Jeffrey Beedy Ed.D
Founder Positive Learning Using Sports
“Children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the greater possibilities of their future.”
As a young coach, I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of listening to what children think is important. Many years ago, fresh off the freestyle ski tour, I landed a job as the ski coach of a New England boarding school. What do you know about teaching and coaching young people when you are twenty-seven years old? I did not even think to ask what is important to the players. I am the head coach, I thought, so I should know what is important. I was soon to be in charge of 60 adolescents. I was a little nervous. I called my mentor who was a legend in the ski world and asked him what to do. I remember asking Tom, “What do I do with 60 adolescents? I am in charge of these young skiers everyday for the entire season”. “You need to build a team. You need to build trust with your team. As their leader, you need to set some team rules for your players that they can live by. Most of all, you need to listen to the team.” I said, “ok” and I left Coaches office to begin my career as a young ski coach.
About a month later, I assembled my team for our first meeting in an old locker room. I wrote on the chalkboard the rules we would live by. “Everyone needs to commit to all the school rules. No smoking, no getting into trouble, and you need to go all your classes.” These rules were simple enough but this was the seventies. I shared with the young skiers that their team was their family away from home. I did not think to ask them what they thought was important.
The ski season began. We didn’t have much natural snow that year and had to improvise on a daily basis. We played soccer in the snow. We ran. Most days we could not train gates. We skated with skis on the lake. We watched ski movies. I am proud to say that we met everyday as a team even if we did not have snow. We felt like a team. We were like a family. At least I thought we were.
As the season came to a close, we began preparing for the State ski finals in Northern Maine. I was asked to put together a list of my top six skiers and send the names into the State officials. I put together a list of my top girls including one girl that had broken most of the team rules that were still on the chalkboard in the ski room. I overlooked what the girl had done and submitted her name as the sixth skier on our team. I thought she was the faster skier.
We travelled four hours to Northern Maine to the state finales. The rule-breaking girl skied out of the course and missed the finish gate and ended up not counting for the team. Still, we did relatively well for our first year.
I did not think much about any of this until the end of the year banquet to honor the winter sports teams. I stood on the podium and spoke about our year and all the good things we accomplished and how we were team. I proudly shared to the assembly of students and coaches how, despite the lack of snow, that we were a family.
As I was walking off the podium, a sophomore girl who had been on the team stopped me. “Mr. Beedy can I talk to you?” She then went on to say, “Mr. Beedy I waited the whole year for you to come and coach our team. I was so excited to be on your team. I was so excited to learn from you. I did everything you asked, I studied hard, went to practice everyday, never got in trouble, and you took a girl to the States who broke all the rules. You said one thing about the team as a family but you did not act in a way that supports our team. I will not go out for the team next year.” My heart dropped to the floor and I was filled with shame.
This young girl taught me a life lesson as a young coach. I learned that day that we have a great influence over the young people in our charge. I also learned that we need to listen to what our children think is important. If I had listened to my players earlier in the season, I would have learned how they were feeling. I would have learned what they were thinking about my decisions and rules. If I had listened to how they felt, I would have learned that they did not feel like a team or family as I thought all year long. I could have adjusted my approach and saved some hurt feelings. I decided to dedicate my life to the moral development of children.
Harvard Graduate School of Education
The lesson I learned from my young ski racer changed my life and showed me what I wanted to do for life. In the fall of 1983, I was accepted to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I arrived at Harvard with a couple burning questions. How do children understand the interpersonal world of sports? How do children experience sports? What do children think about the role of the coach? How do children understand teamwork? What is important to children?
Theories of child development
I was fortunate to be at Harvard University and study with renowned psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg, Robert Selman and Carol Gilligan who were building on the cognitive developmental theory of Jean Piaget. One the central tenets of the cognitive development theory is that children are not miniature adults and deserve the respect as unique individual who are qualitatively different from adults.
Children are not miniature adults
Jean Piaget spent his lifetime studying how children think and how learning environments should be constructed to promote positive learning. At Harvard I was interested in learning how children think about sports and how we might better organize sports for the overall development of children. Jean Piaget was one of the first to introduce the idea that children are not miniature adults and we need to understand how they think about important issues such as fairness and collaboration. One of the basic tenets of the cognitive development theory is that children are not miniature adults and we need to listen to and respect how they think about social and moral issues. This is exactly what I wanted to now — how do children think about the interpersonal world of youth sports? I envisioned that if we know how children think about the important aspects of the sport environment than we would have a better understanding of how the sport environment could be structured to promote goals such as teamwork and collaboration. This is how it all began.
The child as a philosopher
The first time I heard the phrase “the child as a philosopher” I knew I was in the right place to study how children think about their sport experience. As a way to understand how children think about teamwork, friends, winning and losing I started an overnight sports camp in Maine. Over the course of the next ten years, I interviewed boys on the many questions that had to do with children’s sports. Jean Piaget and later Lawrence Kohlberg, viewed the child as distinct person with a distinct worldview. In this sense, the child is a philosopher in their own right. What this means is that children have their own view of important events and people such as their teammates and the coach. The key to this approach is that if as teachers we understand how the child views the world, we are in a better place to shape the environment in a respectful way and in a way that promotes learning and development. Maria Montessori knew this from the beginning.
Listening to children is not abdicating control
Listening to children is foreign for many adults — especially those coaching children. I was watching Friday Night Lights the other night as the Titans where experiencing racial issues. In fact, the question of race emerged due to what one of the football coaches said. Tensions were high and people where yelling. Coaches were demanding that the team get along. The interesting turn in the story was when the coaches wife said we need to have a forum where all the students can dialogue and share there feelings. This approach was foreign for the coaches and especially in the conservative state of Texas.
Understanding the interpersonal world of youth sports
We need to listen to children in order to understand their story and engage them in meaningful dialogue. The popular notion in children’s sports is that the coach has all the answers and their role is to “jam this information” into the heads of the children is not effective. Kohlberg and Selman’s theory of social and moral development were helpful in understanding how children view the social word of team sports. Both Selman and Kohlberg interviewed children to better understand how children think about relationships and peer conflicts. I adapted Selman’s and Kohlberg’s interviews to illicit responses about teamwork, the role of coach, the team as a community, and the importance of winning. My work was the first in this yet-to-be-defined field.