Category Archives: teaching

What is Innovation?

When I posted last month about Innovation in Education, I was starting to work on my application for the Google Teacher Academy in Seattle this summer. Well, now that I’ve finished, I thought I’d share my application video with the few of you that read this blog. Before sharing, here is what GTA says they are looking for in application videos:

Create an original one minute video on ONE of the following topics: “Motivation and Learning” OR “Classroom Innovation.” This video is a very important part of your application. We’re specifically looking for educators who creatively address one of the specific topics listed above. You do not need to be in the video, but, the task is designed to demonstrate your technical ability, your resourcefulness, your commitment, and your unique personality and interests. Please do not submit videos produced for another project or videos created by others. We realize that you may have never produced a video before and that you may not own video equipment, but through perseverance we are confident you can find a way to meet this requirement.

With that in mind, here is the video I created. I’d love to hear what you think.

What Should We Teach?

“I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.” —Sir Winston Churchill, Roving Commission: My Early Life


Raphael's "The School of Athens"

With all the education reform going on in the U.S. right now, it’s sometimes hard to keep up. But one of the more disturbing changes is the emphasis on “core” content areas (specifically, math and science). As Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, wrote in a recent CNN article, this shift is not only doesn’t make sense; it may end up having a negative effect in the long run. Liberal arts education are what have made the U.S. one of the most innovative countries in the world, and as he says, “Innovation in technology companies, automobile design, medicine or food production will not come only from isolated work in technical disciplines. Effective vaccine delivery programs, for example, require technical expertise, but they also require cultural understanding, economic planning and ethical reasoning.” This is his “philosophy of education” – that students should learn a broad set of skills and habits in order to better the world around them.

When I was doing my Masters in Education program, one of the first activities we did was to define our own “Philosophy of Education.” We took an inventory of roughly 30 questions, and the scores helped us determine which of 5 educational philosophies we were: Essentialist, Perennialist, Progressivist, Social Reconstructivist, or Existentialist. As it turned out, I came up strongly Perennialist:

Perennialists believe that one should teach the things that one deems to be of everlasting importance to all people everywhere. They believe that the most important topics develop a person. Since details of fact change constantly, these cannot be the most important. Therefore, one should teach principles, not facts…The focus is primarily on teaching reasoning and wisdom rather than facts, the liberal arts rather than vocational training. (Wikipedia)

Now, I have long considered myself a classicist. From a young age, I have loved reading and studying about ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Israel. In high school, I enjoyed reading The Odyssey, Hamlet, and other older works much more than I enjoyed, say, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I simply found the stories more engaging and more interesting to think about. In college, those interests lead me to study philosophy, Shakespeare, and metaphysical poetry. Really, I agree with the Churchill quote at the start of this post – studying the ancients is as much a privilege as it is a necessity. So it should come as no surprise I came up as a perennialist – I did (and still do) believe that there are subjects and topics that ought to be taught because thinking about and discussing those topics make us better people.

For example, I think the subject of ethics and the nature of morality is an absolutely essential part of becoming a rational human being, and as such should be part of every educational curriculum in the world. We all have our own innate preconceptions about morality (largely based on that of our parents), but the majority of us likely have put little to no critical thought into the foundations of those ethical beliefs. It seems that this is the sort of thing that should be studied and discussed in an educational setting. Regardless of the conclusions students draw, there ought to be a place where they can safely study other perspectives, discuss and debate with their peers, and develop their own sense of morality.

What we do now

As an English teacher, I think there is a very clear place for this sort of discussion in the Language Arts classroom if we intentionally design it as such. Lately, as I have been reflecting on our curriculum and the content we teach, I see a lack of this sort of “great idea” thinking in what we currently teach students.

