Basketball changed my life. (Part I: my experience)
I went to a basketball camp in 6th grade-ish. I don't remember anything except that I went because my friend was going, I had never played before, and I was repeatedly embarrassed by not being strong enough to get the ball to the rim from the free throw line. I'd only played soccer up to that point; my arms didn't have what it takes. The next year I joined the basketball team, again because of a friend (no, a NEW one!). I was the last player on the bench. I didn't get much better over the course of the year, either. I barely played and only scored 10 points in the season, but it awakened something in me. For the first time in my life, I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be good at basketball.
I don't need to go into the details, but basketball dominated my life for the next five years. Looking back now, it was an unhealthy obsession. And, oddly enough, it was all mine. My parents supported me whole-heartedly (my dad bought me a hoop and paved part of our gravel driveway, paid for summer camps, etc), but it was almost as if I were possessed. My family didn't follow sports at all, and for several years it wasn't uncommon for me to have to explain the basic rules of the game. Yet, they took me to practices, helped drive the team to our games, and were proud of my successes. I can't imagine how that feels as a parent. Your kid just takes off in a direction you've never prompted? Is entirely self-motivated by something you don't fully understand?
When my high school playing "career" ended, it nearly broke me. I had nothing to guide me. In the previous five years, I had never looked beyond that last game. I wasn't ready. I had a few college opportunities, but as I evaluated my options and slowly accepted it didn't make sense for me to chase a college roster spot out of desperation, I faced depression. What had I spent the bulk of my teenage life thinking, dreaming about? How many hours had I spent with only an inflated rubber sphere for company? To what end had I practiced daily? The crazy part is I was playing for a small Christian school. We weren't competing for a state title. We were struggling to compete against other small private schools. Yet, it was all I thought about. That was a good lesson for me, looking back: it doesn't matter how much you should care, or how much others think you should care. It only matters how much you do care, in that moment. There's not necessarily a rational connection between your emotions and what is at stake. It's easy for an outsider, or even current me, to look back and say "why was winning the HCC basketball championship the most important goal in your life" but ultimately the "why" doesn't change anything. I had never wanted anything more; I knew nothing else.
Now, I recognize that I would be a far lesser person without that experience (and I'm also thankful I wasn't a scholarship athlete in college). Basketball, and sports as a whole, introduced me to the world. I was about the shyest kid you could imagine. Homeschooled, quiet, with a handful of friends from church or other homeschooled families, mainly both. I played for the community soccer league but I was a complete outsider. My teammates went to school together and played club together. I showed up to practice, hardly said a word, and went home, no less silently. The hospital my dad worked for once made a documentary about our family (he's an ER doc), and when the video team was trying to interview us individually, and I would not say a word to them. My older sister spoke for me a majority of my childhood.
Then, basketball. I was getting better. Sophomore year I was a co-captain, along w/ my friend David (the reason I had joined in 7th grade) and a star senior point guard, Caleb. I had never wanted to be a leader, I just wanted to be good. You can't really separate the two in a team sport, though, especially in a small environment where skill is hard to come by. Being good meant being a leader.
Like most kids who fall in love with basketball, I loved to score. The higher the level of difficulty, the better. Early on, basketball was mainly about the obvious glory, points, and maybe steals. It wasn't until I became a skilled player, and was looked to as a leader, that I started to understand the rest of the game. The responsibility of leadership forced me to recognize the importance of the little things. Boxing out. Communication. Ultimately, what I wanted to do was win, and I had to find the best way to do that. When we lost, I blamed myself. It was not uncommon for me to cry in the locker room after a loss, feeling the weight of the final outcome on my shoulders. By my senior year, I had reached a point where I took more joy from managing a game than I did from making a difficult basket. I still took most of the shots, but if we had a better strategy, I was willing to employ it.
So, basketball not only turned me into a leader, it turned me into an competitor. I loved to compete and played every sport our school offered, meaning I ended up a relatively well-rounded athlete, even though I specialized as much as I could in basketball. This gave me practice applying diverse strategies across many sports, and starting to think more like a coach. It also meant I was a captain essentially year-round, giving me plenty of time to learn how to lead (and also inflate my ego to nearly irreparable levels).
Being a go-to player develops a certain mindset, and I didn't resist it. I thought I was hot stuff for a while. Part of me recognizes a significant part of my adult life has been spent recovering from the hubris I succumbed to as a big fish in a minuscule pond. It does weird things to your head, being worshipped. Ask Alexander the Great, or Matt Munsil. Basil Inman. Or literally any 21st century celebrity. That being said, I'm convinced having a healthy amount of confidence is about the hardest thing for an individual to attain, and a tightrope that requires constant focus. If your choices are being insecure or prideful, I'd rather have to talk myself down than talk myself up. Now that I'm rationally detached from the person I was in high school, we've arrived at a mutual understanding of sorts (me and myself). Last Christmas I dug up a few old HS tapes, and honestly, they were tough to watch. Current-coach me is not a fan of high-school-player me. But, I did the best I could with what I knew at the time, so. What can you do.
