Ambitious Coaching: Introduction

The 15 Core Practices

#Leadership  #Education

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Is it possible to inspire peak performance from your athletes without losing focus on their holistic development as human beings?

Dr. Julie McCleery    

Dr. Julie McCleery

Education researcher and longtime coach Dr. Julie McCleery argues that you can’t have one without the other. Incorporating the practical wisdom of expert coaches and the proven methodology of the teacher training process, McCleery’s technique of Ambitious Coaching consists of 15 Core Practices guaranteed to elevate team performance while setting up young athletes for success on and off the field.

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Since her days as a college athlete at Georgetown University, Julie McCleery has been interested in the qualities that make a great coach. As she pursued a career in education, earning her M.A. in education from Harvard and Ph.D in education policy from the University of Washington, she was struck by the many similarities the best coaches and teachers share. To understand this overlap, McCleery studied Ambitious Teaching, an established method for training teachers how to reach students from a variety of backgrounds in a variety of content areas.


Ambitious Teaching is powerful, McCleery explains, because it comes from the idea that teachers are not merely teaching the content––they are also teaching people. Each student comes to the subject material with a unique disposition and set of experiences that inform how they respond to that material. Ambitious Teaching equips teachers with the foundation to bridge the gap between student and content, inviting students to engage with the material in a way that stimulates intellectual as well as social-emotional growth.


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As a former athlete with over 20 years of hands-on coaching experience, McCleery noticed the applicability of Ambitious Teaching in a sports setting. “There’s the pervading idea that teams are competing in order to perform well and ultimately win,” McCleery explains, “but sports are uniquely positioned to deliver on crucial life lessons, from teamwork, to persistence, to grit, and beyond.” McCleery hoped to develop a pedagogy-informed youth coaching method that integrates peak performance with social-emotional growth, encouraging the coach to step beyond mere X’s and O’s and into the role of teacher and mentor.


McCleery knows firsthand that it can be a challenge to establish this degree of balance as a coach. When working with your team, you shouldn’t have to choose between prioritizing social-emotional development or peak performance. Fortunately, with the help of Ambitious Coaching, you don’t need to.

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McCleery and her research team at the University of Washington surveyed, observed, and collaborated with over 30 coaches to devise 15 Core Practices that the best coaches utilize. Similar to the Ambitious Teaching process, McCleery and her team were interested in dissecting effective coaching into a series of component parts that could be easily communicated and replicated. “What are those bite-sized, teachable, observable pieces that coaches do on a daily basis that we can break down?” McCleery asked.

“The best coaches know you only get sustainable good performance if you are invested in developing the holistic athlete"

Much like the teachers who utilize Ambitious Teaching practices, coaches are interested in trying to bridge the gap between knowledge and practice. “The best coaches know you only get sustainable good performance if you are invested in developing the holistic athlete,” McCleery argues. And in her team’s findings, the coaches who consistently achieve long-term success are the ones making the decision to be educators and mentors as well as coaches. “This is not an either-or proposition,” McCleery reminds us. “If you invest more in the social-emotional side, you will have greater gains in performance.”


STAY TUNED FOR FUTURE INSTALLMENTS OF OUR LEADING EDGE AMBITIOUS COACHING SERIES IN WHICH WE explore each of the 15 core practices as utilized by coaches in our community.


Learn more about Julie McCleery’s work at the UW Center for Leadership in Athletics here >