Right now, we teach 5 literature units in 9th grade English: The Foreshadowing, a Reader’s Workshop focused on the Hero’s Journey in a selection of YA literature (such as The Alchemyst and House of the Scorpion), Poetry (with a focus on forms such as odes and sonnets), Romeo and Juliet, and an introductory Film as Literature unit focused on genre and basic film elements. It can be a fun curriculum to teach, but there are times when it feels as though our units lack real substance, real depth of purpose. Primarily, we are focused on using the content to teach skills that will be assessed on state tests, so rather than go into great detail on the moral dilemmas and choices faced by Friar Laurence, we focus on whether students can use context clues to interpret vocabulary – certainly a valuable skill, but lacking that “human” value.

Unfortunately, some of our existing units simply don’t allow for extended discussions of philosophical ideas like morality, existence, or knowledge. Novels like The Alchemyst make for good reading and for talking about the Hero’s Journey, but there isn’t a lot of room for discussing those deeper issues.

What We Could Do (My Ideal 9th Grade English Course)

Rodin's "The Thinker"It’s one thing to raise a problem or complain about something, and that’s not my goal here. This whole discussion is the byproduct of some reflection on myself and my teaching – namely, what would I teach if I had the freedom to teach whatever I want?

Now, I must note that this discussion is focused mainly on traditional 9th grade English/Language Arts content – things that are taught in many classrooms worldwide. Thus, as much as I want to, I will not include much in the way of philosophical writing in the curriculum. Rather, since this is my “ideal” course, I can assume students are already discussing these writings in the imagined “Introduction to Philosophy” course, which would cover everything from Plato to Descartes to Kant and would, of course, be mandatory.

With that caveat, I think it only makes sense to begin with the course focus. And since it is something I already teach (and enjoy teaching), I think the easiest focus for me would be to center the course on the Hero’s Journey archetype. In all likelihood, I would borrow ideas (and probably some materials) from Dana Huff over at Huffenglish, who has shared numerous materials, ideas, and anecdotes about her own Hero’s Journey course.

As we started the year, we would likely look at the concept of the Hero’s Journey as a pattern. We would start with the first chapter from a great book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, which is titled “Every Trip is a Quest…Except When It’s Not.” I would take excerpts from Joseph Campbell’s work – including his interview with George Lucas – and we would put together a map (or perhaps a board game?) of the journey that would remain with us throughout the year. This introductory unit would likely be when we discuss heroic traits, as well, such as courage.

From there, we would move through different eras of history, studying the literature poetry of those eras. Where better to start than with the original heroes of ancient Greece? It would be difficult to choose between several smaller myths – such as Hercules, Theseus, etc. – and Homer’s Odyssey, but I would likely go with the latter because it is both journey and poem. We might look at Hercules or another hero to compare with Odysseus, but the Odyssey would be the primary text. It is also a good place to discuss concepts such as loyalty and integrity.

After Odysseus, I would probably move on to Beowulf – something I have never taught, but a work that fits both the focus of the course and is an important historical text. We would be able to incorporate elements of Norse mythology, discuss ideas such as responsibility and sacrifice, and would also give us a good comparison text for the Odyssey.

From Beowulf, we would jump to Shakespeare, and I would be faced with an intriguing prospect – teaching Romeo and Juliet as a hero’s journey. It may be a good chance to talk about the antihero, look at the steps of the journey from a different perspective (the Return Home sure looks different), and still incorporate the best introduction to Shakespeare I can muster. Thematically, I love discussing the ideas of fate and free will, as well as love and choices when we read Romeo and Juliet. The play would, of course, be accompanied by a look at the poetic traditions of Shakespeare’s time, including the sonnet.

A side note: One alternative I have lately considered inserting here is to do some reading on the American Revolution. I would be curious what stories or novels others might use to discuss this time period in literature classes.

From there, we may move to the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, including my personal favorite, “The Cask of Amontillado.” We would talk about the short story as a genre, the strange version of the journey archetype (and the antihero) in some of Poe’s works, and could look at how poetry was quickly evolving during Poe’s lifetime. Poe also gives us a good jumping off point to discuss death, justice, and humanity in great detail.