All that I set out to say is that I can look back at that experience as a whole and I'm awestruck by the impact it has had on my life. The good outweighs the bad, and it's not even close. How many of our current high school athletes will be able to do the same? How many kids that I've coached will be able to look back at their playing experience and identify watershed moments that helped define the person they've become? Sports reveal character, and allow you to build on it. Competition is a test, and there is no substitute.
Sports are part of education. (Part II: maybe a kinda-sorta rant)
You know the part in The Fault in Our Stars when ex-basketball star Augustus Waters somewhat bitterly points out the absurdity of practicing throwing a sphere through a circle? John Green is basically throwing a bone to everyone who doesn't "get" sports. "Haha," they think, "he's right, sports are pointless." The joke is on them, though, because Green doesn't mean it; he thinks that version of Augustus is wrong about basketball. Have you seen Green's sports Twitter account? He's a rabid sports fan. Augustus is only at second-level thought, in that particular instance. If you love a sport, at first you just play, or watch (level one). Then, at some point, hopefully, you question it (level two). Questioning things is easy. Teenagers specifically and Millennials in general are prone to mistake skepticism for intelligence. I could take anything you do in a given day and point out the absurdity of it all. You can do it for what you learn in any class in school. The point where you come back around and recognize the deeper, perhaps even universal and eternal value to our particular actions is when you start to transcend absurdity (level three). I've gone through the same perspectives Augustus had towards basketball, but I managed to come back around on a higher level. That's a big reason why I'm not an advocate for any particular sport, but rather try to promote physical activity and competition of any kind. To me, the value of basketball is ultimately not in the specific rules and regulations of the sport, but simply the fact it is a physical challenge with benefits across the entire spectrum of life, long-term.
This is what bothered me about Scottsdale Prep's approach to athletics. It felt like the people in charge were settling for Augustus' perspective: "For some reason kids enjoy running in circles on a track and it doesn't make sense but they'll definitely be mad if we don't have a track team so well I guess we should have a track team." I'm exaggerating, but it felt like lip-service at times. It felt like our administration knew they had to say certain things about sports, but ultimately they didn't get it, or worse, didn't care. The best way to summarize it is that the athletic department was swimming against the current: we had to fight for everything we got. It's not just important to say athletics are important, they are important in and of themselves. I've written before about the false dichotomy between being an athlete and being a scholar. Because we tend to stereotype and generalize, few athletes become teachers and few teachers respect athletes. This is true everywhere, not just Great Hearts, yet I believe that a general apathy from school faculty toward athletics can be overcome by a proper outlook from the top; the administrative vision is vital in bridging the gap. And I'm not suggesting that every school administrator have a significant background in sports, but merely that, if they don't, they should understand that they need to allow people who do, like the Athletic Director, have a significant role in policy forming. At least recognize there is something you don't fully understand, and trust someone who does, rather than acting like there is nothing to understand.
P.S. the solution to the Great Hearts athletics "problem" is not to merge schools. It's to give anything more than the minimum level of attention and commitment to athletics. The problem is the opposite they pretend it to be. They are acting like it's their students who aren't capable of competing, but it's them who are placing their student-athletes in a position to fail. If you scare away quality athletes by 1) revealing your apathy (it's obvious to those who know what to look for) and 2) pretending like the curriculum is harder than it is because you want to build your "brand", and then 3) you don't provide basic necessities like FIELDS or decent pay to attract quality coaches for the students who do choose to stay, all while frantically spending $$$ opening as many new schools as you can across the country, guess what, your sports programs aren't gonna be great and you're not fooling anyone. Well, you're not fooling me.
Unfortunately, since classical education and Great Hearts draw academic types like a moth to a conflagration, even less of them know what it means to compete: to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield — on the field. You cannot understand something you have not experienced, and too many school faculty have not experienced the glory of sport. No sympathy was shown for those committed to extracurricular endeavors. Teachers often treated early dismissal as a personal affront. Athletes who missed their class were targets. Sure, we can agree that it's not an ideal situation to miss school for sports, but that's our reality. The presumption that what you had to say in sixth period Tuesday was unquestionably more valuable than the experience of competing, of striving for greatness, of being part of a team? I just wanted to scream. It's not just a GAME. This isn't RECESS. This is war and peace, this is life and death, this is bigger than you; this has every opportunity to be as life-changing as discussing the rage of Achilles in Book 1 of the Iliad in Humane Letters.
