March Madness: How Effective Schools are Like Successful Basketball Teams

How to apply the Characteristics of a Successful Basketball Program to the Design and Process of an Effective School

With many sports enthusiasts spending this and next week continuing their participation in the “rite of spring” called “March Madness,” it is interesting to think about how many teams have been in the NCAA tournament for five, ten, fifteen, or for over 20 years in a row.

And, while no team has won the National Championship in consecutive years in a long while, there are many teams that consistently qualify to play, and a select number of teams that are almost constantly in the “Sweet Sixteen,” the “Elite Eight,” and even the “Final Four.”

So what characterizes a successful basketball program. . . and why am I discussing this in a blog devoted to education?

Ignoring both questions initially, let’s first discuss what defines a “successful” basketball program.

Defining Basketball Success

As a graduate of a small liberal arts college in Maine (Bowdoin College. . . “Go you Bears!”), I can tell you (seriously !!!) that the joy of playing the game, competing, and improving was as much a definition of success as even winning. Indeed, when you play Division III or Division II sports, when the game ceases to be fun, then it becomes a job. . .an expectation. . . or even a chore.

While I understand that many Division I NCAA basketball teams have players who dream of “winning it all,” one way to look at the tournament is that there is one winner and 67 (counting the play-in games) losers. And so, with these remote odds, how many players are going to invest their time, energy, and sweat in a “success” that is so improbable? Not many, I would think.

Critically, I believe that successful teams are successful because everyone involved has a personal commitment to be the best they can be. . . both to themselves and to their teammates. And to be the best, they need to be the best on every day, at every practice, and during every drill.

Said another way, successful teams have players, coaches, and support staff who focus on the journey and not just on a single destination. They are committed to consistent and continuous learning, practice, collaboration, improvement, persistence, and integrity. And (once again) the journey needs to be fun. . . not all the time, but enough of the time for the experience to be positive, meaningful, and worthwhile.

What Makes a Successful Basketball Program?

At the risk of oversimplifying, a successful NCAA basketball program. . . given the definition of success above. . . has a number of essential characteristics:

  • Committed players with the potential to be successful as individuals and together as a team
  • Committed coaches who know how to educate their players. . . how to maximize their athletic, academic, and personal strengths, while minimizing their weaknesses; and how to motivate their individual play at the same time as their team play
  • A great playbook. . . with offensive and defensive strategies that can be flexibly adapted to different opponents and game-related situations
  • Great training facilities with modern equipment and technology that are maintained in good working condition
  • A training and practice schedule that provides sufficient time for the team to learn the playbook, to practice all plays to mastery, and to transfer the mastery into game-level competence by simulating different probable and improbable game situations
  • A realistic but demanding schedule with good-quality opponents so that the players and team have opportunities to evaluate their progress over time and against the types of teams that they will face in “The Big Dance”
  • The presence of fans who provide unconditional support, and who motivate the team to perform beyond their potential

Critically, these characteristics need to evolve and “jell” over time to the degree that the whole (team) is greater than the sum of its (player) parts.

Moreover, the journey is not always easy or sequential or continuous or without setbacks. But the journey has short- and long-term goals, ways to evaluate progress, and it depends more on planning and preparation, than on wishful thinking and good fortune.

So. . .What Does this have to do with Education?

If you haven’t “gotten” it yet, the characteristics of a successful NCAA Basketball Team- - whether the program has been a National Champion or not- - are the same as the characteristics of an effective school.

And, it should not be lost on any of us that basketball’s March Madness is occurring at the same time as the March Madness of testing that is currently occurring in most schools across the country.

To make the connection crystal clear, just as a national championship is not the most important measure of a successful basketball program, having every student proficient on a single high-stakes test is not the essential benchmark of an effective school (while this outcome is desirable, welcome, and certainly an indication that a school, in some respects, is effective).

