Lessons from the Super Bowl: What does Tony Dungy have to do with improving student academic performance?

Guest blogger Marcia Weseman, Ed.D, is a child trauma expert and Manager of Community Programs and Prevention at Saint Luke’s Crittenton Health Center in Kansas City. Marcia has valuable information to share with us about providing social and emotional support to students, to help them succeed.

Between commercials during the Super Bowl, I overheard the commentators describing an event that made me think about the most important set of strategies educators can use to improve student academic performance.

In 1997, Michael Husted, kicker for the Tampa Buccaneers, was missing easy field goals and extra points. The Buccaneers had been having a good season and the media and fans believed Husted should be benched. His performance was declining and “everyone” knew he had to go. (NBC, 2018)

“Everyone” except Coach Dungy who was not listening.  Coach Dungy knew what was happening in Mike Husted’s life and it wasn’t something that additional kicking drills would fix.  His mother was dying of cancer.  When Dungy called Husted, it wasn’t to tell him that he was through.  Instead he said, “You’re a Buccaneer.  You’re part of our family.  You’re our kicker.” (Alex and Emily, 2009) Dungy told the rest of the team, “We are family. We help each other.  If he misses a kick, the defense better do their job.” The next week, Husted made a field goal that won the game! (NBC, 2018)

Conventional wisdom would say, bench the player and bring in someone who can do the job. But instead, Dungy’s words could be translated, “You are safe.  You are connected to me and the team.  We all support each other.”

An effective educational leader supports staff and students and makes them feel safe and connected.  Students feel safe and connected when adults are able to manage their own emotions, energy levels, and moods.   The growing body of brain research makes it clear that when we don’t feel safe, we react from our brain stem, meaning we fight, flee, or freeze. When our stress levels cause us to react from an emotional state or a threatened state, we create a perceived unsafe environment and may put others into a fight, flight, or freeze mode. When we ignore the emotion driving a student’s behavior, or worse, react in a manner that does not create safety and connection, we inhibit students’ ability to learn.

Educators must learn strategies to prevent reacting from their brain stem, so they will respond using their prefrontal cortex.  The prefrontal cortex and brain stem are mutually exclusive.   Cognitive functions such as problem solving, decision making, and executive functions occur in the prefrontal cortex.  It is not possible to learn when we are reacting from our brain stem. Caring professionals who calmly validate and respond to the emotions driving students’ behavior help move students from an emotional state in the limbic system to their prefrontal cortex, ready to learn.  (Jacobs-Kenner et al.,2016)

Crittenton Children’s Center’s staff teach educators to manage their own emotions and behaviors, so they may guide students through difficult times.  Crittenton’s work in trauma is grounded in Blaustein and Kinniburgh’s Attachment, Self-regulation, and Competency (ARC) Framework for fostering resiliency. (2010) Using this framework, educators are taught to recognize when they are influenced by triggers, unconscious reminders of prior negative events; secondary trauma, stress from contact with others who are experiencing toxic stress; or inadequate self-care. (Jacobs-Kenner et al, 2016) Managing a classroom with diverse needs and behaviors can be challenging when we are at our best.  Recognizing these influences and   learning strategies to manage their affect is as essential to good teaching as content knowledge and pedagogy.

Students must feel safe to perform well academically.  Effective educators validate students’ emotions to help them feel connected.  After attachment is achieved with safety and connection, students are able to develop self-regulation skills. (Blaustein and Kinniburgh, 2010) With self-regulation skills, students are ready to become problem solvers and decision makers, so they may be life-long learners and productive citizens.

Educational leaders must shut out the noise of conventional wisdom, and instead, provide the safety, connection, and support Coach Dungy demonstrated in 1997.



Alex and Emily. (2009) Tony Dungy Loves You and Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Life. Mockingbird.


Blaustein, M. and Kinniburgh, K. (2010) Treating Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents:  How to                            

Foster Resilience through Attachment, Self-Regulation, and Competency. The Guilford Press. NY, NY

Jacobs-Kenner, J., Holmes, C, Levy, M, Pinne, S., and Smith, A. (2016) Creating Trauma-Informed Schools

that Support Student Resilience:  Expanding lessons from Preschool and Elementary School

               Intervention. Crittenton Children’s Center, St. Luke’s Health Systems. Kansas City, MO.

Dungy, T. (2018) NBC Televised Super Bowl Show.