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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Coaching the Invisible, Invisibly

Coaching the Invisible, Invisibly

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Having my dad and other family members in town for our ISU Sycamore Homecoming Weekend was a treat!  My students even gave me the weekend off, so that I could enjoy some quality time, which consisted mostly of good food, football, covered bridge festivals, and reminiscing. 

What was particularly interesting was my dad’s recollection of a childhood coach, my second coach actually, whose actions were indiscernible to himself, yet made an indelible impression on me.

I was a quiet kid, not much a fan of the sport I was playing, yet played because I thought I should.  Not bringing much game at first, I had the blessing of my first coach’s care and attention.  He helped me elevate my game to a level that rose above the waterline of my initial embarrassment.  I believed in myself and more importantly, believed that hard work and effort would bring improvement and enjoyment.

Fast forward to the next year, where I had a coach who would do anything to ensure a win for “his boys.” 

That was the problem.

He wasn’t overtly critical.  He wasn’t mean.  He simply, through action and inaction, did not help those who were average and below, those less apt to advance the score.

It is interesting how the quiet disenchantment I had for this man as a child caught the attention of my father.   And stuck.

Albeit now with a gate less spry, my father has not lost a step in his own recollection of how his son was treated nearly forty years ago by a man devoid of any understanding of how he came across.  A man who did not notice the invisible.

After all, this coach went to the mat for “his boys.”  I’ll bet he was at every sporting event, every scouting event, every school event, and every social event. 

For those he noticed.

To be honest, this coach’s neglect gave me a convenient opportunity to opt-out of a sport that I didn’t enjoy, an opportunity to do other things that served more as platforms for life interests. 

Interestingly, my dad often asks as we talk, “What was that coach’s name?”

It is no surprise that the negative has figurative reservations at the table in the forefront of an elderly man’s recollections, as he thinks about his own children’s experiences that at times, were devoid of a kind word, a bit of attention, and more certainly, visibility.

My dad is not a fan of invisibility where his own children are concerned.  I’m not sure I know too many parents who are.

As school leaders, we have invisible students as well, who probably hope that they matter.

Will we notice?

Will we take the opportunity to identify them, even if it is not the most efficient use of our time, so that our more invisible students feel better about themselves after we interact with them, than they did before we noticed? 

Will we be like my first coach and help children rise above inconsequence toward personal growth, even if they don’t add to our win?  Or will we be like my second coach who truly cared for “his boys,” yet made it very clear who was visible to him, through actions and inactions he did not even see.

How will we be remembered in the golden years of parents’ lives for what we did for the invisible when we had other things, like school accountability for instance, on our minds?


Dr. Ryan Donlan’s mentor, Dr. William A. Halls, was a champion of the “C” student.  As such, he made a lifelong impression as one who made a positive difference in the lives of students who to some, were invisible.  If you are also this champion, please consider reaching-out and mentioning such to Dr. Donlan who can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or  He would like to meet you.

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