At this point, I would want to move into the 20th century and read a novel, though I am completely torn about what novel to choose. I definitely want to juxtapose the novel with poets like Robert Frost and modernist poets, so early- to mid-20th century would be ideal. I would also like to use the novel to discuss war, morality, and/or freedom. I’m really quite open to suggestions and would love to hear suggestions.

Finally, I would end the way my 9th grade class currently ends – with an introductory “Film as Literature” unit. We do a Reader’s Workshop style unit where students select a genre, watch 2 films in that genre, and use those films (as well as outside films) to discuss both genre and visual literacy elements. Not only is this a great way to end the year, but is a very solid look at how the medium of storytelling has evolved, especially looking in hindsight at the growth from epic poem to play to novel to movie.

So that’s my dream curriculum. Obviously it’s just a dream at this point, but I would love to get some feedback – what would you do differently? What ideas do you have? What is your dream curriculum?

2,000 Hours

Through one of the many blogs I read – The Edublogger – I heard about this intriguing new project: 2,000 Hours. A fellow English teacher, Charles Ripley, is going to document his teaching-related hours for the next year, starting with the summer.

This could be a fascinating way to approach issues like teacher pay, and is a creative way to use the blogging platform – I can already picture students documenting their learning throughout the year with a blog…

Of course, after reading Mr. Ripley’s initial post, I cannot help but recall some of the great clips from the Daily Show a couple of months ago on similar issues.

In any case, I’m sure 2,000 Hours will be a fascinating site to follow over the next year.

Wikipedia and the Wisdom of the Masses

WikipediaNot too long ago, I wrote about Jake Locker and the Wisdom of the Masses, which discussed the way in which public perception or “common sense” is based primarily on what so-called “experts” and media say on a particular subject. This particular post will look at what may be the antithesis of that piece – Wikipedia.

I have used Wikipedia for a long time now, primarily when I want to get a quick overview about a topic or find an answer to a random trivia question (like “How many home runs did Sadaharu Oh hit during his career?”). Occasionally (as I did recently), I’ll consult the References and “Further Reading” sections of an article to look for books to read on a topic.

But as a teacher, I often hear from students that they have been told to never use Wikipedia because it is unreliable. Other teachers they have had have told them that, because anyone can edit Wikipedia, it is completely unreliable. Essentially, these teachers have told students to only listen to people that are vetted “experts” on a subject.

Of course, in the Jake Locker article, I argued that the so-called “experts” were just as ignorant as many fans. In addition, their “expert” opinions influenced the masses to believe something that may or may not be true, all without using complete, factual information to support their positions. Interestingly, Wikipedia seems to be the opposite of this phenomenon, as the “wisdom of the masses” turns out to be roughly on par with the wisdom of the experts.

Take this oft-cited report by Nature magazine, which found that Wikipedia is nearly as reliable as the Encyclopedia Brittanica – with approximately 1 more error per article than the published encyclopedia (The main article is behind a pay wall (here’s a summary from CNet News), but their responses to Encyclopedia Brittanica’s objections are worth looking at). Even when there are errors in a Wikipedia entry, they are (more often than not) fixed within a matter of hours.

Another study, published by online journal First Monday, revealed that experts who read Wikipedia articles in their areas of expertise found those articles to be more credible than non-experts. In layman’s terms, if you or I read an article on nuclear fission on Wikipedia, we might treat it with a bit of skepticism (“take it with a grain of salt”). An expert in the field of nuclear physics, however, found that to be a fairly reliable and accurate article.

Of course, Wikipedia is not, nor ever will be, perfect. One of the drawbacks of having an encyclopedia that anyone can edit is that some will add misinformation (whether intentional or not). PBS’ “Learning.Now” blog posted a clear, concise summary of both sides of the Wikipedia debate. It illustrates the potential problems with Wikipedia using the story of John Seigenthaler Sr., whose erroneous Wikipedia article tied him to the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy. But it also highlights the story of some high school journalists who used Wikipedia (and its editing history) to out a convicted sex offender posing as British royalty.

