Posts Tagged coaching

Herded Through The Grapevine

Colin Cowherd

There is an oft-quoted line popularized by Mark Twain that says, “There are lies, damned lies and then there are statistics.”  Twain clearly hadn’t listened to much sports talk radio. If he had, he would have said, “there are lies, damned lies, statistics and then there are sports talk show hosts with statistics.”  The truth of this quote became apparent to me, as it often does, while listening to the Colin Cowherd radio show the other day.

In fairness to Cowherd (which could only be his real name in a truly cruel universe), he does a very entertaining show.  He is engaging and often makes me want to argue with him, which seems to be the point of most sports talk radio shows.  Louisville Coach Rick Pitino once referred to sports talk radio as “the fellowship of the miserable”, which would apply to much of what I’ve heard, but not to Cowherd’s show which is quite upbeat and enjoyable if you can ignore the nearly endless stream of commercials for hair growth products and lite beer.  That being said, Cowherd is the best I’ve heard at taking a statistic and making it mean a whole bunch of things that it doesn’t.  If it weren’t for sports radio I am convinced he would be making millions of dollars a year convincing people that 9 out of 10 dentists prefer Aquafresh.  The ability to take numeric information and blow its significance way out of proportion to the point of near absurdity is a skill that those who are successful  in the business have mastered.

Cowherd can make a number dance like few I’ve ever heard.  In support of some ludicrous theory that a recently lobotomized six year old couldn’t have been conned into, I once heard the man say “if you believe that I’m right 98 percent of the time, which I am, I must be right about this as well.”  Basically, what he’s saying is that if you have been duped into believing the rest of the nonsense that comes out of my mouth, don’t you think you should believe this too?  What strikes me about this quote is how the number really makes the argument seem plausible.  Last time I checked, there was no agency that gives scores to sports talk radio hosts based on the veracity of their ravings.  He clearly was making a hyperbolic point about his acumen as an “understander of all things sports related.”  I caught myself thinking, after the sixth or seventh time I heard him say this, “well…he is right 98 percent of the time.  Maybe this isn’t so far-fetched.”  Take a fake number, repeat it over and over to justify an absurd claim and watch the magic happen.

Where Cowherd is really at his best is when he has a real number to mess around with.  The other day I listened to him take one statistic and turn it into an hour of wild speculation, conjecture and rage.  Sports radio at it’s finest.  He started the madness by giving a statistic that was tangentially related to Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers who seems destined to one-day share a prison cell with Art Schlichter.  The stat showed that the Steelers record gradually improved during each month of the season when Roethlisberger was playing and not on suspension, awaiting arraignment or injured.  During the first month of the season, the Steelers won half of their games and lost half, by December the Steelers significantly better than average (or .500 as is the accepted term among sports junkies).  Cowherd had the audience call in and guess what this meant.  By the second caller, Cowherd had found the answer he was looking for.  It was obvious that this stat proved, beyond all doubt, that Roethlisberger did not prepare enough in the off-season.  He went on to back his point up by referring to the fact that he had gotten into several scrapes with the law while he was away from his team.  I marveled at the simple beauty of this argument.  Point A:  The Steelers have gotten better in terms of wins and losses as the season has gone on over the last few years  Point B:  Roethlisberger has gotten in trouble with the law during the off-season.  Therefore, Roethlisberger is unprepared when the season begins.

There are an almost limitless supply of problems with this argument.  Quarterback production is only one in a series of thousands of things that affect a football game.  Maybe they had other significant injuries.  Maybe they played a more challenging schedule in September.  Maybe they are better in cold weather.  Using one of the more ridiculous clichés in sports, maybe they are more of a “clutch” team.  Maybe they are affected adversely by the position of the moon as it relates to Saturn during a certain period of the season.  Maybe they are lucky.  Who knows?   If anyone believes quarterback play always correlates with victory or defeat I could point you to any number of examples, including Roethlisberger’s nightmarish Super Bowl XL victory performance to prove the opposite.

Another problem with the argument is that he doesn’t bother to explain what being “prepared” means.  Is he implying that he doesn’t work out enough in the off-season?  If so, I would argue that he would be more adversely affected at the end of a rigorous, punishing football season than at the beginning.  As a basketball coach, I don’t do conditioning work with my players so they will be fast in the first two minutes of our opener, I do it so that they will be physically able to handle the long, tiring effects of a season.  I’m quite sure a good number of coaches and players think this way as well.  Maybe he meant Roethlisberger is not mentally prepared.  Does that mean he doesn’t watch enough game film?  Does it mean he doesn’t meet with his receivers after practice?  Does it mean he doesn’t spend extra time in meetings with coaches? Or is Cowherd, as I suspect, simply throwing out a buzzword at an easy target to try to work his audience into a lather? He never defines it or uses anything beyond this one, lonely stat to prove his point so how can I assume anything but the final option.

