Monday, May 24, 2010

Such A Tired Game

“I love young people,” Harmon said. “They get griped about enough. People like to think the younger generation’s job is to steer the world to hell. But it’s never true, is it? They’re hopeful and good—and that’s how it should be.”

Olive Kitteridge, page 80.

This weekend, I watched a sixty-three-year-old man shout at a sixteen-year-old kid in full public view. He wasn’t his father, he wasn’t his grandfather, he wasn’t even his legal guardian. Yet, by virtue of his position, this adult felt it appropriate to yell at this young man: “Skyler, are you ever going to make that shot? Does that shot ever have a hope of going in? You’ll make that shot one out of 40 times . . . one out of 40 times. What the hell are you doing taking that shot? And you haven’t made a free throw in two weeks. Not one in two weeks.” (A lie: Skyler was knocking down free throws with confident élan only two weeks ago in the Tenterfield tournament.) With those words of encouragement ringing loudly in his ears, Skyler stepped up to the line to try make his free throw in a tight game.

The gym was quiet during this explosion. Everybody on the bleachers could hear exactly what Skyler’s basketball coach thought of him. The parents who would never talk to their son this way heard their son being publically and viciously dressed down. And why, because this man is a high school coach and Skyler is one of his players.

The more games I watch, the more I am stunned by the sheer thoughtlessness, mediocrity and even cruelty that masquerade as paid high school coaching. Because our family plays sports, our children are subjected to adults for hours a day that I would not allow them to associate with in any other context. Yet, the school districts continue to employ these people because winning i.e., scoring more points than the other team, is apparently justification enough for behavior that would get a math teacher fired if it happened in the classroom.

One particular coach considers himself the master of reverse psychology. He will say the opposite of what he wants the intended action to be. Example: He will tell a player that he desperately needs for next year’s season because his very young, big man whom he selected last year to be the next star is not playing as “big” as he would hope: “I’ll sign the transfer papers for you whenever you want. You can go play for another school.” Imagine this sixteen-year old heart and mind hearing this. Does he know his coach needs him? Does he know that he is an integral part of the program and that he needs to work on his positioning under the basket, and his first step around the defender? No. Brig leaves the locker room thinking that his coach hates him, and that he must look forward to the season, where he will be treated to more of the same, with a liberal sprinkling of “ass wipe,” “retard” and “what the hell were you thinking, get out of my sight” thrown in for daily pleasure.

Another coach tells his players whom he is counting on to almost-win yet another state championship (He’s lost the last two years in the finals and semi-finals, with the best players (plural!!) in the state on his team), “I don’t have any players in my program right now who could play in college.” When I hear this, I just shake my head. Shouldn’t one of your goals as a high school coach be to develop your players so that, because of your program and through your tutelage, they are able to attend college with some of the expenses defrayed through an athletic scholarship? If that’s not possible, as it isn’t with most high school athletes, then shouldn’t one of your goals be to use your knowledge to enlarge their skill so that your players become as proficient as they can be. At the very least, if you’re not a good enough coach or a creative enough mind, couldn’t you let them dream their particular dream for as long as they can? They’ve spread their dreams beneath your feet. Tread softly.

It also causes me to wonder about the logic that tears down to ostensibly build up. I wonder at the emotional intelligence of this coach as he sets about to methodically destroy hopes and dreams that have taken root years before these boys ever heard of his high school program. I ask my son, “Did you tell him, ‘Lucky for us you don’t get to make that decision.’” The comment is flippant, and he would never talk back to his coach. But I see the hurt in his face as he struggles through the lesson that there will be times in your life when you have no other choice but to work for whom you work for. The only way out is through. I regret that his coach prides himself on being “a tough nut.” In my opinion, it’s his self-granted license to be cruel, to be thoughtless, to be whatever he wants to be, because he mostly wins. Tellingly, despite twenty-five plus years of coaching, there won’t be any babies named after him.

I appreciate that in the Marines, there is an approach to team building that tears down before rebuilding so that when the Mogadishu rebels open fire, the Marine doesn’t sink to his knees in terror. But, these boys. . . they’re not soldiers. They’re not defending America’s right to bear arms or to burn the flag or to import cheap oil from the Middle East. They’re just playing ball. They don’t need to be torn down or rebuilt. They need to be instructed, corrected, and instructed some more. They need praise; they need criticism. They don’t need to fear. (Fear as a performance-enhancing factor in the creative game of basketball is completely overrated.)

The correct principles of motivating players include the following: Young players perform exponentially better when coaches use a ratio of 5 praise comments to 1 criticism; critical instruction is best delivered some time after the moment of infraction when the player is already aware that he messed up; hard criticism is best delivered privately, not in front of team mates or fans; players assimilate instruction better when they are able to talk about what they did and work out ways to improve; players play for fun and when they’re being shouted at like they killed somebody, it’s not fun.

All players, even professional athletes, need to know their coach believes in them. Players need to know they contribute something important to the team, whether it’s their drive, their energy, their defense, their speed, their three-pointer, or their leadership. Phil Jackson, coach of the Lakers knows that “"Deep within the NBA heart, there are still some insecurities where they still need to have a lot of compliments about how much they mean to the team, how their energy is important, how much they're doing for us, and what they can do better.” If this need is still present in these demigods of basketball, how much more needy are these teenage ball players.

In my better world that I construct in my head, this is what I wish for: A coach who, when he sees my son, thinks, “That’s a great kid”; a coach who likes teenage boys or teenage girls or preteen soccer players, whatever age group they actually coach; a coach who tempers himself in consideration of the tender feelings that sit along his bench; a coach who continues to learn, to read, and to rework what she does in light of whom she has on her roster; a coach who knows that soccer isn’t war.

A coach is somebody who sees what you possibly could be and tries to think of ways to allow you to become that; who thinks of ways to explain, to teach, to make concrete what is only theoretical. A coach allows a greater horizon and causes you to lift your eyes, to see more than you had actually imagined, then shows you the way. A coach is the arm around the shoulder during the long walk back to the locker room. A coach is the bigger heart, the clearer voice, the kinder eye. It’s the calm, centered voice from the sidelines that says “nice shot . . . get your feet under you next time.” A coach is the consistent, persistent correction until muscle memory unites with cerebral processes and the foot follows through the ball on a pendulum swing every time.

A coach can be all those things. What coaches should never be, unless they cannot help themselves (which is when they should be helped out of the building or off the field) is the deliberately erected obstacle through which a young heart and mind has to struggle to find its way to play what is, really, just a game.

Title: from “Crying Shame,” by Jack Johnson.


  1. Oh, I love this. And I'm dying laughing from my unique vantage point of having seen this post in real life.:-)

  2. do you happen to know any mid 40's men who have some time on their hands that might like to coach bball who have sons that have interest in the game ..... oh and whose wife stays out of it and has nothing to say !!!!

  3. The problem is that people say nothing. And pretty soon the emperor has no clothes and nobody says anything. There's no accountability with a coach. If anybody says anything, the fear is that the coach will take it out on the player, because he/she can't get to the parent. So, it's rumble, rumble, rumble . . . just like this post.

    Who is a coach's mentor? Everybody needs a mentor, somebody to coach them, and to help them see their own blindspots.

  4. im in the choir..can think of a few kerk leiers who fit this description. keep rumbling !!!! thats how we change.