Basketball and the Night Watch.
I got up this morning and first thing checked my Facebook feed and saw a post entitled something like "Ten Things You Should Always Remember", and the first thing mentioned was You Can't Change the Past. I thought to myself that this wasn't quite true. I don't remember what I was reading the time, but some months back I came across the idea that you can change the past. I'll get to how in a moment.
I was worried about going to practice today because of the comments that were made after our game last Saturday. We had beaten a legendary coach and program by 18 points, and the coaches should have been happy, but we weren't. We hadn't played particularly well, and that fact had been partially masked by an amazing three-point shooting performance by one of our players, and the fact that we had pressed the tired and short-handed opponent hard in the third quarter and got a lot of steals. In the game however, we made a lot unnecessary turnovers and displayed a lack of understanding of what we were doing with our zone offense.
I felt bad when I left the locker room after criticizing the players because they had worked hard all weekend and we had won by such a large margin. I also felt that it was needed criticism though. The head coach felt like I did too and let it be known that we would have to take some much needed steps in practice to toughen them up a bit before the next tournament. It is never a good feeling to leave your team in such an unsettled state after a hard week-end of tournament play.
I had tried to mitigate things somewhat by letting them know that I've had to criticize a lot of hardworking kids many times before and never felt especially good about doing it. The community where I began my coaching career was located in one of the most economically depressed areas in the country. Our little piece of paradise was known for its social/economic disadvantages (The Tulare-Kings area had overtaken Appalachia in this regard), teen pregnancy rate (we were once #1 in entire USA, and low educational achievement (also in the bottom nationwide).
In this area, vocations like teaching and coaching by necessity have to be regarded as something more than just a job; there is definitely a spiritual aspect to serving the youth in the Central Valley of California. It doesn't mean that every coach or teacher realizes it, but it's always there, just the same.
I explained this to our college kids just like I explained it to my high school teams back in the day. There were several times when I had to fight the urge to tell a bunch of tired and emotionally drained kids they had played well, or the urge to just give them a hug and console them after a tough loss. We had this tradition after every game, win or lose, where we talked first about what we had done wrong and sometimes the list was pretty lengthy and the discussion ran over into the time that we could have been celebrating. We called this exercise "Washing Our Dirty Laundry".
I felt that if I resorted to lying to them, no matter how small the lie, or merely comforting them after a tough loss that nothing would ever change, and it would result only in maintaining the status quo which was just a slower way of losing ground. Yet, noble motives never made it any easier for me or them.
I had inherited a varsity girls team that had gone 30-1 with a section title the year before. I added about four or five underclassmen from a group that had been pretty successful at the junior high school level. For whatever reasons, we didn't mesh real well at first with the only common denominator being the doubt a few of them had about my ability to coach. Things got so bad to where there was practice scheduled where it looked like it was going to be more like an episode of Jerry Springer than a basketball practice. It was my first year as a head coach, and I was already dealing with enough self doubt because of their success the year before. I didn't know what to do.
Right before going to practice, I had a sudden inspiration and showed up at the gym with a couple five gallon buckets of ice cream, some bowls and some spoons. Instead of a Battle Royale we had an ice cream social. They came with their guards up, ready to defend their aggrieved sensibilities, and the ice cream got them to lower their guards and talk. I learned that day that sometimes people just want to be heard. We worked our problems out and went on to win a second section championship, setting a section scoring record in the process.
When I showed up at practice today, Coach had placed a bunch of football pads on the court. He had the girls put them on, and we ran some drills wearing them. The tactic was just odd enough to pique their curiosity and lower their guards reminding me of that practice many years ago when the ice cream had served a similar purpose. It allowed us a chance to talk to them where we got past their defensive mechanisms, and we had a chance to restate and clarify what we had tried to tell them the previous meeting. This time they listened intently, and most importantly, we had a chance to praise them for showing up and facing down their fears of what lay in store when they first entered the gym. It was a great practice. They worked very hard and learned a thing or two about themselves. They are a very talented group of kids, but for some reason we haven't always maximized that talent. I believe we will however.
The night after the last game, Utah State knocked off a 12-1 San Diego State Football in the Mountain West Championship game. The Utah State coach said in the post game interview that he never wanted his team to get too comfortable as it prevented them from making progress. I took that statement as validation that we were on the right track. You see I believe that truth validates itself. I arrived at that idea after reading a book about the Dogon in Africa, a tribe who believes that they have been charged with guarding the cosmological secrets of the universe for thousands of years. They believe that there's a plethora of falsehoods that surround us at all times, and that the way to distinguish truth from all of the lies is that truth self validates. I can't say enough how much I love that notion.
We have lost three tough games against top level competition. Some time in late March, we'll look back on those losses and either we'll regard them as the beginning of our failure to reach our team goals, or as three important stepping stones on our way to reaching the Final Eight in state.
You see, what I learned a few months ago was that you can always change the past by using the present to change the future.