I should not feel obligated to qualify anything, but I do. I totally get both sides, I really do. I've been both a high school athlete and a high school teacher. They are both wrong, to some degree. It's true high school athletes would nearly always choose playing a sport over attending class, and rarely have long-run awareness of the value of what they are doing — not in the way I'm describing, at least. And it's true that it's tough on teachers to have students miss material. But, really, is it that hard to see the other side's perspective? It is that hard for teachers to recognize that their students have slaved and sweated and cried and given everything they have for their school? For their teammates? Their colors? Instead, sports are commonly treated as a diversion. A distraction from what truly matters, whether that's learning Latin or reading Dostoevsky or singing in the choir. If you've never played a sport, what do you think happens at practice? Do you imagine it to be relaxing? Refreshing? Not in my experience. Practice is work, whether or not you enjoy it. And no I'm not saying athletes should have less homework or anything like that. Just don't act like what students do outside of school hours isn't difficult and important and rewarding, too.
To elaborate, there are plenty of extracurriculars and hobbies students do that are beneficial to them, and should be treated with respect. What I'm pointing out is the tendency for adults and teachers to dismiss anything they don't value personally. Because of my focus on community, my own bias is towards school-sponsored activities, and anything done within community. So, yes, given the choice I'd promote participation in a school group over an outside solo project. I think sports get a bad rap for many reasons, and admittedly some of those are because of the kids themselves.
No, if you grabbed a student-athlete who was boarding a bus for an away game and asked him what he was gaining from this, he would probably say something about being willing to do anything to get out of class. Girls say the same thing, of course. I'm not faulting teachers for knowing that is the answer to their question, I'm faulting them for believing it. When you're an athlete, every game, every play, is an opportunity to learn something about yourself, an opportunity to pursue excellence, a chance to change your stars. That's a fact, whether or not the athletes are capable of communicating it at the time.
It's hard to sit by and watch a school say they're committed to athletics while simultaneously handicapping every team's potential. How do you tell your bosses they don't understand? You don't; you leave, frustrated.
What is Physical Education for? (Part III: my attempt to justify PE classically)
Is it so students have an energy outlet and can be calmer for their real classes? Is it to burn calories the students would otherwise collect to their detriment? It is to learn rules of sports many students have no interest in? Is it to smear the queers? Note to self, don't put that last one in the syllabus.
What is the goal of physical education, really.
This is what I need to be able to explain to middle schoolers. Not that they're looking for an explanation. But still. They should be.
I think we've lost sight of the physical aspect of being human. When I saw "we", I think I mean academics. Teachers. When we ask what it means to be human, how often do we mention being physically active? Competing? Courage, maybe? Too rarely, I think. And too often, we associate intellectuals with overweight bearded fellows with thick glasses scribbling unintelligibly on a whiteboard. Are those the people living Socrates' idea of the examined life? I've never thought so. At Hillsdale, I always had immense respect for the professors who were physically active. There were some I played basketball with occasionally, others I saw in the racquetball court at the gym, and of course plenty who told stories about bicycling or cross country skiing, etc., over the weekend. One of my econ profs was an ultra-marathoner, appropriately named Dr. Steele. That, I thought, is the good life. A balance. Mind and body.
So why doesn't anyone else think this way? What's wrong with us?
We've taken specialization too far. We're surprised to see professional athletes reading books (Shane Battier, anyone?), and the idea of a NFL player retiring in his prime to pursue a Ph.D is beyond comprehension. We are shocked if a high school teacher can make a 3-pointer (Kirsten Byers?). We settle.
The Greeks are at the foundation of the Western Tradition. They have some of the greatest thinkers in history to their credit, and their society also produced the Olympics. Homer's Odyssey was a mix: an epic poem advancing through physical action.
Plato, the Greek philosopher, talked about something called "thumos". Ever heard of it? There's no word that directly translates to English, which supports my overall point, methinks. It means something like "passion to defend what you love", or "spiritedness". It's usually used in context with soldiers and war, which in the ancient world meant hand-to-hand combat. We don't do that much anymore. In some ways, I think Ray Lewis might have been the male embodiment of "thumos" for the early 21st century. Or maybe the entire New Zealand All Blacks team.
I'm not saying those guys are role models, necessarily. But isn't thumos undervalued? Where do we even have an opportunity to display "thumos" anymore? When a guy makes a move on your girlfriend, do you punch him? No, that's too macho. Outdated. Or maybe she's not worth it? I tend to be pretty old school in those matters.
So, the sporting arena is one of the few places left where "thumos" is valued and appreciated. Fact is, many of our greatest competitors are only great because of their capacity for "thumos". Muhammad Ali ("I am the greatest"). Ricky Henderson ("I am the greatest of all time"). Or, more recently, Richard Sherman or The Mountain (I AM THE FUTURE OF STRENGTH).
