Back in May I got the opportunity to attend a basketball coaching clinic at the Harrah’s Casino in Tunica. The clinic featured some of the top college coaches in America including George Mason’s Jim Larranaga, LSU’s Trent Johnson, Virginia Tech’s Seth Greenberg and the one and only Robert Montgomery Knight (his friends call him Bobby). Myself and about 1,000 other coaches were herded into an auditorium converted into a gym for three days in order to find out the secrets of how to lead young men and women towards becoming championship caliber athletes. Anyone who has ever been to one of these clinics before knows the drill…coachspeak followed by coachspeak followed by the occasional substantial and interesting point followed by more coachspeak and more coachspeak. By coachspeak, I mean the repeated uses of expressions like “the short corner” or “attacking the elbow” which are meaningful to most coaches but come across like some mysterious hybrid of Swahili and Mandarin Chinese to the uninitiated. The one astute point in the midst of the coachspeak is often fantastic, which is why I highly recommend these clinics to other coaches, but the hours upon hours of coachspeak can take it’s toll on even the most fervent hoops junkie.
I am not a very good note taker, but I decided I was going to try to get down as much of what was meaningful as possible. This worked for the first 5 or so hours. I have lovely, detailed sketches of out of bounds plays and wonderful points about how to properly position my post players when they are down on the block. After a certain point, I began to drift away from the land of normal coaching thought. Too many things that were not basketball began to assert themselves into the clinic. The words character and discipline began to rear their ugly heads. Coaching has developed an odd fixation with these ideas over the years. They are somehow indicative of the deeper meaning of sports. If you are a good coach, your team wins. If you are a great coach, your teams win and develop discipline and character. You cannot win without discipline or character. You will be tested; under these circumstances discipline and character will show. The pantheon of great athletes all had discipline and character. Blah, blah, blah. My problem with this formulation is that there is very little discussion over what these terms actually mean. We are just supposed to know.
My mind was spiraling out of control. I had been reading a ton of Descartes and had recently listened to an incredible online course on Death by Yale Professor Shelly Kagan. These thoughts were ping ponging around my mind. They had begun to merge with my notes. Here is the mental chaos that ensued:
(For the sake of time and not boring the noncoaches out there, I have removed all of the traditional basketball and have all left the weirdo philosophical stuff basically untouched)
1. What is character and discipline but the denial of the self? Why must the self be removed or fought for someone to play the game well? Is the self such an albatross that it must be obliterated in order to achieve “greatness”?
2. Does the self even exist? How is it possible for the self to exist as something different from the body? Are there two of us in here? Am I the Ghost in the Machine and if so, who is that in here who keeps telling me to not do the things I want to do? Why am I so committed to not letting the Ghost play?
3. So…does the self exist? It must because we are asked to deny it. Discipline asks us to deny the self, so something must be asking us to deny the self. It must be the self. It is a similar formulation to Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”. There must be a self otherwise what is there to deny the self. The question then becomes, why on earth would the self ask to deny itself? That is a bizarre idea that must lead to a good amount of confusion when someone first enters the “Church of the Winner”.
4. What is discipline? The self wants, the self says no. Why would it deny what it wants? Denial of short-term gratification for deeper long-term fulfillment. Losing the self in the team. But why would we want to lose the self?
5. Why does the self imagine? What set of circumstances would make it want to wish for more or different?
6. Here is a list of the things that have been labeled acceptable by coaches at today’s clinic:
Victory over other selves
Destruction of other selves in other uniforms on the path to victory
Adulation of other selves if the correct function has been performed correctly
Greed as long as it stays unadmitted
Here are the things that have been labeled unacceptable by coaches at today’s clinic:
Gluttony (in terms of food or comfort, but not in terms of success)
Destruction of other selves wearing the same uniform as you
Adulation of other selves when the correct task has been performed incorrectly
Adulation of other selves when the wrong task has been performed correctly
Obvious greed for the wrong things (cars, status among the wrong people, “bling”)
7. Here are the rules when attempting to gain victory over other selves:
A. Winning at athletic contests can show the superiority of the self that denies the self (but doesn’t admit it)
B. Cheating is wrong because it skews the game, thus defeating the illusion of the level playing field. How can we determine which self is better if we haven’t deluded ourselves into thinking that we have triumphed over another self in a fair set of circumstances?
C. Hard work represents a self more able to deny the wants of the self. Pope Jordan the Ascetic.
D. In work matters, the self that can deny some of the wants of the self (rest, gluttony for the wrong things, comfort) and can nurture other wants of the self (the unspoken enjoyment of adulation, greed for money or status, appearance of a lack of the self) will get almost none of what the self wants, but more than the self that doesn’t.
E. Terminology is the coin of the realm. Terminology is a tiki mask of legitimacy. It is the short cut to proof that one is the self that can deny the self. If I understand these absurd terms, I must have spent hour upon hour of self-denial in learning these hollow metaphors that make very little sense. My commitment to irrational details shows how willing I am to obliterate the self for “greatness”. The more the metaphor rings hollow, the greater the proof of the self that has given up more immediate opportunities for gratification in order to learn them. The sheer absurdity of the basketball cliché has a normative function.
F. Emotional and physical discomfort are goals to be aspired towards. The more we pretend we are experiencing them, the more we will be ready when they show up. A champion is one who has vowed to spend his or her entire life mired in this sort of discomfort so that when the moment of real discomfort arises, they will have a lifetime of awful experience to draw on…and then they can put the round ball in the round hole one or two more times than the self in another uniform who hasn’t put him or herself through as much pain.
G. Creativity is something that is both an expectation and a curse. One is expected to think thoughts that fit into a neat box, but in a slightly different way than the other selves. When a self creates something that doesn’t fit in that box and loves it enough to share it with others, the self will be ridiculed or snickered at for the heinous crime of self-indulgence.
8. The self that denies the self (and claims not to) feigns praise for the creator but really respects and admires the editor, the salesman and the promoter. Creativity requires a complete exposure of the unfettered self. The self that denies the self (and claims not to) is appalled by pure creativity because it is a reminder of the dull rituals it is shackled to in the hopes of further denying the self.
9. “Deny! Deny! Deny!” -a coach stressing the importance of defense.
10. If the self that denies the self (and claims not to) conquers other selves, it feels a momentary sense of relief and the joy of not being conquered and being exposed as a self that doesn’t deny itself. This is followed by a horrific realization of the more than 6 billion predatory selves that may be lying in wait; hunting for the same moment of relief and joy.
11. How does the conquering self know the difference between itself and the conquered self? The self needs an Arbiter in order to know it’s worth. Without the Arbiter, the self cannot tell the difference between Pyrrhic victory and a miserable defeat. So, an Arbiter is created. The Arbiter (a scoreboard, an official) is declared real in our minds (except for most of the time). We often declare the Arbiter wrong (the refs hosed us, the final score doesn’t reflect how the game went, etc.). Who even knows who conquered whom?
12. Many of us long for a time (long ago) when “the rules meant something” and could give us a longer period of relief when we conquered the other selves. We think that this time existed and that somewhere along the line the losers rose up through the sleight of hand of a group of morally relative sycophants who took our comfort in winning away. We no longer even feel like we can enjoy the illusion we have created.
13. The odd thing about this belief is that I’m not sure that this magical time of the primacy of rules ever really existed. Maybe all there ever was were a group of selves pointing backwards trying to find new a clever ways to conquer other selves.
14. Consume in the name of the past, in the name of progress, in the name of protection, in the name of peace, in the name of whatever allows us to remember to forget or forget to remember what we are.
15. “Why do we think of offense and defense as different things?” Great point, coach! Better than you even know.