So what should educators do about Wikipedia? Based on what my students have shared with me, many teachers are simply telling students not to use Wikipedia. I will never say this. There is far more quality information on Wikipedia than there is bad information. While Britannica is updated annually, Wikipedia is being edited every second of every day, thus has information on events like the death of Osama bin Laden, which won’t appear in Britannica for several months. Furthermore, students can access Wikipedia for free from anywhere with an internet connection, while it is much more difficult to access an encyclopedia. Then there are additional tools like Simple English Wikipedia, which contains similar content shared in simple language (rather than intellectual vocabulary). This kind of tool is invaluable for students, particularly those just beginning to learn how to do research. With all of these facts (plus the demonstrable accuracy of their articles), I will never tell students not to use the site.

However, I will also never tell them that it they should cite Wikipedia as a source in scholarly writing. Yes, the site is usually accurate. Yes, it has good information more often than not. However, it is not perfect, and it is still a secondary source. And I try to get my students to avoid citing secondary sources, instead helping them search for the primary source of the information. To me, this is one of the great advantages to using Wikipedia – their bountiful citations and connected links. If the information is good, I can typically consult the original source and use that, thus maintaining accuracy and academic integrity.

So here’s what I tell my students – Wikipedia is a great starting point. If you just want quick access to basic information, use Wikipedia. This is why I cite Wikipedia articles in my blog – the articles provide good introductions for people who don’t know about a particular subject. If you are doing research, it is a great way to get a mostly accurate overview of a topic, and an even better tool for finding other sources to aid in research (using the References). But Wikipedia should not be the core of their research, just as the Encyclopedia Brittanica should not comprise all of their research – they should seek out primary sources of information to cite in their work. This is what I try to teach my students.

But that’s just what I do. How do you handle the Wikipedia dilemma?

Innovation in Education

When I found out that the Google Teacher Academy would be held here in Seattle this year, I decided that now was the ideal time to apply for it. I’ve been looking at GTA for a couple of years now and always hesitated because I didn’t want to make the trek to some distant locale for a one-day workshop. And with our district likely going forward with Google Apps in the next year, I started thinking about the application process.

Like a good English teacher, I’ve drafted and will revise my responses to the written questions, but I also want to plan out my video ahead of time. The written responses are fairly natural for me, but the video requires some serious thinking. There are two topics to choose from, and I decided that “Innovation in Education” would be a better fit for me than “Motivation and Learning.” But what do I do? What should I include in the video? What kind of video should I make? What the heck is “Innovation in Education”?Innovation

What is Innovation?

As is often the case, I begin with definitions. What is innovation? Webster’s defines it as “a new idea, method, or device.” Wikipedia points the word’s etymology to the Latin innovare, which means “to renew or change.” Good definitions, but innovation also goes deeper than that. Many inventions are new or changed, as are many theories. The difference between invention and innovation, though, is that an innovation is “put to use, is accepted by users and effectively causes a social or commercial reorganization(Wikipedia).

In other words, innovation is about taking something and using it in a new way – a way that changes the way we think about that idea, method, or device. The Chia Pet, for example, is an invention, but does it cause us to reorganize what we do? No. In contrast, the internet has fundamentally changed the way we interact with the world around us – it is an innovation. Microsoft Windows is an innovation. WYSIWYG editing is an innovation. Electronic fart machines are not.

Of course, innovation is more than just products. Ideas can be just as revolutionary as products. Based on the definitions above, republican democracy is a tremendous innovation – it has completely altered the world as we know it. Similarly, the assembly line was a tremendous innovation because it caused us to reorganize the way we did business in the 20th century.