The Richard Sherman interview after the Super Bowl is a great example. It's one of the rare times we didn't let the professional athlete come down from the mental high he generated in order to make a great play. And in the aftermath, we revealed our hypocrisy. We want the performance, but not the backstory. In order to compete at a high level, you must have thumos. But if you verbalize your mentality, you are rejected by society. I'd be willing to bet Sherman understands this. Many professional athletes do, but few are willing to run the gauntlet. Society yearns for greatness, even just to witness it (why else do so many people watch sports?), but if you presume to think you're better than someone else, there's something wrong with you. On the field as a competitor, Peyton Manning thinks more like Richard Sherman than he will ever show you. He has to. He expects to complete a pass every time he drops back. But Peyton's never going to say it, because he knows how humans work.
Thumos is morally ambiguous. Having it isn't necessarily good or bad. We should be able to agree, however, that thumos can be misdirected and unbalanced. An excess of misguided thumos is why we get high school linebackers trying to choke out school nurses. (At the beginning of this school year we went through a training session where the nurse claimed three different football players had attempted to choke her over the past 10 years. Because they were mad at their teachers.) And of course there's the obvious connection to the domestic violence issue in the NFL.
The character closest associated with thumos might be Achilles. He was a hero in Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. If Achilles were alive today, I don't know that we'd call him a hero. It's more likely we'd call him an asshole. He's reckless and arrogant. When he kills Hector, the greatest warrior of Troy, he shows no respect for his defeated opponent. He can't turn it off.
The man I named as the modern embodiment of thumos, Ray Lewis, may have murdered someone. That's not good.
So can thumos be good? Well, it leads us to greatness, doesn't it? Excellence? There's an obvious relationship between excellence and Truth, Beauty, Goodness. And no one can deny that thumos is distinctly human. Nothing else in nature demonstrates the quality.
Where am I going with this. Thumos used to be part of the human experience. It's more rare now, and nearly exclusively combined to athletic competition. Like anything else, it needs to be moderated, but we can't ignore it completely or pretend we've moved past it.
At risk of turning this into a thesis, I want to briefly say that thumos is a valuable trait for females to possess as well. There are fewer obvious examples in pop culture, but I can name any number of girls I've coached who demonstrate the quality. Girls who won't back down from anyone, who expect to beat the best their opponent has to offer (even if their opponent is their own body), and actively use this mindset to pursue greatness. In fact, it may be more natural for girls to moderate thumos, which we why we have fewer examples like Ray Lewis on the female side.
So, without drawing any particularly controversial conclusions, I'd like to suggest that sports provide us a unique opportunity to tap into our humanity.
Now, the flip side. While thumos is great for developing confidence, self-reliance, and a desire to be challenged and prevail, it's primarily an individual thing. The beauty of sport is that it also the best place to learn teamwork, trust, and sacrifice. When teaching Economics, I frequently highlight the choice between cooperation and every-man-for-himself. Playing a team sport can be one of the earliest opportunities to break out of the seemingly default perspective that the world exists for you. The first time you realize the team comes before everything else, your perspective is altered forever. It's not about you, it's about something bigger than you. Sometimes that takes the form of a team, and I have often starting seeing kids start to understand that on the field.
I know I've already said more than you care to read, but here's a few more things in passing. Discipline & time-management. Self-control. Mental toughness. Shared experiences and memories. I don't think I need to carry out the arguments for those benefits of playing sports and being on a team, they are relatively self-explanatory. And finally..
Games teach us about justice. Often our earliest experiences with unjustice involve someone breaking a rule on the playground, or cheating at Monopoly, even. If you're an 6th-grader and the high schoolers keep making rules to their advantage on the four square court, you know it's wrong. That is an introduction of sorts to natural law as well as the importance of the rules we live by. In Book VII of Plato's Laws he points out that "the character of the games played [in any given city] is decisive for the establishment of the laws"... The games we play say a lot about us individually, but also as cities and nations.
Again, to clarify, I love the liberal arts. I love reading, I love learning, and I'm seriously considering pursuing a PhD and someday leading a school. You can't get much more academic than that. I had a educational "conversion experience" in college, and attending Hillsdale College is possibly the only decision more influential in my life than playing basketball in 7th grade. But I'm passionate about both (all) sides of the equation. If I were living in a community where academics are subverted and athletics are highlighted, I would be writing from the opposite perspective. As it is now, I cannot ignore I am the product of sport; basketball changed my life.
Should We Teach Plato In Gym Class?
"On the Seriousness of Sports" by James V. Schall
Nightcap convos with John Peterson
Mission statements by Founders Admin