Coaching a Student

JacobMilicicCoaching a student is much more in line with the traditional idea of coaching than my last topic. We do this all the time in the judge program. We call it mentoring. In fact, L2 judges are required to show a “willingness to mentor” other judges.

While this practice is more commonly discussed than coaching a mentor, there are always ways to maximize the effectiveness of your coaching. I’d like to offer a few tips for how to get the most (coaching) bang for your (mentoring) buck.

Learn how they learn.

Whether you subscribe to VARK (which asserts that people learn best through one or more of visual, auditory, reading, and/or kinesthetic inputs) or another theory about learning, there seems to be a consensus that people have learning styles. In other words, people have a preference for how they are taught. Your student wants to receive information in a certain way. Knowing their preference will help you optimize the efficacy of your coaching.

Imagine Melanie has been working with Steven, a judge candidate who has solid rules knowledge, but has been hit-or-miss when it comes to the policy in the JAR. Melanie observes Steven handling Abby flipping over a card while drawing by just putting it back on top of her library. Consider the following approaches:

Example A Example B
Melanie: “I was observing you handling that situation where Abby accidentally flipped a card over while drawing for turn. You had her put the flipped card back on top of her library, with no further action. This is not the correct fix in this situation. You are supposed to have her shuffle the card into the random portion of her library.” Melanie: “I can see you are continuing to struggle with these Regular REL fixes, such as the situation at Abby’s table with looking at an extra card. I want to help you get these down. Is there something we haven’t tried that might help you learn better here?”
Steven: “Yeah, I keep messing up these fixes. I can’t seem to get them straight. Sorry about that. I’ll go back over and correct my error. Thanks!” Steven: “Yeah, I keep messing up these fixes. I learn best by doing, but it is hard to get reps when there are so few calls per event. Without that frequency, my retention just seems to plummet. Could we roleplay some calls so I can get more practice?”

Each example will ultimately teach Steven what he needs to know for this occasion, but in Example B Melanie learns that direct instruction alone does not help Steven retain the knowledge. With a mini-workshop approach, Melanie and Steven can work together to help him improve where he is struggling.

Example B has another hidden benefit. By asking Steven how she can help him learn, Melanie has framed the feedback firmly as coaching. This is important because Example A could also be interpreted as another form of feedback: evaluation. If Steven’s take home is less about what he needs to learn and more about how he measures up to expectations, he’s less likely to learn from the feedback as intended.

Respect them as a peer.

When a mentor and student relationship system is established, there is a natural tendency to fall back on a strict hierarchy. The mentor is “above” the student, affecting how the two communicate with each other. While systems like this can be effective, there are inherent dangers. For example, you might unintentionally use a condescending tone. Or you may give your student the impression that your time is more important than theirs, making them reluctant to ask questions, not wanting to “bother you.” As with coaching a mentor, coaching a student can benefit from treating everyone as a peer.

A great way to show you think of your student as your peer is to share comparable experiences you have had, from either your past or your present. For example, showing humility helps bring you “down to their level” in the eyes of the student, establishing something closer to a peer relationship and making you appear more accessible. Let’s revisit Melanie and Steven after they’ve been roleplaying some judge calls. Steven has hit a wall and is visibly frustrated and discouraged. Examine the difference between these two approaches:

Example A Example B
Melanie: “I can tell you’re getting discouraged, Steven. I know how badly you want to get this right, and it is important that you do not give up. I know you can get this. We’ve been at this for an hour non-stop. I don’t want you to get burned out, as that could make you mix these up because your mind wasn’t well-rested when you were learning. Maybe we should call it a day and revisit this later after you’ve had some time to decompress.” Melanie: “I can tell you’re getting discouraged, Steven. I’ve been trying to get all of the nuances of Hidden Card error down, and it seems like every time I think I’ve got it there is either another corner that messes me up or another update to handle a case differently. What is important for both of us is that we not give up. Sometimes I just have to throw my hands up in the air and try again later after I’ve had time to decompress. Do you want to call it and pick up again later?

In Example A, Melanie’s heart is in the right place. I wouldn’t even call her approach poor. Where it is lacking over Example B is in establishing a connection between the student’s current struggle and a struggle of the mentor, drawing a parallel between the two. It also provides context for her proposed solution as a technique she herself uses. By highlighting her own failings, Melanie is helping turn Steven’s discouragement into something more productive.

This type of approach is especially important when working with a younger judge, particularly in the preadolescent and adolescent phases of their life. If your adolescent period mirrored my own, you might remember a general mistrust (or even resentment) of authority figures. You might also more fondly remember those who treated you more as an equal, even when they were older. Treating your students as deserving of your respect helps you earn theirs and increases their receptiveness to your input.

Teach by example.

Not all coaching happens from direct interactions with your student. Whether you notice it or not, your students are watching you for examples to follow. When in the presence of a student, it is more important than ever to practice what you teach.

Is your student not spending enough time watching Magic on the floor? Make sure you’re making an effort to watch Magic yourself. Are their opening announcements going too quickly, making it difficult to understand individual words? Ensure the next set of announcements you give are clear, concise, and relaxed. Do you observe their interactions with players being abrupt or terse? Be especially cordial when taking calls, demonstrating how to communicate information with a friendly tone.

Rather than coming back to Melanie and Steven (I’m sure they’ll be just fine), I would like to highlight an excellent real-world example. There was a high-profile punt on an appeal at Grand Prix Denver. As we all know, when you discover you have made an error on a ruling you are supposed to find the players, admit your error, apologize, and correct the error if possible.

If you haven’t already, I recommend reading Scott Marshall’s apology. The integrity and humility required to highlight publicly your own error are worth emulating. Scott’s post teaches this integrity and humility by example. When you talk with a judge about dealing with their own fail, Scott’s apology provides a good point of reference for discussion.

Always be a student.

Regardless of how you approach coaching a student, it is important to remember that you never stop being a student yourself. One of the greatest things about coaching a student is that it invariably improves your own understanding in whatever topic you are teaching. It forces you to think about why in addition to what and how. Understanding why is critical to communicating the lessons of how, ultimately to arrive at the correct what.

Remember that part of what you are learning every time you coach a student is how to coach more effectively. Let them teach you by inviting feedback on your approach. You may be familiar with the phrase “doctors make the worst patients.” I have also heard people say that judges make the worst players. Regardless of the relative veracity of either of these statements, I can assure you that students make the best teachers!

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