Innovation is not change for the sake of change – it’s refining things that work and replacing things that don’t. Henry Ford saw the need for a specific change in his business, so he devised a new method that caused commercial reorganization. That is innovation. The Romans saw a need for change on the battlefield, so they devised a new method called the Testudo, which protected their legions and allowed them to move together as armored units. That is innovation. Knute Rockne and a small Catholic school called Notre Dame utilized something called the forward pass to upset powerhouse Army 35-13 and changed the way that football was played. That is innovation.

The Innovator

In addition to these definitions, there is also some research – specifically the work of Everett M. Rogers – about those people who are the innovators. In his work, Diffusion of Innovations, Rogers tries to explain how (and why) new ideas, methods, and devices take hold – how they become innovations. One of the key components in the process is the people involved in the process of adopting the innovation, of which he says there are 5 categories: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. The innovators, he says, are the risk-takers – the people willing to try something out in the hopes that it makes their lives or work better. As risk takers, these are also the people who are willing to fail if it means they have a chance of doing something great. Typically, Rogers says, these people are young, often not wanting for money, and interact most frequently with other innovators. Comparatively, early adopters jump on board after innovators have done test runs, early majority take their time and watch what happens to the first two groups, while late majority and laggards are slow to jump on board, if they jump on at all.

Rogers’ work reveals one more interesting detail: innovators are not the group that make an innovation successful. They may be the group that tries something first, but the majority look at them as being something akin to mad scientists. It is the early adopters, however, that are also the opinion leaders; they are the group that the majority will look to and trust because they are taking a more responsible risk. While the innovators are often young and frequently considered naive, the early adopters often demonstrate prudence in the innovations they adopt and are viewed as more responsible because of it. They are typically the group refining and perfecting the ideas and methods put forth by the innovators. It is because of this that early adopters often make or break a particular innovation.

Innovation in Education

So what does this look like in education? What are the educational equivalents of the assembly line, the Testudo, and the forward pass? What does it mean to be an innovator in education? No doubt the Socratic Method was innovative in its own time and changed the way people learned. Surely inquiry learning is an innovative approach to teaching content and/or skills. And there are countless other innovations that have impacted education over time – the printing press, chalkboard, and more recently, the computer. These are all innovations.

While innovation certainly has to happen at every level of the education system, I’m not sure this is the sort of innovation the Google Teacher Academy is talking about here. I imagine they are looking for innovation on a smaller scale – individual teachers, departments, or schools that are utilizing new tools, methods, or ideas to change the way students learn about the content.

Without question, technology plays a critical role in this sort of innovation. But technology is only one piece of the puzzle. There are plenty of teachers (and schools and districts) that simply use technology for technology’s sake. And there are innumerable ways to use technology without being innovative. The question, then, is how we are using technology in ways that will change the way we teach and the way students learn?

In my experience, there is perhaps no more significant technological innovation in the Language Arts classroom than the internet. Even if only used for research, the ability to access nearly any material in the entire world is an unbelievable advance in education. Doing the research for this particular post, for example, would likely have taken months using traditional library research methods, rather than hours. Email changed how teachers communicate with students and parents – everything from quick messages to class newsletters can be sent via email. Web-based grading systems allow parents and students to track their grades on a regular basis.

Other digital tools have the potential to be equally innovative. This year, a few of us (probably “innovators” according to Rogers) have been piloting Moodle – an open-source learning management system. It’s a great tool that enables us to utilize a controlled digital environment with our students. We can use forums, wikis, online assignments, surveys, resources, quizzes – just about anything we might want. Using Moodle has helped us dramatically cut paper usage, given us opportunities to use a number of web-based resources in conjunction with activities, and changed the way I teach my classes.

Cell phones also have the potential to change how students learn. Access to the internet in students’ pockets allows them to quickly look up facts and information. Tools like PollEverywhere change the way teachers can formatively assess students. And combined with tools like Twitter, cell phones can allow students to get reminders and announcements anywhere, any time.

