FIVE things school leaders can learn from the Red Sarachek Tournament

By: Jane Taubenfeld Cohen, Executive Director

I am a basketball fan, but this is the first year that I watched the Sarachek Basketball Tournament.   I had it on while I did my Pesach cleaning on Sunday and tuned in again as I worked on Monday.   It was great to see the athletes work so hard, to hear the coaches’ strategies, and to see the final game – which went into multiple overtimes.   But that is not why I watched.

I watched because over the course of the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of working with leaders from so many of the schools that were playing.  I realized this year that it was no longer a tournament of strangers; it was a tournament of colleagues’ schools and I found that I really cared.  Why?

Just one year ago, the YU School Partnership transformed itself into a fee for service model. Today, we operate very similar to the way consulting firms do, but that is only part of the story.   Through our consulting services and convenings, we have built relationships with those who work in the schools, those who support the schools, and those who go to the schools.  We are invested in their success as if we are standing at their sides.  We work hard to understand each school’s unique culture,hashkafah, and what the school means to its surrounding community.  We work hard to build the capacity of the leaders and to constantly be learning together.   I watched the basketball games because I care deeply about their success at every level.

I often find that sports speaks to me as a leader and as a leadership coach. So, for those of you who had teams in the tournament and those of you who might not have, here are five lessons the games can teach us:


1. It helps to have a strategy and keep adjusting it as we see its impact.  

I watched coaches who had strategies work for a quarter or a half and they had to make halftime adjustments.  I watched plays get drawn out and have to be improvised by the players as they went.  At the same time, the players had an idea of what the coach believed and that the coach had faith in them to make in the moment decisions.   Similarly, school leaders work best when they know their strategic goals and adjust them as they lead.


2. It is great to win, but it is equally great to play hard.  

The last game went into many overtimes.  Either team could have won.  One team went home elated and the other went home deflated.   That happens sometimes in the work of a school leader.  You could work just as hard as your competitor and not always come out on top.  Regardless, as long as you are still learning and still developing your school in the process, you are still in the game.


3. Fans matter.  

In the final game, the two competing teams were local.  The stands were filled.  The players had the ‘sixth man’ of the fans to give them energy, even when they had been running up and down the court for so long.  Schools are no different. We need cheerleaders when we are leading schools.  We need people to encourage us, to cheer for us when we are down, and to believe in us.  I don’t think I need to say more about that.  Anyone who has ever held a leadership position knows how true that is.


4. The play-by-play helps.  

Because I was watching the games online and knew almost none of the players, it was good for me to have someone who did his homework giving me the back-story.  When you are leading a school, you do not need to know every detail to be effective.  Behind the greatest leaders are staff members who are doing their homework and are ready with the details.


5. Resilience is the key to survival.

Even after a loss, you have to get your players up for the next game. I watched a tough loss by a team. They really could have won the game and suffered a real disappointment at the end.  However, they had to come out the next day and play a consolation game and they were up for the game and won. In the job of school leadership, there are some really hard days.  Your job is to move forward and work toward a better day the next day and in the long haul, as hard as that is.


I am sure that there are more lessons from this high school basketball tournament.   I am also sure that not all of it can be captured in a list. I am thinking next year, maybe I should go to the tournament in person.

Jane Taubenfeld Cohen is the Executive Director at the YU School Partnership. Prior to joining YUSP, she was the Head of School at the South Area Solomon Schechter Day School for twenty-two years, where she was one of the founders. In addition, Jane has been a mentor for 8 years at the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) and she now works with alumni and as a mentor to new Heads of School. Jane can be reached via email at