Creativity And (Or?) Coaching

25 Oct

large_burnsOn 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

As standardized education spreads at a breakneck pace across the nation to anoint a new generation of robotic workers for the digital age, progressives resist with freedom schools and community campaigns against standardized tests and the gutting of public schools and their budgets. To be sure, these fights to restore creativity, critical thinking, the Socratic method of questioning anything andeverything, and, in a word, democracy in education, are integral to redefining education in terms of personal growth and learning through experience and debate. Of course, these fights point to the greater irony of America’s critiques of East Asian education models being too rigid, fact-based, and formulaic–petty excuses to mask the fact that Asian students (future workers of China, Japan, South Korea, and India) will soon be at the helm of the global economy, and by extension, that Asian capitalism is the new America. All for the purpose to allow American dreamers to continue dreaming sweetly at night.Like many political revolutionaries, I myself am schooled by Paulo Friere, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). How one is educated is inherently political, he writes, and in a capitalist or colonial society, schools reflect the political agenda of those in power. Students in these societies are likened to a bank in which teachers deposit facts, ideas, and agendas that inhibit creativity and resistance while fostering complacency to an oppressive status quo. Friere flips the script on this traditional banking model of education and advocates for a dialectical education process where students teach teachers and vice versa. As an example, in the context of at-risk youth, it is key for the young to educate the older teachers who likely come from the outside (if not geographically then generationally), for the goal of education is for the youth to empower themselves, control their community, and overcome the system that produces their state of risk in the first place. This can only be done if teachers are willing to be taught and advise as needed, and if students accept the role of empowerment and are willing to learn through experience and struggle. Democracy in the classroom translates to democracy on the streets. Our public schools preach the rhetoric, but deliver authority figures who choke out creativity and breathe in standardization. I’d say it’s ironic or hypocritical, but I think the best adjective to describe such contradictions is simply, it’s American. In the words of J. ColeLook at this nation//that’s a crooked smile even braces can’t straighten.So if democratizing a classroom and unshackling it from standardization is the ideal, then what of democracy in competitive sports? What if players on a team mutinied against their coach and declared democracy on the floor? Or perhaps more moderately and in direct application of Friere, what if coaching became a mutual process in which athletes also coached the coach?

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


3 Responses to “Creativity And (Or?) Coaching”

  1. Veryl October 30, 2013 at 1:33 am #

    Thanks for the reblog. To generate further discussion, honestly, it depends on the coach. Just as you would not want a Stalinist at the helm of a revolutionary organization, nitpicking everyone’s role and ruthlessly punishing insubordination/errors, a bad coach can either force their team to incorporate inept strategies OR conversely, allow superstars too much agency at the expense of the team. Too many GMs misunderstand the game and assume that the acquisition of superstars will change their franchise. Wilt Chamberlain holds the highest scoring record per season (among other scoring records) and scored a 100-point game, but he only has 3 championships compared to his contemporary Bill Russell, who diminished his individual stats for team victories. Russell has 11 championships. All this said, there is no substitution for good coaching, fostering team mentality, cohesion, discipline, and collective effort and attitude. A lot of young talent these days let their stardom get to their heads, and, without tough coaching to reign in their excesses, then the team will not win championships. Detroit Pistons Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas once said that the secret of basketball is that it’s NOT about basketball. It’s not about individual talent or how many points you can put up, but team mentality and buy-in. After coming so close to winning championships in 87-88 and 88-89, the Detroit Pistons traded away their selfish star guard for a statistically lesser performing player (but was a better fit in terms of attitude and team mentality). The coach redistributed playing time relatively equally among 8-9 players on the team that next season. Their opponents suddenly needed to worry about stopping 8-9 players, instead of 2-3 ‘stars’. There was no “best” player on Detroit, and looking solely at individual stats that next season like scoring and points total, they were one of the worst teams in the league. No one player dominated games for the team, and any given night another teammate would step up and make a difference. That season they ended up winning the championship.

    • mamos206 October 31, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

      You’re welcome. By way of analogy, I think it’s unfortunate that the Left and the media sometimes generate a “star system” of celebrity activists, especially in places like the Bay Area and New York. This can really break down the kind of team mentality you’re describing, and it makes it harder for us to win.


  1. Jock Culture, Rape Culture, and the need for Educator Hiring Halls | Creativity Not Control - October 26, 2013

    […] up on Veryl’s post about coaching yesterday, I’d like to share this article from the Nation about how jock culture supports […]

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