What Teachers Can Learn About Motivation from NFL Coach Gary Kubiak

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I am not a football fan, but when I taught middle school, I pretended to be one, so I’d have something to talk about to some of the boys in my class. 

I will admit though, to discovering that I really liked the motivational stories of players’ grit and determination.  As I read about the ins and outs of weekly games and listened to player interviews, watched the Sunday morning NFL Report, and read Sports Illustrated I started realizing that teachers can learn a lot about teaching from studying the tactics and strategies of successful coaches.

Case in point. 

NFL football coach, Gary Kubiak retired recently from the Minnesota Vikings.  This was his second retirement.  His first retirement was in 2017 from the Denver Broncos. Although I read various tributes to his skills as a coach, none resonated more deeply than the words of star outside linebacker, Vonn Miller, who wrote a powerful essay for Sports Illustrated. Von Miller to Gary Kubiak: I’ll Keep Doing Your Work – Sports Illustrated  In it, Miller explained how Kubiak built team spirit and motivated individual players to do their best.  I was especially inspired by Miller’s story of how, after team meetings were over, Kubiak would discreetly and privately pull Miller aside in order to give him special, specifically designed assignments to help the team.  And you can be sure, that Miller wasn’t the only player that he used this strategy with.

When explaining Kubiak’s strategy Miller wrote: “After team meetings he’d pull me aside and tell me what he needed from me that day, whether it was raising the intensity level at practice or heightening the focus on the details.  I was excited and proud to be called on.”

Miller called those assignments “side missions.”  And yes, Kubiak was giving Miller more work and more responsibility.  But he was also communicating, through these assignments, “I know that you have a lot to offer and I want to help you step-up to your potential.  What’s more, I know you can do it.”  So much went on in those private conversations.  There was relationship-building, confidence, and self-esteem building, mentoring and more.

I love that coaching strategy and saw the power in it.  Just retired, I wasn’t able to implement it in my own class, but I immediately thought of students who would have benefitted from that strategy.  Kindness missions where I specifically and privately ask one student to help another student fit in or feel supported in a cooperative working situation.  Challenge missions where I alert a student about an upcoming assignment and challenge them to show me their absolute best work.  Inclusion missions when ahead of a day with group work, I ask a student to pick a specific student to be in his/her group.

Kubiak’s wisdom was that the side-mission, while building up the confidence and leadership skills of the chosen one, also facilitated growth and confidence in the players being helped.  The perfect example of a win-win.

How about you?  What student-centered secret missions can you think of?

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