And while technology tools like cell phones and Moodle have innovative potential, it is often the simple adjustments or “tweaks” that become real innovations. For example, I discovered shortly after we began using digital projectors that I could simply project writing onto a whiteboard and make it “interactive” (rather than spending $5,000 on a big, digital version). This is an easily adopted change that impacts teaching directly and immediately without great expense or labor. This is the sort of change that is quickly adopted by the early majority and becomes innovation.

What About Me?

I suppose, since this is an application, there ought to be some explanation of how I have been innovative. I always hate this part because I worry about coming off as an arrogant braggart. Nevertheless, I do think that I would quickly be identified as an “innovator” by my colleagues, particularly around technology. I like to try new things, even when I don’t know if they will work out. I am quick to jump on pilot programs, such as our Moodle pilot (which has been very successful) or a Wiimote Whiteboard pilot (which failed miserably), and I’ll share my experiences with anyone who will listen. In particular, I enjoy experimenting with different technologies and how they can positively influence learning in my classroom. Honestly, even this blog is an extension of this mentality – I wanted to see what this blogging thing was all about and see how it could affect my teaching. I can live with (and learn from) failure, I enjoy taking responsible risks, and I fit Rogers’ general profile of an “innovator.”

But as an “innovator,” I also recognize that I am not an opinion leader. I am the “mad scientist” that many people will ignore. In order to turn an idea into a true innovation, I understand that I need the help of those that are opinion leaders – I have to identify and utilize the early adopters. This is why I teach workshop classes at our 10Tech Summer Conference. This is why I share things that I find to be successful (such as Moodle or Delicious) with people in my department and in my building that I recognize to be opinion leaders. I show them how a new tool, idea, or method has positively impacted my students so they can try it out and convince everyone else the idea is worthwhile. Of course, any innovation would be meaningless if it doesn’t impact the world in some way. Whatever innovations I may be trying to share will be utterly worthless if they do not accomplish one simple goal: help students learn.

Is College Worth It?

CollegeA recent survey done by the Pew Research Center found that Americans both with and without college degrees accurately estimate the difference in average yearly earnings at $20,000. The official number, according to the report, is just a hair under that at $19,550.

Of course, a closer look at their research shows that even that number varies greatly depending on field of study. For example, as you can see in chapter 5 of their study, liberal arts and education degrees are worth significantly less than an engineering degree. In fact, a degree in education is worth about half a million dollars less than the average Bachelor’s degree over the course of a working life. But I digress.

The real question here is the title of the study: is college worth it? It’s a question that does not often come up in discussions about K-12 education, but one that really should. Often (as is the case in my district) the assumption is that college is not only worth it, but almost required. The majority of our students graduate and go on to college. However, “the majority” is certainly not “all,” so the question becomes much more immediate. We are in the business of preparing students for success beyond high school, and if “success” does not necessarily mean going to college, we should be preparing students for whatever “success” might look like.

I have slowly come to believe that perhaps college (particularly 4-year liberal arts study) is really not ideal or necessary for many of the students we work with every day. Let’s ignore the rapidly increasing cost of a college education. I know a number of students who, as 9th graders, are excited about the prospect of doing some sort of skilled labor. One 9th grader, in particular, is already doing an apprenticeship as a blacksmith and is incredibly excited about that opportunity. Moreover, the Pew study shows that it’s very possible for them to make a better living doing this kind of skilled labor. It begs the question: is it worth it for this student to continue with a school and curriculum that is focused on preparing him for college?

Mike Rowe, of Dirty Jobs fame, talked to the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee about this topic and espoused the desperate and immediate need for skilled labor across the country (read the text of his speech here). In the talk, Rowe shares a valuable insight and some interesting numbers. Most notably, he says

Right now, American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions. There are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The Skills Gap is real, and it’s getting wider. In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They’re retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them. [Emphasis Added]

If we are preparing students to be successful the real world, it would seem that helping them develop valuable skills in these trades is one means to that end. These skills, as Rowe points out, are lifelong skills that don’t go away. In addition, as my own father likes to point out, skilled labor simply cannot be outsourced. Having this sort of skill is job security, and for many in those fields, it pays very well (in all likelihood, much better than teaching does).

