? How do you assess improvement?
  • The idea of “practice” is central to an athletic team. Why do we practice? How might practice be important in the classroom?

To anchor these discussions, we asked faculty members to observe coaches conducting practice sessions with athletes. In turn, coaches sat in on classes as faculty worked with students. The observational sessions allowed participants to view students’ experiences in different learning environments, as well as to see various approaches to teaching and supporting students. At our regular meetings, we held debriefings about the visits using the appreciative prompt, “What elements of your partner’s use of practice [in the classroom or for a game] make it effective?” Faculty members tended to be interested in how coaches motivated athletes to push beyond their limitations to excel. Many faculty members were surprised by the close relationships coaches had with their athletes—relationships often developed over four years and involving nearly daily interaction—which coaches could use to motivate students. Coaches were interested in how faculty motivated learners, even without these close relationships, and created engaging learning environments for diverse groups of students. The coaches were often puzzled by the obstacles faculty encountered in building relationships with students, due to factors such as workload, classroom space, and logistics.

There was a shared interest in how both coaches and faculty members exercised professional judgment—how they assessed a student’s capacity to master content and apply learning in high-stress situations. As Kate Kovenock, head women’s swim coach at Brown, explained to us, while swim times are important in evaluating her athletes’ potential, they are merely a starting point. When recruiting, she observes things like swimmers’ “feel for the water,” their hand placement in the stroke cycle, the fluidity of their kick, how they position themselves, and whether they fight the water or understand how to use the water to move efficiently. She also evaluates how open they are to feedback. “These things are the hardest to teach but tell me the most about their potential to be successful,” she says.

Similarly, James Valles, a professor of physics at Brown, sets out to better understand his students’ “innate ability in physics” by asking questions to ignite their curiosity and listening to how they respond. He also watches how they approach problems. When they do not know where to start in solving the problem, some students will talk to other students, taking a social risk. Others might employ the wrong equation but play it out to a reasonable solution or solve the problem with a mathematical leap. Some students might work backward to reverse engineer the problem. “However they arrive at the answer, it’s that moment of clarity after a leap that is so satisfying,” he says. “Much of physics is about getting students into spaces where they make those leaps and trust their knowledge of how the laws, principles, and the math can guide them.”

One of the common experiences coaches and faculty members discussed was working with high-achieving students who are learning to adjust to university-level sports and academic courses. “The first-year swimmers on my team were state champions, club age-group record holders,” Kovenock notes. “They’ve been the fastest kid in the pool since they were six, and often for the first time they find themselves fighting to keep up in practice.”

Valles points to his students’ academic accomplishments before arriving at Brown. “The students in my intro class were high school valedictorians, scored in the top percentile of the SAT, took multiple AP courses. They’ve always been the smartest kid in the class, and now they find themselves struggling to keep up.” Lang’s chapter on “Growing,” which highlights attributes of failure and growth mind-sets, enhanced the group’s discussions about the challenges of unlocking students’ potential at the collegiate level.

Despite the many similarities, faculty and coaches also identified significant differences in their work with students. Coaching is a very public, high-stakes activity. Success and failure are on display every week when a team wins and loses, and the activity of coaching can be viewed by anyone attending the game. In contrast, teaching is relatively private, and success and failure are less explicit and publicized. In addition, faculty cannot choose the students they teach and often have little knowledge about who will be sitting in their classrooms. Coaches, on the other hand, recruit athletes and tend to have a great deal of knowledge about them.

Supporting the liberal arts mission

To underscore how athletics can complement the academic mission, at one of our meetings, we asked participants to reflect on the question “How do you have students/players practice for key liberal arts competencies (such as problem solving, writing, and critical reading)?” Even though participants did not put their names on their written responses, the exercise demonstrated that both groups were encouraging student development of these skills. Examples included:

Writing: Players write a “letter to the sport of basketball,” noting their emotional connections to the sport over time. In academic courses, students write peer reviews, take essay exams, and write analytical essays.

Problem solving: Players are repeatedly asked to drill but under different constraints, introducing slightly different cases to teach analytical thinking. For instance, if the opposing team does one type of play, what should the player do? Now, if they do another type of play, what is the next response? Repeated, progressive problem solving develops facility in recognizing a challenge and pulling upon a repertoire of solutions, analogous to the use of case studies in the classroom or clinic.