And so, just as with a basketball program, we need to have multiple measures that define success, and we must recognize that the joy of student (and staff) participation, learning, and improvement is as much a definition of success as receiving the “trophy” of student proficiency and being an achieving (for example, A-rated) school.

But beyond the definition of success, let’s revisit the characteristics that lead to success.

Using the characteristics of a successful basketball program above as a guide, successful schools need the following:

  • Committed students (i.e., players) with the potential to be successful- - academically, socially, and behaviorally- - both as individuals and as part of a larger peer group
  • Committed teachers (or coaches) who (a) are supported by other staff, administrators, school board members, and community leaders; and (b) know how to educate their students. . . how to maximize their strengths as learners and as future citizens (while minimizing their weaknesses). . . and how to motivate them individually and, once again, as part of a larger peer group
  • A great curriculum (i.e., playbook) in all academic and health, mental health, and wellness areas. . . with built-in differentiated and remedial strategies that can be flexibly adapted to different students’ learning styles and capabilities, and an instructional focus on learning, mastery, and application
  • Great schools (i.e., training facilities) that are safe, and “equipped” with the staff, curricular and supplemental materials, equipment and technology, and other resources needed for student, staff, and school success
  • A school and classroom (i.e., training and practice) schedule that provides sufficient time for students to learn and master targeted information and skills, and to practice and transfer their skills (individually and in project-based, cooperative, or lab situations) into real-world, 21st Century, college and career-ready competence by simulating different applied situations from preschool through high school
  • A professional development, coaching and supervision, collegial consultation, and staff accountability process that helps teachers, support staff, and administrators to learn, master, and effectively apply their knowledge and skills such that differentiated instruction and interventions for students (as needed) are implemented with high impact
  • A realistic but demanding instructional approach that provides students with learning courses, units, and lessons (i.e., good-quality opponents) that are at an instructional (as opposed to frustration) level where they can learn, advance, and meaningfully evaluate their progress over time such that they are prepared for multiple post-high school options
  • The presence of peers, staff, and parents (i.e., fans) who provide unconditional support, and who motivate them to perform at or beyond their potential

As with a successful basketball program, these student, staff, and school characteristics need to evolve and “jell” over time to the degree that the whole school is greater than the sum of its parts.

Moreover, with new students and staff coming on board each year, ongoing changes in curricular standards, and innovative approaches constantly being developed and introduced, the journey is not always easy or sequential or continuous or without setbacks.

But the journey must proceed, and to succeed, it must include short- and long-term goals, ways to evaluate progress, and a focus on strategic planning, preparation, and productivity.


Whether it is a successful basketball program, an effective school, a good-to-great business, or a productive agency or organization, there are core and common qualities and characteristics that are shared by each.

Great basketball programs don’t just happen. . . and they can be found in the “Sweet Sixteen”. . . as well as at Division II and III. . . and just as easily at your local high school.

Effective schools also don’t just happen. . . but their success must be measured across a variety of variables that reflect where they start, what they have to work with, how they use and build capacity, how well they implement, and how they sustain their growth, progress, and short- and long-term successes.

Mariah Burton Nelson once said, “Think of yourself as an athlete. I guarantee you it will change the way you walk, the way you work, and the decisions you make about leadership, teamwork, and success.”

And so, I encourage you and your school to think like a successful basketball program because:

Effective schools. . . build relationships:

“In leadership, there are no words more important than trust. In any organization, trust must be developed among every member of the team if success is going to be achieved.” Mike Kryzewski (Coach K)

Effective schools. . . prepare:

“The key is not the “will to win” . . . everybody has that. It is the will to prepare to win that is important.” Bobby Knight

Effective schools. . . execute:

“Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen.” Michael Jordan

and Effective schools. . . understand success:

"Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming." John Wooden

As basketball’s March Madness continues, I hope that your brackets are intact, and that “your team” is still playing. But, if not, remember. . . only one team cuts down the nets. The rest celebrate the involvement, the experience, and the journey.