In addition, such as that in this New York Times article, is suggesting that maybe a college education isn’t impacting students anyway. In fact,

a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years.

If a student goes to a 4-year college and demonstrates absolutely no gains in thinking skills (as 36% of the subjects did), there seems to be a serious problem with the quality of the “education” these students are receiving. As we in K-12 education are trying to educate students and prepare them to be successful after high school, if the colleges they attend are not helping prepare them to be even more successful, what is the point (apart from, of course, that magical degree)?

So the question posed by the title of the Pew survey remains – is college worth it? As is nearly always the case, the answer is much more complex than “yes” or “no.” However, I think it might be safe for us to say that college is likely not the best option for every student. In fact, for many, there are probably better options that will allow them to be more successful in every regard than a college education would.

Playing Without Fear

Mike Singletary

A guy who played without fear

When the last football season ended, there were several topics that our staff needed to do some research on. One of these was “Playing Without Fear.” In talking one-on-one with players after the season, it became clear to our head coach that many of them experienced performance anxiety – fear – before and during some of our bigger games. In hindsight, it explained a lot – blown coverages, missed tackles, dropped game-clinching interceptions. Our kids simply didn’t execute when there was pressure because of this fear. In researching this topic, we wanted to figure out how we could help them play without fear – how to coach them to play with confidence and “swagger.”

During the offseason, I’ve been to a couple of clinics and heard some good talks, but none that really hit home on this topic. The closest I came was at the “Marine Combat Fitness” session, which talked about training your body to be in peak performance mode. What has really influenced my thinking on this subject, though, are the books I’ve been reading. I have made a conscious effort to read as many books by great coaches as I can, from John Wooden (Wooden on Leadership) to Vince Lombardi (What it Takes to Be #1) to Bill Walsh (The Score Takes Care of Itself) to Pete Carroll (Win Forever). In the course of reading these books, I have noticed that each coach has a similar way of addressing this topic of playing without fear. To me the solutions they describe are simple, easy to implement, and (based on the success these coaches have had) they work.

1. Strive for Mastery. The common message on the topic of playing without fear in all the books I read is very simple. In Win Forever, Pete Carroll says, “That state of mind, when you are truly competing for the sake of performance alone, is when you are performing in the absence of fear.” This seems to be the primary focus of all these great coaches: they focus only on what they can control – attitude, effort, concentration – and strive only to maximize their own performance. By focusing on improving yourself, you focus on something you can directly influence and cannot be influenced by others. Others have called this a “mastery orientation” to performance, meaning they focus on perfecting their skills rather than on the outcome. This is true in other sports, such as golf, where constantly competing with oneself is an obvious key to success.

John Wooden said this a little differently: “Success is found in the running of the race. How you run the race – your planning, preparation, practice, and performance – counts for everything. Winning or losing is a by-product, an aftereffect, of that effort.” It’s never about the winning or losing. Wooden goes on reiterate this point many times – focus on doing everything you can to maximize your own performance. He said he never talked about winning or losing because those were never the goal – being the best you could possibly be was the goal. Even Coach Wooden’s famous definition of success says nothing of winning or losing; it’s all about “knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

Vince Lombardi’s philosophy was no different. Though many point to his “winning is the only thing” quote, Coach Lombardi believed that the goal was to do the best one is capable of. “Not victory for its own sake, but victory as a test – a test of how far you could push yourself to your limits and beyond, a test of your ability to overcome your doubts and weaknesses, and a test of how much your G0d-given talent and ability you were willing to expend in the pursuit of success and victory.” Even for Lombardi, who preached winning to his teams, victory was only a way to measure how well you were performing. Games are simply a measuring stick to see how good you are and where you can continue to improve.