Data science: Athletes learn statistical analysis through processes such as scouting and recruiting. In courses, students are taught data science through projects and problem sets.

Persuasive communication: Players engage in strategic team meetings, pregame motivation, and half-time assessments. Team members must clearly communicate with each other, and effective captains learn motivational communication to spur peak performance. In turn, faculty members frequently ask students to work in small groups for discussion or project-based work, while some also assign classroom presentations.

Positive outcomes

For the two years that we have been facilitating this learning community, we have seen a number of positive outcomes. In a post-participation survey, a majority of coaches and faculty members strongly agreed that the program helped them gain a greater understanding of the work of teaching and coaching.

In responding to the question, “What might you change as a result of participation in this learning community?” faculty said that they planned to work to form deeper relationships with students and be more deliberate and transparent with them. In seeing the ways coaches involve assistant coaches in planning, faculty reported that they wanted to consider more collaborative lesson plans. They also aimed to explore more “low stakes” testing, such as quizzes, and provide more opportunities to “practice” as a route to mastery. And faculty members said they wanted to build a team dynamic in the classroom, incorporate more active-learning exercises, and work to meet students “where they’re at.”

Coaches said that they came away from the community with the goals of being more flexible in their practice plans and focusing more on long-term growth by building athletes’ confidence in different tasks. They also aimed to become more reflective in the way they coached, adapt practice plans to consider athletes as individuals, incorporate a variety of teaching styles to address different learning preferences, and be better attuned to the way they communicated with their athletes.

Bridging the divide

The tension between faculty and coaches often reflects a lack of understanding each has about what the other does in day-to-day work. Teaching and coaching are different activities and hold different values in the university. The faculty-coach community revealed that it may be more accurate to describe coaching and teaching as a continuum: many faculty members are good coaches, and many coaches are good teachers. Disseminating, developing, refining, contextualizing, and building cultures of teaching in both the classroom and athletic realms demand particular interpersonal skills that may not be contained in the title “coach” or “professor.”

The participants in our community all agreed that bringing coaches and faculty members together in ongoing, respectful conversation can bridge the divide between athletics and academics and leverage the learning that happens in these environments to build a stronger liberal learning experience. 


Build Your Own Faculty-Coach Community

Two strategies helped make the faculty-coach learning community so successful at Brown University. First, it is critical to curate the community, bringing people together in a spirit of appreciative inquiry. One attempt at forming a group, tried years earlier, used a more open call to discuss the relationships between athletics and academics and resulted in tense, unproductive discussions.

For the community we ultimately created, one of us—Kerrissa Heffernan, former director of engaged sport at Brown’s Swearer Center for Public Service—contacted each of the participants in advance. This initial conversation framed the expectations of the group and made clear that the community would not be the place to argue about when the bus leaves or why a student cannot be excused from class. Rather, the focus of the group is about the practices of coaching and teaching and their relationships to the educational mission of the university or college.

Second, it is important to consider who will lead the group and where it will meet. In this case, Kerrissa, as a former coach at Brown, has extensive ties to current coaches at the university. The other one of us, Mary Wright, as the director of Brown’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, has strong ties to faculty members. Coaches appreciate that our group meets in the teaching and learning center space, which signals credibility for the participants’ perspectives.

We also invite readers to think more broadly to elevate the role of athletics and coaches in the academic mission of the university. At many universities, a common practice is to invite faculty and their family to games. Although this promotes faculty member engagement in the lives of their students, it still posits athletics as extracurricular  entertainment. Instead, we recommend activities that promote colleagueship between faculty members and coaches. Another example of promoting colleagueship is including athletic practices in “open classroom weeks” designed to make teaching public. We also include coaches as facilitators and participants in Center for Teaching and Learning events. Through these small steps, faculty and coaches will be able to see more of their commonalities as teachers and mentors and understand that they are all on the same team.
Kerrissa Heffernan and Mary C. Wright



1. James M. Lang, Small Teaching (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2016).

Kerrissa Heffernan is the director of the Women’s Rugby Coaches and Referees Association and formerly served as director of engaged sport at Brown University’s Swearer Center for Public Service. Mary C. Wright is director of the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of practice in sociology at Brown University.

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