Peer-Coaching: A Wise Investment

by Missy Stertzbach, Head Coach, North Canton Hoover HS (Canton)

“Just like that, my peer-coaching system started to take shape, and I have never looked back.”

Not long ago, I sat in an overcrowded high school auditorium as the novice members of my team received awards.  From behind me I heard another longtime coach say, “Wow, congratulations on having such a great crop of novices.”

I turned my head and whispered, “Thanks.”  Then I turned toward the front again while I experienced waves of both pride and guilt.  The source of the pride was obvious—our novices had done a great job.  But I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I had just taken credit for something to which I had not contributed.

After all, I had not coached a single one of those novices.  Instead they had each been coached by a varsity member of our team.

I began using peer-coaches about seven years ago.  My team had grown rapidly and I suddenly found myself overwhelmed.  Out of necessity, I started randomly asking my varsity kids to “watch her,” or “teach him to pop,” or “show him how to hold the binder.”  Thanks to our varsity kids jumping in and helping with our newbies, we were ready to compete at the first novice tournament.

Just like that, my peer-coaching system started to take shape, and I have never looked back.  Over the course of the first two or three years, I tweaked the system until I finally arrived at the one I currently use.

The following guidelines are what I have in place that work for me and my team.  As a fellow coach, please feel free to use them in their entirety, or as a starting point to build your own guidelines.

  1. Varsity (peer-) coaches are juniors or seniors and are handpicked to be varsity coaches based on their skill, experience, and personality.
  1. Varsity coaches are invited to coach, but they may refuse based on their own personal responsibilities and time factors.
  1. Varsity coaches are matched with a novice student who competes in their same event, or in a similar event.
  1. Varsity coaches are required to practice with their novice at least once per week.
  1. Adult coaches always have the final say regarding coaching decisions.
  1. As the season progresses, adult coaches will become more involved with the coaching of novices.

I can honestly say that using my varsity kids as coaches to the novices (or “babies,” as we call them) has allowed my team and my students to thrive.  We have found that the benefits are far-reaching for all of us.

Obviously, the benefits for me as a coach are great.  Instead of spending hours teaching the babies the basics, I am free to focus on recruiting and organizing the team, selecting and arranging cuttings, preparing and blocking the varsity competitors.

But beyond this, there are significant advantages for the novices, as well.  They bond more quickly with their varsity (peer-) coaches than they would with me.  (I have been told that I can be an acquired taste….)

“Instead of spending hours teaching…the basics, I am free to focus on recruiting and organizing the team, selecting and arranging cuttings, preparing and blocking the varsity competitors.”

Also, I find that novices tend to learn “the basics” better from someone who is closer (in time) to having learned those same basics for themselves.  My varsity competitors remember how hard it was to learn to plant their feet, to slow down, and to speak up—so they tend to be extra patient with the novices who struggle with these initially.

In more recent years, I’ve realized that even the varsity coaches learn and grow from the coaching experience.  They gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be “coachable,” and as a result, they usually become more coachable themselves.

But the greatest benefit of being a varsity peer-coach does not apply to speech and debate competition.  From my experience, I’ve witnessed how they become better people for the experience.  They learn to be more patient, to work with all types of people, to manage their time, and to care about the success of others in a meaningful way.

The pride that my varsity coaches express when their novices are successful is one of the greatest benefits I witness as a head coach.  When that happens, I know that they have truly become coaches themselves.

“From my experience, I’ve witnessed how [varsity peer-coaches] become better people for the experience.”

Let me be clear: on that recent (aforementioned) Saturday afternoon, I felt somewhat guilty—but not because I didn’t coach my novice students at all.  My guilt stemmed from the fact that I had not given enough credit to those who had coached them the most: my students who had become peer-coaches.

In this way, peer-coaching is one of the best investments in my team’s future.  #