Anybody serious about education reform should stop relying exclusively on teachers, academics, and administrators for ideas, and start looking at how successful athletic coaches inspire and motivate greatness.
Consider the legendary Joe Newton, the most successful high school cross country coach in American history. In over 50 years of coaching, he has led York Community High School in Elmhurst, Illinois, to 28 state titles. That’s one title more than the number of World Series championships won by the New York Yankees. Even this early into the cross country season, the York Dukes are the heavy favorite to claim victory number 29.
Newton has written several books about coaching and running, and a feature-length documentary, The Long Green Line, chronicles his 2005 state championship team.
But beyond all of his trophies and successes, I’m curious to learn from Newton how he inspires such love, dedication and devotion—from his most fit, fastest runner, to his most heavy-set devotee.
“I’ve got three guys on my team that are like 250 pounds,” Newton says. “They’re out there in front of the whole team at the team meeting. I said to two guys, I said, ‘Look at their bodies. They’re not made for running and they’re out here every day busting their butt.’ I said, ‘I just love guys like that. That’s what our program is all about.’ Then I gave them the old shot: ‘You choose to be average. You choose to be good. You choose to be great.’ Those guys don’t ever score a point for us, but in my eyes they’re great because they come out and they give me what they’ve got.’”
As classroom teachers, that’s all we can ask of any of our students. Regardless of whom we teach and what limitations or gifts they bring, we should always aim to help each student reach his or her fullest potential. It’s no wonder that so many students with so many different body types seek Newton’s tutelage. Each wants to become the best possible version of himself. But with between 170 to 200 runners on his team on any given season, I wonder how Newton manages to reach so many kids on such a profound level—and how he’s able to help them accomplish such amazing things.
Newton tells me that he doesn’t have a special secret. “If you’re a fraud, they’ll see through you and they won’t do squat for you,” he says. “But if they know you love them because your personality tells them that, that’s the secret of coaching. They know I care about them and, as a result, when I ask them to do something special, they do it. That’s the secret to coaching.”
That’s also the secret to effective teaching. The best teachers make obvious how much they care—not just about their students’ academic success, but also about their happiness and wellbeing. When I was a student at Brimmer and May in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, teachers cheered me on from the sidelines, attended shows, volunteered to chaperone overnight trips, and even visited me in the hospital. I wanted to repay their kindness and sacrifice by studying that much harder and smarter to succeed.
I too coach cross-country, and I tell Newton that runners whom I also teach almost always give similar effort inside my classroom. He’s not surprised to learn this, or that my most dedicated runners also tend to be the most successful students. As I talk with Newton, I think of one of my stars, an eighth grader who possesses more grit and determination than many adults. He not only runs an 19:01 5K, a gigantic feat for such a young person, but he also consistently earns high academic honors and much praise from teachers.
Newton says that his squad also has the highest grade point average of any team at York. “You would think not, because of all the work: They’re running in the morning. They’re running in the afternoon,” he says. “This is a very academic high school. Yet, our guys are absolutely good students and, above all, good human beings. I’m talking about that constantly. Every day, I’ve got one or two thoughts for the day. It’s nice to be great. It’s greater to be nice. That’s one of my all‑time favorites. I tell our guys that you only get respect when you give it. And if you don’t give respect, you’re not going to get it back. So you better be learning how to give it. That’s good for life.”
Newton cares about winning, but he cares just as much about his teams’ academic successes—and he enforces his expectations. “I tell them all the first day of practice, ‘If you’re ineligible two weeks in a row, you’re not helping our team. You’re done. You’re going back into the classroom and start paying the price,’” he says.
Newton says that his team is full of scholars, willing and able to provide academic support. There’s something to be said for knowing how and when to ask for help, and I applaud Newton for fostering this ideal in his runners. Even at 29, I find that at times friends and coworkers have correctly pointed out that I need to ask for help more often. But asking for help is far from the only life skill that Newton imparts to his runners.
“If you’re in school, you’ve got to come to practice,” Newton says. “If you duck out twice, you’re done. . . . That’s training for life. If you go out in life and you’re tardy three days a week, and three other days you don’t come to work, you’re going to be fired. I’ve got two jobs when I’m coaching. First is physical welfare for all the guys. And second is train them to be a good person, a good human being—the value of hard work and punctuality.”
I’m also impressed with how Newton tells his runners they shouldn’t be afraid to fail.
Too often, well-meaning teachers do too much to ensure that students never fail. But if kids never encounter adversity in the classroom, it’s doubtful they will be successfully manage it in real life. Teachers should encourage students to try daring new things, and rethink how failure can turn into even greater, more meaningful success.
After each practice, Newton leaves his students with a thought of the day. He shares with me one of his all-time favorites: “The greatest thing in life is not in never having fallen, but in rising up again.”
Teachers can learn a lot from Coach Joe Newton, who, through showing student-athletes just how much he cares—and he cares a whole lot—empowers them to recover from adversity and failure that much stronger.