The worst criticism I could ever throw at sports radio is that it should be immune to this sort of critique because it’s just a mindless time waster meant to get people riled up for no purpose other than selling people things they don’t need.   That might in fact be true, but many people who enjoy sports spend a lot of time with it.  There should be some expectation of something beyond “getting the audience worked up” even in the things that we accept as entertainment. As an audience member, I appreciate being treated as a thinking human being who is interested in seeing how statistics relate to reality and not as a rage-filled 35-51 year old male who will consume more products if made angry.

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Robitussin Turns Me Into a Vengeful Idiot and Other Unpleasant 3 AM Realities

A Pretty Accurate Representation of My Mood on Sunday Night/Monday Morning (borrowed from popartmachine.com)

I ain’t feelin’ no sweet mystery of life nonsense this evening.  I have a miserable cold.  My throat hurts, I’m tired and I feel like I fought a 50-foot killer sea urchin all day.  I have nothing to add to your life but complaints; I am going to blog anyway. Being sick is awful.

The other night I tried to get rid of this thing by sucking down some Robitussin.  How on earth the FDA approved this substance is beyond me.  The stuff never makes me feel better, but it does always fill me with angst and white-hot rage.  I took the recommended dosage and went to bed.  Immediately I fell into hours of hellish dreaming.  I had one dream where everything was normal except everyone I saw had tremendous goiters protruding from their necks.  Just an average Saturday, I went to the supermarket….goiters everywhere…..I went to the bank….GOITERS….I got home….GOITERS on everyone. Nobody noticed except me.  It was basically what would have happened if Ken Kesey wrote a Twilight Zone episode.  You have been transported to a strange land where everything is the same, except everyone has goiters.

I woke up from that one sweating.  It was 2:58 in the morning and I was staring at the ceiling.  Being a basketball coach, I am familiar with this drill.  Usually I lay there muttering to myself about how I should have gone to a 1-3-1 zone in the second half of a game from 5 years ago.  This evening was different.  I kept thinking about orange juice.  For some reason, the idea of oranges being squeezed and put in bottles was making me insanely angry.  Why do they do it?  Who came up with the idea? Usually, I can distance myself from this sort of thing and laugh a bit, but I was full on committed to the grave injustice that was orange juice.  Then, I started thinking about raisins.  Ridiculous little things!  Absurd!

I bolted upright in bed.  My wife is familiar with these sorts of moments and has learned to not engage me at 3 AM.  Nothing I say makes any sense at that time, but with a head full of Robitussin I was bound to start yelling at her because she didn’t know the two Senators from the state of Nebraska.  I started pacing around the room looking for something to read.  I found the most boring thing I could lay my hands; a nightmarish volume I found in the quarter bin years back on how the commodities market works.  The plan was to bore the demons out of my body.  The next thing I know I am sitting out in my car waiting for the thing to heat up with the first Suffocation album, a wonderful piece of music known as “Effigy of the Forgotten”, blaring as loud as my blown out Saturn speakers could blast it.  (A side note…I am convinced that there cannot be a more bizarre vision then watching a 35 year old father of two sitting alone in a beat up car at 3 AM on a Monday morning blaring death metal and singing along at the top of his lungs)

Suddenly, I’m in a Dunkin’ Donuts.  The guy behind the counter has that “please don’t hassle me” look that any rational person would have working a nightshift would have when a wild-eyed lunatic walked in with malice in his eyes.

Boston Creme donut,” I mumbled.

“We’re out.”

Wrong answer.  “What do you mean!!!!? How are you out!!!!  What are you talking about?  This is a donut shop, man!”

“We don’t put those out until 4 AM.”

“Really?!?!!?  really?!??!!?  REALLY!!!!!!”

The poor guy was clearly feeling under the counter for the shotgun at that point.

“We have old fashions.”

“No!”

“Bear claws.”

“No!”

“Blueberry”

“NO!  NO!  NO!!!!”

“Sour cream”

“Ehhhhhh.  Give me two.”

I slunked away a defeated man.  I sat there for an hour reading the same three pages on soybean futures over and over not understanding a word.  The book might as well have been upside down.  Every five minutes or so I got up and looked at the section of the rack where Boston Cream donuts were usually kept and there was nothing.  I didn’t even want one anymore, I just felt like there should be some sense of completion, some end to this absurd journey.

I went home.  I lay there for a while longer staring at the ceiling fan.  It got light.  It goes on.

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On Losing

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My basketball team got beat by 31 points last night and I am still alive.  It was a long, cold night, we got the bus back at nearly 10 o’clock and we committed 15 fouls in the first quarter, which must be a record in the state of Georgia.   I have a vague fear that people watching might think that the team is losing because I am a bad coach and I have no clue what I am doing.  I worry that there is something I am missing, some vital piece of information that could allow me to dramatically change our fortunes.  Losing games has the painful side effect of bringing to the surface dormant feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. These are hard things to avoid.

In spite of this, I really don’t feel that bad about the whole thing.  Losing is not something I am proud of, but it is something that I have become less afraid of over the years.  What I am about to say is heretical in the world of coaching and probably will elicit eye rolls from folks who worship at the altar of the “Church of the Winner”, but losing is really not all that bad.  I’ll even go one step further into the nether reaches of coaching apostasy…I had a great time at the game last night and my players did as well!  How is this possible?

