TITLE: A Teacher Learns from Coaches -- Run to the Roar AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 29, 2011 8:56 PM DESC: ----- BODY: A Teacher Learns from Coaches -- Run to the Roar

For what is genius, I ask you,
but the capacity to be obsessed?

Gustav Detter, a 2009 Trinity College squash player One thing about recovering from knee surgery: it gives you lots of time to read. In between bouts of pain, therapy, and sleep, I have been reading newspapers, magazines, and a few books lying around the house, including the rest of a Dave Barry book and the excellent but flawed law school memoir One L. Right now I am enjoying immensely re-reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy. (Psychohistory -- what a great computational challenge!) The most unusual book I've read thus far has been Run to the Roar. This is not great literature, but it is an enjoyable read. It draws its power to attract readers from perhaps the most remarkable sports streak in history at any level: the men's squash team at Trinity College has won thirteen consecutive national titles and has not lost a single match during the streak. The thread that ties the book together as a story is the tale of the eleventh national championship match, in 2009 against Princeton University. This match is considered by many to be the greatest collegiate squash match of all time, won 5-4 by Trinity in see-saw fashion. Six of the nine matches went the full five games, with three of those requiring comebacks from 0-2 down, and only one match ended in straights. Two great teams, eighteen great players, battling to the last point. In the end, Trinity survived as much as it won. I didn't know much about squash before the match, though I used to play a little racquetball. Fortunately, the book told me enough about the game and its history that I could begin to appreciate the drama of the match and the impressive nature of the streak. Unbelievable story, really. But the book is also about its co-author, Trinity coach Paul Assaiante, both his life and his coaching methods. The book's subtitle is "Coaching to Overcome Fear", which captures in one phrase Assaiante's approach as well as any could. He works to help his players play in the moment, with no thoughts of external concerns weighing on their minds; enjoying the game they love and the privilege they have to test their preparation and efforts on the court in battle. Assaiante views himself as a teacher, which makes what he says and the way he says it interesting to the teacher in me. There were many passages that struck a chord with me, whether as an "I have that pattern" moment or as an idea that I might try in my classroom. In the end, I saved two passages for more thought. The first is the passage that leads off this entry. Assaiante attributed it to Steven Millhauser. I had never heard the quote, so I googled it. I learned that Millhauser is an award-winning author. Most hits took me pages with the quote as the start of a longer passage:
For what is genius, I ask you, but the capacity to be obsessed? Every normal child has that capacity; we have all been geniuses, you and I; but sooner or later it is beaten out of us, the glory fades, and by the age of seven most of us are nothing but wretched little adults.
What a marvelous pair of sentences. It's easy to see why the sentiment means so much to Assaiante. His players are obsessive in their training and their playing. Their coach is obsessive in his preparation and his coaching. (The subtitle of one of the better on-line articles about Trinity's streak begins "Led by an obsessive coach...".) My favorite story of his coaching obsessiveness was how he strives to make each practice different -- different lengths, different drills, different times of day, different level of intensity, and so on. He talks of spending hours to get each practice ready for the team, ready to achieve a specific goal in the course of a season aimed at the national championship. Indeed, Assaiante is seemingly obsessive in all parts of his life; the book relates how he conquered several personal and coaching challenges through prolonged, intense efforts to learn and master new domains. One of the sad side stories of Run to the Roar explores whether Assaiante's obsessiveness with coaching squash contributed to the considerable personal problems plaguing his oldest child. Most really good programmers are obsessive, too -- the positive compulsive, almost uncontrollable drive that sticks with a thorny problem until it is solved, that tracks a pernicious bug until it is squashed. Programming rewards that sort of single-mindedness, elevating it to desirable status. I see that drive in students. Some have survived the adults and schools that seem almost aimed at killing children's curiosity and obsessiveness. My very best students have maintained their curiosity and obsessiveness and channeled them positively into creative careers and vocations. The best teachers are obsessive, too. The colleagues I admire most for their ability to lead young minds are some of the most obsessive people I know. They, too, seem to have channeled their obsessiveness well, enabling them to lead well-adjusted lives with happy, well-adjusted spouses and children -- even as they spend hours poring over new APIs, designing and solving new assignments for their students, and studying student code to find the key thing missing from their lectures, and then making those lectures better. (As an aside, the Millhauser quote comes from his novel, "Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright", a book purportedly written by a seven-year-old. I read a couple of reviews such as this one, and I'm not sure whether I'll give it a read or not. I am certainly intrigued.) The second passage I saved from Assaiante's book comes from Jack Barnaby, Harvard's legendary squash and tennis coach:
The greatest limitation found in teachers is a tendency for them to teach the game the way they play it. This should be avoided. A new player may be quite differently gifted, and the teacher's personal game may be in many ways inappropriate to the pupil's talents. A good teacher assesses the mental and physical gifts of his pupil and tries to adapt to them. There is no one best way to play the game.
(I think this comes from Barnaby's out-of-print Winning Squash Racquets, but I haven't confirmed it.) One of the hardest lessons for me to learn as a young teacher was not to expect every student to think, design, or code like me. For years I struggled and probably slowed a lot of my students' learning, as they either failed to adapt to my approach or fought me. Ironically, the ones most likely to succeed in spite of me were the obsessive ones, who managed to figure things out on their own by sheer effort! Eventually I realized that being more flexible wasn't dumbing down my course but recognizing what Barnaby knew: students may have their own abilities and skills that are quite different from mine. My job is to help them maximize their abilities as best I can, not make them imitate me. Sometimes that means helping them to change, perhaps helping them recognize the need to change, but never simply to force them into the cookie cutter of what works well for me. Sometimes I envy coaches, who usually work with a small cadre of student-athletes for an entire year, with most or all of them studying under the coach for four years. This gives the coach time to "assess the mental and physical gifts of his pupils and try to adapt to them". I teach courses that range from 10 to 40 students in size, two a year, and my colleagues teach six sections a year. We are lucky to see some students show up multiple times over the course of their time at the university, but it is with only a select few that I have the time and energy to work with individually at that level. I so try to assess the collective gifts, interests, and abilities of each class and adapt how and what I teach them as best as I am able. In the end, I enjoyed all the threads running through Run to the Roar. I'm still intrigued by the central lesson of learning to "run to the roar", to confront our fears and see how feeble what we fear often turns out to be. I think that a lot of college students are driven by fear more than we realize -- by fear of failing in a tough major, fear of disappointing their parents, fear of not understanding, or appearing unintelligent, or not finding a career that will fulfill and sustain them. I have encountered a few students over the years in whom I came to see the fear holding them back, and on at least some occasions was able to help them face those fears more courageously, or at least I hope so. Having read this book, I hope this fall to be more sensitive to this potential obstacle to learning and enjoyment in my class, and to be more adaptable in trying to get over, through, or around it. -----