In the wake of my posts last week exploring some of the history, assumptions and implications underlying various aspects of coaching, I had a great conversation with Nick Houseman at BBallBreakdown. Nick is a coach, clearly an intelligent and caring one and so one who is looking to make coaches and coaching better. Perhaps in that spirit, he asked me the following question yesterday: “is there a debate about coaches using sports to teach overarching themes about life?”
I take it that Nick is asking not whether such a debate exists (for the record, there is quite a bit of scholarly discussion of this in the sport psychology, sport sociology and sport philosophy literature–contact me for some references), but rather, rhetorically, whether I believe that it is appropriate for coaches to use sports to teach overarching themes about life? My short answer is yes. There’s no question that sports can provide numerous opportunities to learn, either through experience or instruction, about life; and a coach can be the individual who helps teach those lessons. Moreover, as historians such as Dominick Cavallo and Clifford Putney (to name just two among many) have shown, sports have and probably will continue to be—for better and for worse—impactful arenas for imparting these lessons. In the case of basketball, for example, the game was in part designed to do so. And individuals like James Naismith, John Wooden, Walt Frazier, Bill Russell, Bill Bradley, Mike Krysewski, and Phil Jackson, among many others, have authored volumes elaborating their ideas about what basketball can teach and how; even as scholars have complicated our understanding of how this might work best.
But in specific circumstances (and leaving aside the kind of coaching behaviors that have left too many young people with a horrible impression of sports culture) , I might qualify my response depending on the answers to certain questions: what is the age of the athletes? What are the themes being taught and how are these being taught? And what is the social context outside of the sporting arena that might support (or undermine) the ability of individual athletes to incorporate these (presumably positive) lessons into their daily lives. Each of these questions reflects underlying issues that complicate my answer.
This may seem obvious, but generally speaking, I think it’s most appropriate and practical for coaches to impart life lessons to younger players. This isn’t because I think we can’t stop learning about life as we get older. Life is complicated and challenging in ways that change as we age. And none of us are ever too old to benefit from the experiences, perspectives, and wisdom of others. However, in a professional context such as the NBA, where (depending on your definition) most or all of the players are adults, there is a danger that coaches seeking to impart life lessons may fail to respect or appreciate the life wisdom players already have and therefore take on a patronizing attitude. That is, a situation can arise in which one grown adult is treating another grown adult as though he were less than adult. Because of the racial dynamic whereby most coaches are still white and most players still black and the history of race relations in the US, this such an attitude can become especially problematic.
Moreover, the NBA is a business in which coaches and players alike are employed to maximize, through their success on the court, the profit line of owners. It may not be practical in that context to prioritize life lessons. And, in addition, the business aspect of the NBA means that coaches and players may not have the opportunity to develop the kinds of intimate personal relationships (knowledge of each other’s experiences and lives, trust, etc.) that should be the bedrock for any such instruction. However, in explicitly educational contexts (such as colleges and schools) and elsewhere that younger athletes are involved, I think using the sporting experience to impart life lessons can be appropriate and desirable, depending, as I said at the outset, on what the themes are, how they are being taught, and on the broader social context in which this is occurring.
It’s probably pretty common to consider, again taking basketball as an example, that certain qualities of character likely to lead to individual and team success are also valuable in life outside of basketball. Hard work, self-discipline, physical health, enjoyment, graciousness, adaptability, individual initiative, cooperation, unselfishness, intelligence, self-respect and respect for others, and an appreciation of individual differences in personality and ability might comprise a non-exhaustive list of such qualities. I’ve certainly found in my life in and out of basketball that cultivating and exhibiting such qualities tends to contribute to more positive outcomes more often than not. And most would agree in principle (even if some waver or fall short in actual practice) that these qualities should be prioritized over other values (such as winning) if and when they conflict.
I’m not claiming that these are universal values. Some arguably are, some definitely are not. Sometimes, the objection that they are not is voiced to prevent the specific experiences of certain socially marginalized group from being erased. Such erasure is a valid and serious concern. But I wonder if it might be constructively addressed with careful attention to the conditions under which they are transmitted. Perhaps this is naive on my part, but if it were the case, we could then avoid resigning ourselves to the position—which admittedly I find tempting, but ultimately counter to my experience, my reasoning, and my desire—that it is hopeless, or worse harmful, to attempt to use sports to impart life lessons to athletes we care about.
Some sociologists rightly observe that there can be in sport an excessive emphasis on defining well-being and development in individual terms. The concern behind this critical observation is that such an emphasis fails to take into account the role—both for better and worse—of society (and of other collectives) in the well-being and development of individuals. Because basketball is a team sport, and as the list of qualities I offered above suggests, this may be less of a problem when it comes to the actual values some coaches seek to impart to their young players. It’s hard for me at least to imagine a basketball coach sternly instructing his or her players to go after their own individual success on the floor at all costs and that this will stand them in good stead in life after basketball. Even so, it may be the case that some coaches fail to recognize (for any number of reasons) the broader social context in which their players must operate; a context which might make some of these qualities less practicable or practically useful than would be the case on the team or in other social scenarios with which a coach might be familiar or, indeed, in some ideal society.
But I don’t think this means that coaches should refrain from attempting to instill the values they genuinely believe will be useful to their players on and off the court. It does, however, mean that how a coach teaches and—equally importantly—embodies these values becomes very important. And it does mean that we should all (coaches included, or especially) be invested in the broader conditions, both of youth sport and of the social and community contexts surrounding young athletes outside of the sporting context, that might make the difference between life lessons learned through sport becoming empowering tools for individuals and communities and such lessons becoming little more than cynically deployed empty promises leading to bitterness and mistrust.
Take care of your body might be the most fundamental tenet of all coaches and the athletic principle with the most obvious relevance to daily life. The habits of physical self-care that a young athlete might cultivate in the context of their sporting experience may well become a life-long habit with clear benefits. But, in imparting that lesson, are we taking adequate account of the situations that athlete may be facing in their home or community that might undermine their efforts at attending to their physical well being? Do they have adequate nutrition, for example, or the opportunity to cultivate proper sleep hygiene?
Respect yourself and others: another fundamental lesson to be learned through sports. But self-respect and respect for others are not cultivated in a vacuum, through sheer force of individual will (even if such a will is a necessary condition for their cultivation). So when we teach young athletes to respect themselves and others (teammates, coaches, officials, opponents) are we considering whether or not the conditions exist in their lives outside of sport in which such a lesson might take root and grow? Are they respected by their teachers? By law enforcement? By their peers? What about the coach? Is the coach, in his or her interaction with players, showing respect? Or, indeed, exemplifying the other lessons of life and of character he or she seeks to instill in them?
I think one could go down the list of qualities that I mentioned above and ask of each of them: is the coach exemplifying them? Is their adequate social support for the cultivation of these lessons in a wholistic manner? If not, is the coach (and others claiming to care about the well being of the young athlete) working to ensure that the conditions exist outside the sport—in the family, neighborhood, community and country—in which these qualities can be both practicable and practically useful?
Obviously, as literal questions, the answer will be sometimes yes and sometimes no, depending on the coach. But I mean them more as rhetorical questions designed to illuminate the more challenging areas that I fear are obscured by the broad popular consensus that sports are a good arena in which to learn life lessons and, therefore, that coaches are the appropriate instructors for such lessons. I mean to be, in other words, pointing out some of the conditions that I think we need to meet if the potential of sport (and coaches) to work in this positive way is to be fulfilled.