The score is 12-7 for the Visitors: 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter and emotions flying high at the Home bench. Coaching my son’s team and sitting on the Visitor’s bench, I look incredulously across the floor at the other coach: this really is a grade 5 boys’ basketball game, isn’t it? Why is he doing his best Bill Cowher impersonation with his group of 10 year old boys? Following the game, I am approached by Brandon, a child on the other team who I coached last year on a club team. Our conversation went something like this:
Brandon: Our coach is pretty intense.
Me: Yah. But I guess he just wants you to be the best you can be. You had a very good game.
Brandon: (quietly with his head down) I don’t think so. He got mad at me.
Me: Have you told him that this makes you sad?
Brandon, not having the emotional wherewithal to make sense of this statement starts to well up. I put my arm around him and comfort him as best I can with a few words of support.
In his most recent post, The Value of School Sports, Chris Kennedy writes of what he loves about school sports: “They provide a lens through which to see the world. It is positive values that make sports meaningful. These values are still alive and well in two ways — the value of school sports, and the values that we hold in school sports.”
Like Chris, I too have spent many hours in gyms and have continued to do so in the past three months coaching both my son’s and daughter’s basketball teams. As a coach, I am always keenly aware of my impact as an educator. Like teachers, coaches must be acutely cognizant of the fact that their words, their coaching style will have significance for their players/students well beyond the immediacy of the basketball court. We could remain “stuck” on Brandon’s predicament but instead, let me take you back to February, 1982 and describe how sports can “sharpen your values.”
It’s the final game of the Catholic Schools’ Senior Boys Championship and for the first time Notre Dame (my school) is hosting perennial champions Vancouver College. It’s a good year for ND (they will finish 5th in the Province competing against much larger schools). The game is raucous from the very beginning. 800 students and adults packed into a 500 capacity gym; boys in football jerseys; alumni in the stands; cheerleaders and ‘Pep Club’ banging drums (sounds like a Hollywood ‘B’ movie but it’s happening real time).
As the game progresses, VC takes a 14 point lead into halftime. However, midway through the third quarter, their star point guard, Eric Koban, fouls out of the game: the tide begins to turn as we chip away at the lead and reduce it to 8 at the end of the third. We start the 4th in a full court trap, take the lead with 3 minutes remaining and for the rest of the game, we trade baskets. With 20 seconds remaining, Greg Porter hits a runner on the baseline and ND takes a one point lead. Time out VC.
Coming out of the time out, Ron Adair brings the ball up court for VC. He puts a double cross over move on his defender and pulls up for the possible winning shot at the elbow. As the horn sounds, the shot goes up and (I’m not kidding you, it’s like it was yesterday, I can still see it) the ball circles around the rim twice and falls out. ND wins and hundreds of kids pour on to the floor.
A quaint story but the game is not the point.
We run into the locker room and begin to celebrate. We see George Karasavidis (our point guard) crying in the corner and figure, “Well, he’s Greek, I guess that’s what they do?” We’re all hooting and hollering when Mr. Ledoux, our Principal, walks into the room with the trophy (the first time anyone from ND has laid claim to it). We wait for the congratulations, the fist pumping, but instead he looks at us, sets the trophy down on a bench and a hush comes over the room. His words: “Gentlemen, thank you for bringing two communities together. Thank you for helping two communities become one family.”
“There is something called isopraxism, which is an anthropological explanation of how we pull toward the same energy,” says Patti Wood, a body language expert who teaches at Florida State. “It explains why when the person we’re with steps off the curb, we follow him or her into the crosswalk.” In team sports it explains how if one person, especially the leader, gets discouraged or feels defeated, the entire group is affected. However, when positive, when feeling victorious, when focused on much more than the athletic arena, the feelings can be truly transformative.
I retell my ND story at school assemblies and with the teams I coach because for me the experience was indeed transformative. Basketball, like all sports, is a vehicle in which we teach a few skills but also provide comfort and a safe place wherein we can help kids discover their own admirable purposes. It’s an opportunity for us to help kids build capabilities in group interpretation, negotiation of shared meaning and co-construction of problem resolutions. It’s so much more than just the pursuit of the ‘W.’ It’s about recognizing the profound difference one can make within a group context. It’s about receiving mentorship from healthy, well-intentioned and caring adults (thank-you John Brassington, Carlo Zavarise, George Oswald and Larry Street).
It’s about developing the capacity to show compassion, empathy and understanding so that each of us as adults will, when called upon, be able to throw one of our arms around the Brandon’s of this world.