And Bill Walsh, well, he said it simply. “Control what you can control; the score will take care of itself.” Like these other three coaches, he believed that playing without fear means to focus on making oneself better at all times. He talks about his “Standard of Performance” – the way of doing things, the end goal, the ideal. All members of the 49er’s organization strive for the Standard of Performance in their own job. Winning was nothing more than a byproduct of being the best you can possibly be – aiming for that Standard of Performance. By doing this, they are able to play without fear.

2. Opponents are Only Opportunities. For all of these coaches, the opponents were never “the enemy.” They did not try to demonize the opposition or make them seem stronger or weaker. Rather, your opponents are simply a means to an end, a tool that will help you become the best of which you are capable. The better the opponent, the better test of your ability. As Coach Carroll said, “My opponents are the people who offer me the opportunity to succeed…At the end of the day, that opponent is the person who makes you into the best competitor you can be.” By viewing one’s opponents as a means to an end, it takes away the aura (or lack thereof) of whomever you may be playing that week. When that opponent is viewed in this way, there is no reason to fear that opponent; rather, it is a reason to appreciate and thank that opponent, because they will help you see where you are at.

Each of these coaches add that an added component of playing without fear is playing with supreme confidence in what you are doing. How do we accomplish this as coaches? Preparation. We prepare our players for every contingency, every possibility, every look that might arise during a game. And when we do, our players are confident in their ability to react to that situation when it arises. As John Wooden says, “You must be at your best when your best is needed. Enjoy the thrill from a tough battle.” So we must practice critical situations frequently, we must create pressure so players get used to the butterflies in their stomachs, we must help our players gain the confidence they need in the game. And when they do, they can play without fear.

Ronnie Lott3. Press On Toward the Goal. Bill Walsh tells the story of Ronnie Lott, the Hall of Fame safety that played with the 49er’s. Lott, he said, could be characterized in two words: commitment and sacrifice. “Lott,” Walsh says, “was constant in his drive to excel.” He goes on to tell the story about Ronnie Lott’s finger – rather than risk missing the first game of the season, Lott chose to have part of his pinky amputated. That’s how passionate he was about the game. “‘Ronnie Lott’ character reveals itself most starkly in two completely different circumstances: when victory or success is almost a given, and conversely, when there is little or no likelihood of victory. The former tempts an individual to start bellyaching and quit. Ronnie never gave up or let down. Consistent commitment and sacrifice in all situations was his trademark.” It is this ability to commit completely to a cause – the team, the Standard of Performance, whatever it may be – that made Lott and the 49er’s successful. Because of his ability to continue striving for perfection, Lott had no problem playing without fear, regardless of the situation.

Similarly, Pete Carroll mentions that, “We never dragged the past along with us, because the past is not a place where we can compete…We never allowed the disappointment of losing to diminish the attitude and energy we needed to bring every day.” Whether winning or losing, we must put past results behind us because lingering distracts us from striving to be better. While we must certainly reflect on what we did, we only think about past successes and failures as a measure of where we used to be. They are the markers of our journey towards perfection. When we are able to commit ourselves completely to that end goal – that ideal – and when we are willing to sacrifice to achieve that transcendent cause as Ronnie Lott did day in and day out, then we can play without fear.

When I have told players in the past to be confident, to play without fear, I’m not sure these are the concepts I had in mind. However, they make sense. When a player is focused on being the best he can be, when he sees every practice and every game as an opportunity to improve, and when he is committed and willing to sacrifice to make himself better, regardless of the outcome, he is certainly not going to be afraid of the opponent. In fact, there is nothing to be afraid of for this player – he is only continuing what he has done in the past. He is only finding another way to make himself better.

And if I believe John Wooden, Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh, and Pete Carroll – four coaches who had more than a little success in their careers – this mentality is the key to playing without fear.