Basketball and the Night Watch.
"In formal logic, a contradiction is the signal of defeat, but in the evolution of real knowledge it marks the first step in progress toward a victory."
Alfred North Whitehead
Our season has started, and, in our first game, it became painfully obvious that some of our girls had not fully internalized the basics of our defensive philosophy. This is usually the case year after year
I have come to the belief that, under stress, young players naturally revert to the way that they have always done things in the past. In large part, it is probably because defensive basketball is so full of contradictions. I ran across the quote above in a book I was just starting to read the morning after we had suffered a very painful, three-point loss in the first round of our very first tournament. For most of our kids, it was also their first collegiate game.
Say, for example, take the command to never lose sight of your own player and then add in the second command to never lose sight of the basketball. This is split brain stuff. It leads to contradictory demands. Or, how about being told to defend your player and not let them score while also being told to make yourself available to help defend another person's player if they drive past your teammate toward the basket?
These are contradictions, and, believe me, there are many, many more. And as Lord Whitehead points out, getting caught on the horns of such contradictions can lead to defeat. In basketball, it usually leads to a player shedding one of his/her responsibilities, or worse sometimes freezes them in the middle where they can't perform either task well.
Lord Whitehead goes further though. He says that learning how to resolve such contradictions is where real progress and learning takes place. In collegiate basketball, it is often the difference between what a player learned in high school and what he/she still needs to learn.
Great basketball defense involves learning how to resolve these contradictions as they come at you relentlessly. It is all about learning to be more of an instinctual player. Repetitive drilling is involved, but it is game pressure and the need to make seemingly impossible things happen quickly that can turn good players into great players.
Lord Whitehead was referring to life in general and what he says makes a great deal of sense. Life, like basketball, is made up of endless contradictions and the failure to resolve the real important ones often leads to much more painful consequences than a three point loss in a basketball tournament. The failure to resolve life with knowledge of our own mortality, for example, can lead to madness and a squandering of the time that we do have at our disposal.
It is the lesson of the Great Myth where the narrative of human life on this planet is often told in terms of where we actually are and where we really want to be. Thought of like this, resolving contradictions is the difference between a life well lived and a life not lived to its fullest.
This makes the lesson in basketball not only about the difference in winning a game or two, or thirty; it is great training for life.