At first glance you probably did a double take when you read the title. You may have said “Did he mean to put those words together in that sentence?” There is no doubt that this is a tremendous undertaking. My children were educated in a classical school, so I am very aware of the concept of the trivium. I believe it is the best way to educate a child. The ideas of grammar, logic, and rhetoric are very appealing to me, as education is a process working toward a goal. An athletic program based upon the trivium is natural because it, too, is a process. The more interesting part is how to define each step along the way. In this post I will attempt to explain how we can accomplish this.
The Grammar of Athletics: Fundamental Skills (Grades 6-7)
In grammar the key is teaching basic skills. I remember when my children were first taught phonograms. The teacher told my wife and me that my children would be able to read any word by the end of the first grade. I was impressed, to say the least. So, as you can imagine, I just had to test them. The word I chose was “photosynthesis.” To my delight they both were easily able to read the word and pronounce it correctly! Now, how can that concept apply to athletics?
I believe one of the classic mistakes made in coaching sports with youth is the lack of intentionality regarding fundamental skills. I am reminded of the great pro football hall of fame coach Vince Lombardi, who started each year—with professional athletes, by the way—with the phrase, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” Why, if on the professional level a coach would be so basic, do coaches of young players not do the same? I believe this is because there is such an emphasis on winning.
Most teams have a two-week lead up before they start playing games. Most coaches start the first two days with drills until about day three when it is time to install an offense and defense. Around about day five the coach may do skills as a warm-up, but then it is off to game day prep because, remember, we have a game in a little over a week. The anxiety starts to weigh as the coach begins to worry about winning—or worse, his or her team being embarrassed because they have not covered everything before that first game. On days four or five scrimmaging starts. And thus begins the cycle. Most of practice the rest of the year is about achieving an impressive record and fixing mistakes. It should not be this way. We would not ask a grammar student to write a thesis, would we? (By the way, the coach I described in this paragraph was me.)
Our goal is to take the youngest group of students entrusted to us and clear the “runway” of games for a long stretch so that the focus is on skills and nothing but skills. Not plays or situations, but skills. To that end, while we want to play some games in the second half of the season, we want to mainly focus on the building blocks of the sport. The games will serve as an opportunity for the players to test their skills. The practices after the games are again to help those students work on where the skills showed up as deficient. Most of you would recognize this as our Blue program, which you may already know we are in the process of reprogramming for this purpose.
The Logic of Athletics: Tactics & Strategies (Grade 8)
Around the eighth grade, we move on to the second phase of the trivium: logic. This does not mean we drop skills. We will continue to hone these and even add to them. The goal of the logic phase of athletics is application. This is where we get deeper into tactics and strategy. Our goal here is to show them how to apply these skills in the most advantageous way to have success. And yes, success means not only playing well but winning the game. Our middle school program, in most sports, competes in a conference where a championship can be won. Playing well, increasing skills, learning tactics and strategies, and developing a winning mindset are crucial steps in the process of athletic education and personal development. Students in the Gold program play more games than they did in the Blue program, but not so many that the emphasis becomes all about the games. We want to keep the focus on learning.
The Rhetoric of Athletics: Communication (Grades 9-12)
Once students enter high school, they are ready to advance to the next level of a sport and of the trivium. This is when they enter the rhetoric phase. We define this phase with the word “communication.” In the classroom, the goal of rhetoric is eloquence in speech. A similar goal applies to what happens on the field. The difference is in how this communication is done. The best way I know how to explain it is from my football or basketball playing days. There were guys I had played with so long that I could communicate to them where to move to in order to accept a pass with nothing more than a look. This nonverbal type of communication is truly one of the top goals of any team sport. For those in more individual sports it is different to some degree, but for both team and individual athletes this nonverbal communication often occurs between the athlete and the coach. To be able to look over and know from a look what to do (without words) is powerful! This type of personal communication plays out even apart from the actual competitions.
The bottom line is this: you would never ask a beginning piano player who cannot play scales to play a song at a recital in front of a crowd. If we follow that same logic, we will teach students our own version of music theory, then scales, then songs, and then prepare them for their recital. But the goal is not just the recital. It is the learning experience that they can apply to other aspects of their life. If we do our job well, our students will not only develop skills, tactics, strategies, and the ability to communicate well on the field, but they will apply these principles once they leave our hallways and embark on their own personal great adventure that God has planned for them. They can face those challenges with confidence, knowing that they have learned to learn, loving the journey. Then they will be ready, with a sound mind, to embrace the call that God has for them, answering it joyfully with a spirit of power and love.