O Coach, Coach, wherefore art thou Coaching?

[5-minute read]

It’s hoopin’ time again. *swallows nervously, drums his fingers on the desk*

Can you hear the whistle blowing? I am blowing the whistle. On coaching. Mine.

I can’t just walk away, and I don’t want to, and I don’t think I necessarily ought to want to, but the apparently never-ending intra-cranial debate continues. And the scoreboard says WHAT? I don’t know why I should feel that I’m losing this contest, since I’m playing myself. But it’s a battle of divided wits, and there is always the fear of loss. Such is the mind of a man who wants Sudden Victory, in terms even his childhood self could understand. Confetti. Trophies. Hugs from my brothers, kisses from my wife. A microphone in my face; it wants to know how it feels for me to be Such A Champion. Guess what?

I still want to win.

So yes, that’s part of it. It’s probably not the most stone-headed story I tell myself about why I want to coach basketball, still and again and for who knows how long. There are other reasons, compulsions, purposes and afflictions. Some of them aren’t so savoury, while others leave a mainly good taste in my mouth. But in the pursuit of the recently proverbial (and ungrammatically concise) “Know Your Why”, let me start off being truthful, and hang the embarrassment:

  • I want recognition. It’s ridiculous, considering my age and geography (and, it pains me to consider, perhaps my skill level, too), but somewhere in there I can even detect the stubborn stupid hope of being discovered. I did labour long in the most obscure of coaching outposts, but even now in Ottawa I’m a laughably long way from Basketball Central.
  • Yes, and I do like winning things. My teams in the boonies did some winning, though the circle of genuinely interested folks didn’t extend much beyond family; heck, sometimes the families themselves weren’t all that interested. My sons and both my wives, to varying degrees, fall into this category, too. Son Two hung in there the longest.
  • When I coach, I get to TALK. This reminds me of a lyric by the great Dar Williams, in a song called “What Do you Hear In These Sounds?” She sings, And when I talk about therapy / I know what people think / That it only makes you selfish / And in love with your shrink / But oh how I loved everybody else / When I finally got to talk so much about myself! My coaching talk is not mainly about myself (though my writing, for better and worse, sometimes is). I love teaching, explaining, historicizing, quoting, storifying, imploring, challenging. (Ranting, blathering.) I do like the sound of my own voice. I also have useful things to say. (I must.)
  • I also get to command respect. I’m no tyrant, but I mostly do get respect from my players, though my belly and my grey hairs make it tougher on kids to understand that I actually can help them. I like running the room. I like all eyes on me. I love it when the spell I’m casting works. Coach as puppet-master? I’ve felt that thrill of saying Do! and wow, they do. I pray that’s the parsley, not the whole damned steak. Can’t be.
  • Maybe it’s this: I just can’t help myself. When I don’t get to coach, it sometimes spills out in other ways. (In China, I was constantly trying to instruct the drivers on Dalian streets about crosswalks, lanes, signals, brakes, the pedestrian point of view. It wasn’t successful. And I almost got run over.)
  • Coaching in a city helps: I want people to understand that I’m good by being (a little more) obviously good, which mainly comes down to winning games and titles that mean something to somebody other than me. And that means — it took me two years, even in a city, to work this out — coaching somewhere where there are keen and hungry athletes. Eureka! Talent makes coaches look better! Two Ottawa tournament championships last year, and as a new season beckons (I must admit it) I’m licking my lips for tastier victories out on the road. I want folks back in Sweet Home Caledonia, back in corn country, to understand that I must have been pretty decent all along, because now that he’s got some TALENT his teams are really good. Winning things. Yes. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, McMurphy’s fellow psych-ward inmates began to resent him because he was “always winning things” – card games, bets, day passes. “Winning, for Christsakes…Hoo boy, winning,” McMurphy wearily responds, because he finds his victories pathetic. Um, yeah, I hear you, Murph. But also: WINNING.

    Blow that horn, hoop-head.

  • But I do love sport, and I have given unbounded time, once-limitless energy and quite a lot of cash to high school and club basketball. Always, the game has been a vehicle for teaching (mainly) young men not only how to shoot and pass and defend, how to play and do it well, but also how to struggle, unite, win with grace, lose with dignity, taste excellence, get outside narrow life-frames, and surpass their previous best selves. This last is the essence of competition – being better than you were before – and all the scoreboards and other ways of measuring ourselves athletically against someone else are really just means to this noble end: to maximize the skills, the resilience, the vision and the courage of individuals and of teams. Metaphors, I mean — but too often scorekeeping becomes a substitute for these obviously spiritual outcomes. Even for me, as much as I try to insulate and educate myself. Sport is strong medicine.
  • I’ve always wanted to build, but have no skill, aptitude or even, frankly, much desire to

    I’ll never have a player remotely resembling the mighty Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, nor ever call myself a peer of Coach John Wooden. But I love this pair.

    construct physical things. But I’m driven to build people projects: classrooms that learn, groups that perform, committees that commit and make life a little better, somewhere and somehow or another. I have assiduously, perhaps obsessively, constructed teams and leagues and sporting communities that kids love to be part of and benefit from; they don’t, of course, see the positives until much later. (If I am lucky, and they are adding things up.) I’ve never entirely satisfied myself in answering the supremely evident elephant-question-in-the-room: But WHY? I just do. (But the Book of Why is in progress, so I may get to the bottom of it yet.)

  • I love teaching.
  • I love watchin’ ‘em grow and improve. I am thrilled when kids do what they couldn’t do before. [SHEEPISH AUTHOR’S NOTE: At this point, scribbling notes in my journal for this post, I started listing the names of boys I’ve recently coached, wondering if I’d truly done anything for them they couldn’t have gained on their own, or with other coaches. Nothing to see here, folks, move along, just Coach Howdy obsessing over the makeup and prospects of a team that he no longer coaches. So yeah, maybe I’m a titch obsessive.]
  • And everything else – the beauty of a well-executed skill, the unexpected laughs, the grace of real connection with the young – is caramel on chocolate.¹ That’s what I think I think.
¹ Or, healthier alternative metaphors! Dried cherries among the kale! Local honey in the pond-scum greens!

Comment (1)

  1. Pamela Mary Jarrett

    Yup, your self-analysis strikes me as pretty accurate and self-aware. Without coaching, you just aren’t you.

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