On this blog, we’ve been arguing for learning in the classroom that involves cooperation, creativity, and horizontal solidarity, instead of competition, standardization, and centralized, top-down authority. But what about learning on the basketball court, the football field, the volleyball court, etc.?
To reflect on that question, I’m posting a piece by Veryl, an educator and a basketball coach in Seattle. As a radical, he insists on direct democracy and horizontalism as general principles of social organization in the classroom and in popular movements. But he struggles to reconcile this anti-authoritarianism with his observation that teamwork on the court often depends on the centralized authority of a coach who is able to challenge star players to perform as part of a team. The coach pushes the team to change up their strategy based on how each individual person on the team grows and changes. This suggests that strategizing and leadership involve some level of caring work; the coach must pay close attention to the needs and development of each player, providing the kind of support each person needs to grow. Sometimes, this means pushing a star player to step off the court and get his/her/their shit together.
The entire post on his blog is worth reading, including the comments; there, another person challenges Veryl, suggesting that players might fill these team-building roles themselves if they were not trained to rely on coaches to fill them:
Maybe winning basketball games with a dictatorial asshole at the helm isn’t the most important thing in sports. Maybe pickup games are actually more authentically basketball than highly structured, hierarchical “programs.” Perhaps pickup is a practice in on-the-fly cooperation and self-management. True, most athletes living in racist, sexist, and capitalist societies aren’t particularly adept at this sharing and coming together as a team in a short amount of time. But, how much more valuable is that attempt (and possible success) than being, as you say, a “pawn” in some egotistical, power-hungry, white man’s world?
Veryl replies with some interesting insights based on his coaching experiences. This is a sophisticated debate, drawing from the analyses of the Afro-Carribbean Marxist luminary CLR James and the cutting-edge Marxist feminist Sylvia Federici. It also mirrors some philosophical debates about Deleuze and rhizomatic informal organization that I’ve been meaning to read more about.
After reading Veryl’s blog, I’m left with these questions, which I can’t really answer since I don’t have a whole lot of experiences playing basketball myself. Perhaps other folks with more experience who are reading this could chime in:
1) what experience on the court serves as the best metaphor for critical pedagogy in the classroom and in movements, collectives, social milieus, and political organizations? Is it the self-organized neighborhood pick-up game, or the honed, disciplined, coached team functioning as a unit to defeat the opposition? Or are there insights to be learned from both?
2) Without coaching, do we end up with what Veryl calls “sloppy hero ball”, where one or two narcissistic players are allowed to dominate while everyone else runs back and forth without learning? (I have to admit, this is often what anti-authoritarian “radical scenes” feel like in practice). With coaching, do we end up with a game analogous to a Leninist vanguard party, tightly controlled by the mind of an authoritarian strategist using his players as pawns to defeat the enemy?
3) Do the players simply need to learn to be coaches themselves, making the centralized coach obsolete? If so, how do we teach ourselves and each other to do that?
This discussion clearly mirrors debates in movements we’ve been a part of. At the tail end of the Occupy movement, I argued that we need to build intentional organization, because without it, informal hierarchies reemerge, replicating power dynamics of race, class, gender, educational background, and ability. However, comrades responded that when we build organizations we risk cultivating “teams” that will aim to control mass movements, becoming a new progressive ruling class or state-capitalist dictatorship like the USSR. I think the only way to avoid this is for as many people as possible to learn through struggle how to organize ourselves and how to function as teams, so we can’t be manipulated by future insurgent dictators and their opportunistic organizations.
Many of the people who will resolve these debates in practice on the battlefield of future social movements are the ones who are currently trying to resolve them while they raise their voices in our classrooms, then find themselves on the basketball court after school. As teachers and coaches, do we matter in shaping their growth, or are we basically in the way?
Are Coaches Necessary? Centralism vs. Democracy in Competitive Sports
This summer, I assisted in coaching a high-level AAU boys’ basketball squad. At least one player on my team, our center, will be a future D1 college basketball player, and his dominance in games both inside the key and beyond the arc allowed us to compete with talent above our own. Towards the end of the AAU season, immediately after we defeated another high-level AAU team, our head coach (the same high school varsity coach referred here) pulled me aside and snickered, So Veryl, do you think coaches make a difference? For someone who usually hits hard with words, this question was an unusually passive aggressive way to doubly insult my coaching ability and praise his own. Exactly one week prior, I had lost to the same opponent. Our coach was conspicuously absent that game. Actually, we didn’t just lose that game, the opponents imposed their will, crushed our spirits, and made us disbelieve in our ability to play the game. We left the court like it was a funeral service, solemn and silent, doing the walk of shame. Recently deceased, Veryl and his basketball team, 2013-2013. Cries were heard from all over the city. How tragic, they were oh so young.
I want to establish, first and foremost, that coaches in any respectable program are the ultimate authority, the final word. Unlike Kanye’s delusional mind, coaches are gods in flesh. What coach says, players execute. Fail to do so once in practice, it’s a barrage of insults questioning your intelligence. Fail to do so twice in practice or if another player makes the same mistake, the barrage turns into an onslaught. They are pulled out of the drill, someone else gets subbed in who better get it right. If they fail, then the “midget with glasses”, Veryl, gets to play and run with the big boys while those triers and not doers sit out the rest of the drill. The failure to execute a play or perform your hardest during a game is another matter. Coach has no qualms about benching star players for extended periods of time or the entire game if they don’t transition back on defense or cut to the basket hard. Winning is NOT an individual effort. It doesn’t take star players to win if our team outplays, outhustles, and outruns our opponent. If all five players on the floor commit to locking down the paint, pressuring the ball, playing the middle on defense ready to help stop drives, then our offense will flow from our defensive intensity and win us the game. During the regular high school season, we shut down the star future-D1 players in our conference like Zach Lavine and Tucker Haymond because our five guys on the floor stopped them, had their eye on them at all times, not just the one defender ‘assigned’ to them. If you think the natural conclusion to draw about winning is that it is a team effort, then either I have understated the point of this paragraph or you’ve been internalizing one too many cliches from an ESPN color commentator. Make no mistake, coaching is the difference and the key to winning.
Read the rest of the article here