The weakest Links

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This weekend I have been traveling as a coach with my High School Cross Country team.  The competition that we had entered was a 5K race for Boys and another for our Girls.  There are Individual accolades for the top 10 runners but the main event is the Team Championship.  This is made up of the first 5 finishers across the line from each school – as they come across the line, the place that each runner places is added together, and the team with the lowest score wins.  If you have athletes that come in 5,7,9,15,20 then you add up those figures (56) and that is your Team score.

If you want your team to win, you don’t need one fast runner, you need to worry about finding the fastest 4-7th place runners and lavish your attention on them.  The superstar runners are going to come to training, they will run and be motivated to continue to train consistently.  They are interested in crunching the numbers and running the miles.  Often it is very hard to find the weak link runners.  The ones who are not as motivated and see coming 5th or 7th in the team as not really being important.  But that 5th placed team runner can be the difference between winning and coming in last in a team competition like ours.  And finding and keeping solid 5th place team players can be very challenging when there are so many other things that they might like to do with their time and energy.  Finding, training and keeping these players in the team is a full-time job of the whole team with support from other runners, the team captain, and the coaches.  The love and attention on this weakest link can be what wins cross country team championships!

Malcolm Gladwell explains the idea of what matters more – your best player or your worst player – when looking at the games of soccer and basketball.  In his Revisionist History podcast, Gladwell discusses the idea of the importance of the Weakest link and the Strongest link.  In soccer, with 11 players on the pitch, you should be focusing on your weakest players rather than your strongest players.  The ability of your weakest players to pass well to get the ball to your superstar player makes a big difference – Lionel Messi is a superstar player but it is highly unlikely that he will be able to get past 11 opponents on the pitch without the support of his 10 teammates all working together to get the ball to his amazingly skilled boot.  However, in Basketball, you want to have the best superstars, as Basketball is a strong-link sport.  Having dominant ball carrying giants is going to be of massive advantage to your team as they can make their way through the court and take down the opposition for point scoring opportunities.    Gladwell sums this up with lots of meaningful examples and I highly recommend you take the time to listen to him. (Incidentally, his three podcast episodes on Education from Season 1 are outstanding and discuss some very important concepts about the current state of  Education in the USA).

Why do I bring this up?

I have been reflecting on a number of things at school and in PE and have come to the decision that there really is a need to consider the weak-link approach in Education, just as Gladwell suggests.

Firstly consider the professional growth within a department or division or section (say the #physed community).  For us to educate the whole child, we need a commitment from all of those invested in the support and learning of our students.  It is disheartening to hear about departments or individuals or schools or those who are struggling with colleagues who are not committed to the teaching of students – and so it becomes a weak-link conversation.  Who is or What is the weakest link to the student learning in your department – is it a person?  Is it coaching after school?  Is it a ‘we’ve always done it this way’ challenge?  Is it an Administration – “it is only PE” problem?  You may have some super-star people in your school or community but it isn’t just the  job of those advocates – we have to bring up the weak-link players to be engaged in winning the game!  How do we do that?  What are you doing to promote this?

What can be done to engage in conversations around learning and growth to support the professional development of that person or group for greater student success at your school?  Every student knows which teacher is deemed to be the easier grader – and in a space where you are all giving grades to students, if the teacher is what makes the difference, not the learning or the rigor of the course, then you have a weak link issue that must be addressed for student learning to matter.   This has to lead to some conversations or to better understand the constraints of members of the team so that there is an understanding of what is going on and how this is impacting student learning!

Parent comments about PE or what they went through can be very upsetting or send a negative message to students about PE and activities.  How are you engaging with parents at every opportunity?  What do your communications home look like?  What do you do on Parent-teacher days to bring up that weak-link parent?  How do you get to the parens who never come to these days or never email you back?  These are questions that I struggle with – and how to promote PE and the learning of my students in the community I live in and work in online.

An overbearing coach can certainly be a major obstacle in PE and I have been engaging in conversations on twitter with people who deal with colleagues who live to coach and could care-less about PE.  They coach for the extra money and they live for the love of a particular game.  But this should not be at the cost of our students Physical Education (or Health!).

An Administrator that is not interested in Quality PE and hires less-than-desirable colleagues can really make life challenging for strong-link PE people.  Are you talking to your admin and sharing the names or profiles or people who would be a great fit for your school?  Are you connected to these people already?

The profile and growth of Quality PE relies on weak-link stakeholders being educated about our program.  This is the challenge for us as a profession!  Game On!