How the Zen Master helped me be a better Maths coach


Who is the Zen Master and what does he have to do with maths coaching? Phil Jackson, one of the most successful coaches in NBA history with an impressive resume! Does he teach maths? No! But there are some strong links to why his success as a basketball coach can translate into maths coaching.

If you haven’t read my bio, I have previously been a maths coach in schools and continue to work with some amazing maths coaches today. I am also a huge Chicago Bulls fan and remember the 90’s and them winning 6 championships like it was yesterday. Yes they had Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and some guy called Michael Jordan, but it was Phil Jackson and his coaching that played an integral role in their success.

Phil is renowned for coaching a variety of personalities, egos, experience and abilities and coaching them towards a common goal. It’s not only is non-one size fits all approach but his way of connecting with his players in a more spiritual sense.

On reflecting on my craft as a coach I felt I was able to do a ‘good’ job. I was able to move some teachers along and sometimes not much at all (it’s hard to stay undefeated for a whole season!). Let’s be real I was no Phil Jackson, but after reading his book ’11 rings’ I found some insights that translated well into my coaching of teachers. I had a few all-stars, rookies and developing talents and used some of Phil’s philosophies to work with the varied roster.

It was the parallels between Phil’s coaching philosophies and that of mine as a maths coach that really changed the way I worked with teachers (and students for that matter).

How the Zen Master helped my coaching:

Connect with every player as an individual –
One size doesn’t fit all. What works for one won’t work for all. Phil doesn’t treat everyone the same. He works to connect with each player on a much deeper level than most coaches do. I began starting to look at what made teachers tick rather than what I thought was best for them. Some were motivated by data, others by hands-on activities, some had a real passion for reflecting on and improving their practice. I made it paramount to tap into each teacher as an individual and use their interests as a means to work on their weaknesses.

Let each player discover their own destiny

Jackson says “My approach was always to relate to each player as a whole person, not just a cog in the basketball machine. That meant pushing him to discover what distinct qualities he could bring to the game beyond taking shots and making passes. How much courage did he have? Or resilience? What about character under fire? Many players I’ve coached didn’t look special on paper, but in the process of creating a role for themselves they grew into formidable champions.”

Similar to the previous philosophy I would also find ways to push teachers to discover talents they previously thought they didn’t have. I think through knowing when to push and back off helped. The article “Are you coaching heavy or light?” also contributed to this. At times I would back off and let them step to the edge and only put the safety net out if absolutely necessary (something we could do more for our students too!).

Forget the ring (referring to championship ring) –

Jackson admits that personally, he hates losing, but he knew that it was of greater importance to emphasize “the journey rather than the goal. What matters most is playing the game the right way and having the courage to grow, as human beings as well as basketball players.”

Coaching discussions were a time to reflect about how far we had come along the journey, celebrating the small wins, the small steps along the way. As philosophical as it sounds it was about being in the present and what was happening now. It wasn’t about winning, more about what challenges had been overcome and the improvements made.

The key to success is compassion-

“Now, ‘compassion’ is not a word often bandied about in locker rooms. But I’ve found that a few kind, thoughtful words can have a strong transformative effect on relationships, even with the toughest men in the room.”

Relationships are key to any coaching. This was something I made a conscious effort to develop but most importantly maintain. I would ensure that giving positive feedback about their progress would sometime ease the tension that happens in the classroom, particularly when things don’t go to plan. It was about understanding that “hey it’s not perfect all the time, but what worked well?”.  Many would sell themselves short so I made it my goal to highlight their strengths, new learning and victories with others. This went a long way to developing a relationship built on trust.

Whilst these are just a few of the 11 qualities that resonated with my role, they can be applied to any leadership role in education, business or even in our everyday lives. To me they are about being mindful of what’s happening in the here and now.

This entry was posted in July 2014 and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How the Zen Master helped me be a better Maths coach

  1. Joe Schwartz says:

    As a life-long Knicks fan who suffered through many agonizing defeats at the hands of the Jordan Bulls in the 90’s, I can say I’m glad the Zen Master is now on our side. And I’m already planning a series of geometry lessons on “the triangle”.
    As a basketball fan, you might be interested in this activity I blogged about earlier this year::

    • mattmillar82 says:

      Thanks Joe! I do remember the 90’s Bulls vs Knicks particularly Starks v Jordan battles. I would be interested to see the ‘triangle’ geometry lessons.

      I just checked your prime and composites lesson! Wow what an interesting and engaging way of looking at what can normally be a pretty boring concept. I can definitely see how teachers here in Australia can use this with Australian Rules football! I will share via the Making over Maths Facebook and Twitter. There will be heaps that will love this idea.

  2. Joe Schwartz says:

    I’m only kind of kidding about the triangle. But I could imagine taking screen shots of Classic Jordan Bulls or Kobe Lakers triangle sets and having the kids identify the three players forming the vertices, measuring angles, classifying, etc.
    As for Aussie Rules football, one day I’ll tell you what happened to me at the Carleton-Richmond game at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds in 1995.

    • mattmillar82 says:

      Haha Joe, I think that it would be an interesting concept thought with the triangle!

      Would love to hear your experiences at the MCG watching Aussie Rules Football. I could imagine the Richmond fans would have been entertaining!

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