A good deal of the culture of sport is built on the mistaken belief that winning actually means something beyond the basic fact that Team A scored more points that Team B.  I have often been told that character wins basketball games.  This is absurd.  If a team has character and scores less points than the other team, they still lose.  You could put together a team of sociopathic axe murderers and put them against a team of people who have run into burning buildings to save the lives of children and if the axe murderers put the ball in the basket more often they are going to win.

I have been told that winning is a product of hard work and determination.  Another patently ridiculous statement.  I have coached players who were extraordinarily committed to every aspect of the game but cannot keep up with disinterested natural athletes.  Working hard may make you a better player but it can only close the gap so much.  Hard work and determination are great character traits to have and will serve one well in life, but once the players step on the court it can only carry you so far. In order to get at the heart of how insane this idea is imagine for a second two basketball teams.  One is a highly talented team who wins many of their games, some by embarrassingly high totals, and another is a minimally talented team who gets beat soundly on a regular basis.

Which team really shows the most determination?  The team that often loses has to deal with the hopelessness and sadness that losing can create.  Sometimes people are angry with them because they have not performed well.  Sometimes they feel embarrassed or ashamed because they lost.  Yet they keep coming back game after game. During the 2007-08 season, the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders men’s basketball team went 0-29.  Can you imagine how much determination they must have shown to keep playing and working hard day after day?

The all time weakest sports cliché is the one where people think winning is a product of discipline.  Bobby Bowden perfectly summed up the problem with this statement when he was asked if discipline was the key to winning. He responded by saying “if it was, Army and Navy would be playing for the National Championship every year.”

Maybe all of these positive attributes can be put together to create a culture of winning. They may help you, but when your team walks out of the tunnel and the other team has a significant advantage “height, speed, natural strength, etc.” there is only so much you can do.  We don’t remember the story of David and Goliath because it is a regular occurrence; we remember it because it is the exception to the rule.

I once heard a football coach asked what he liked most about his star running back.  He replied, “The kid makes me look like I know what I am doing.”  I have stolen that quote and used it repeatedly over the years because I believe that it is instructive in understanding what I actually do for four months of the year.  I try to teach skills and technique, but some players are able to get it and some are not.  The great players often pick things up after a few repetitions and the ones with less ability may spend their entire time in high school working on one skill that another player could pick up in a half hour.  Those with a set of attributes that gear them for success in the game will make them me seem as if I am a brilliant coach, those without the winning attributes will make me appear like I don’t have a clue about how to teach the game.  If winning is the goal and my self worth as a coach is derived from it how on earth can I feel anything but anger towards those who don’t perform well and favor those who are successful?

Last night, while we were driving down to the game the girls on my team had a blast.  They sang along to pop songs on the radio, they told hysterical jokes, wore funny hats and laughed uncontrollably.  We showed up at the gym and were baffled by the bizarre conditions.  The locker room looked vaguely like something out of the Saw films.  The gym had no heat in it and it was a balmy 40 degrees at game time.  We got on the court and the other team scored the first 17 points.  None of the players put their head down and no one was angry.  Our center hit a jump shot to get us on the board and the bench went crazy.  My point guard picked up her third foul in the first quarter because of a bit of ill-advised gambling on my part.  She came over to ask me to keep her in the game and I informed her that she had three fouls. She looked over at me and said “But I get five!”

We laughed about that one the whole bus ride home.  Another girl on the team asked me if she could coach the next game.  I told her she couldn’t and she looked at me without a hint of irony and said, “Coach…let me shine!”  Great line!  We laughed about that for a while, too.

We stopped for gas and snacks and two of the girls bought matching day-glow hats that made them look like a pack of tropical Skittles.  Sitting on the bench with me was a young man who is the assistant coach of the boy’s team. He played for me when he was in high school and he loves the game so much he has decided to try coaching. He is a great person and is  a tremendous coach one day.  I have been lucky enough to get a chance to coach with several athletes that played for me in high school and it is an unbelievably wonderful feeling.

I guess I should have been acting dejected after the game.  Smiling while your team is losing seems like an act of betrayal, but it isn’t.  It is an act of love for the game and your players and an act appreciation and reverence for how much fun a game can be. I have never been one for oft repeated bromides about how winning isn’t what’s important, but I have to wonder what type of person I would be to be surrounded by all that joy and life while sadly brooding about not winning a basketball game.  Think of what I could have missed.

Vince Lombardi once said, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.” Well Vince, I don’t want to teach my players to be good losers, I want them to be the best losers that ever stepped on the court.  I want them to experience elation every time they play basketball.  I want them to look back with an incurable fondness and veneration for every moment of the season.  If I could choose one thing to teach every player who puts on a uniform it’s to love the game without reserve and to play like that everyday.

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Notes and Existential Ramblings from a Basketball Coaching Clinic in Tunica, Mississippi

Coach Churchill and the War on Loserdom

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:

Career gain

Victory over other selves

Destruction of other selves in other uniforms on the path to victory

War

Self-defense

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:

Rest

Comfort

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.

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