Educational Leadership

Coaching is the Same as Teaching with Harry Marra

On November 16, we hosted a Dine and Discuss with Harry Marra - former school teacher, former coach of the USA Olympic track and field team, and coach of 2-time gold medalist Ashton Eaton (decathlon) and Brianne Theisen-Eaton (heptathlon).

Harry was brought to USM by the women’s track and field coach, George Towle, and the South Portland High School track and field coach, Karen Reardon, to run a coaching clinic for local schools and college coaches.

It was his first time doing this presentation for teachers and school leaders, and he rose to the challenge! Harry enthusiastically agreed to lead our Dine and Discuss with a focus on the connections of teaching and coaching, and how the two are really the same.

Coach Marra is a relationship-driven teacher. For him all begins with teachers who seek to understand, be sensitive to and respect the power and necessity of strong, resilient relationships with learners.

His stories about athletic competition and personal challenges were animated and kept everyone spell- bound. But, Harry is now on a mission - to connect teaching with coaching.

Here are some take-aways from his presentation.

  • The importance of being a master of your content and skill areas, enough so you can “dial the performance back and forth to diagnose the error and get a good idea of what the likely cause of the error is.” We educators call it “backwards planning.” But for Coach Marra it is as much about knowing what the final success looks like, and being right there in all stages of practice and development with the learner to unpack and diagnose the failures and errors as learning progresses. Success depends on feedback, and that begins with getting your ego out of the
  • Understand how to provide focused feedback for improvement and effective practice. To maximize success for each athlete Coach Marra has a set of cues, or short statements for each event, that have been collected from and used for different athletes. It Is a long list, but for each athlete and each event he picks 1 – 3 cues only. For example, in the 200 meter run, “Drive out with long arms to maximize velocity”, “Involve shoulders the final 50-60 meters,” and “Trust the start phase…trust.” He insists that the “power” list of cues needs to be shortened and customized for each athlete, for each different
  • “Coach and teach to each athlete, because each one is different.” Coach Marra emphasized how each person may run the same race, but each one does it differently. That means he worked very hard to know what is different about each person’
  • Listen to your learners. In the past few years he has learned to listen to what his athletes have to say. He actively engages them in reflective dialogue, and, yes, reflective writing and visualizing! These strategies are ways to open up the channels for more feedback, self-assessment and goal setting. As for goals, he feels that every student should have their own goals, and all of them should be set very high. Even if you don’t make it, the striving gets you closer to something worthwhile.

Some key themes of his message were: trust, inclusion, high standards, and focused practice.

He was quick to say that his message should not be mistaken for ways to teach gifted and talented, or make elite athletes. Harry says his happiest coaching and teaching moments are with his summer camps for struggling, at-risk youth. He taught in elementary, middle school and high school before going on to his career in coaching at Springfield College, San Francisco State College, and the University of Oregon. He thinks that it’s all about learning and that all of us are capable of great things.

He has four words that sum it all up: Passion, Knowledge, Trust, Communications.


An inspiring and challenging message for all!