Coaching Community

by Kerrissa Heffernan

In addition to my years of work in the field of community based learning, I coached a Division 1 women’s rugby team for over 15 years. Four days a week I would rush from my classroom at Brown University, changing my clothes and my pedagogical approach as I crossed the campus to the athletic complex. Over the years and the miles of campus crossings I came to appreciate the complex, often misunderstood teaching and learning relationship that developed between coach and athlete and the similarities and distinctions between coaching, classroom teaching and community engagement.

Coaching allowed me to utilize a range of senses. I was constantly watching, listening, and moving often in collaboration with others in an effort to sort and scrutinize athletic performance into smaller, individual components. For this relationship to work, my athletes had to agree to be evaluated, to be open to acknowledging what they’re not good at.  At the same time I had to be attentive to acknowledging and celebrating the individual strengths athletes brought to the team. This learning arrangement was a deliberative practice in which athletes were attentive to developing the full range of their abilities.

There was also a powerful civic component to this deliberative practice. Most sports require players to use ‘reasoned judgment’  – to defend the decisions they make on the field and explain how their actions contribute to the interest of the whole. My conversations with athletes were often about justifying ‘why that decision in that context’ – the decisions they made as well as the decisions I made. As players gained experience and matured they developed the ability to interpret and analyze situations and to communicate those decisions to others. While I undoubtedly held power over my players, that power dynamic was constantly shifting and debated as, over time, players gained a level of mastery in decision making and could control aspects of the game; to effectively coach I often had to come to my players for information. This cooperative aspect was often a surprise to colleagues who believed the power dynamic in sport was best summed up as, coaches dictated and athletes did as they were told.

But one of the best arguments for sport in a school setting is that athletes learn to orient toward and negotiate power. They learn to be in conflict with someone is part of the human condition and managing conflict is critical to our growth.

Community engaged work is much like sport, it is incremental practice, under the watchful eye of a professional tasked with celebrating individual skills and scrutinizing individual performance all in an effort to help students understand their performance as part of a community serving a larger goal. As students demonstrate proficiency, reasoned judgment, and the ability to contextualize problems they gain power and voice and the potential to create impact. But growing civic muscle requires students to be open to scrutiny and criticism, to being pushed, pulled, led, and followed.

I’ve always felt an affinity for GALS. Nina Safane, the co-founder of GALS was one of my players. I like to believe that much of her idealism was influenced by her experiences as a Brown rugby player. Like many new players her rugby career was a bit of a ‘trial by fire,’ but by her senior year Nina had become a captain and under her leadership the team played in 3 final four appearances. She was an All American and a Royce Fellow, an academic research award at Brown. Nina really embraced the idea of deliberative practice; of being attentive to the full range of her abilities and she and Liz have made that a core tenant of GALS.

It’s one of the many liberating ideas that drive GALS and produces bold, beautiful beasts.