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
Last year, I wrote a post about the importance of resolving contradictions in the sport of basketball. It was triggered by a conversation I had with another coach about the difficulty of helping stop a attacking dribbler and recovering to a shooter in the corner.
At the time, I wrote, "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."
Recently, the same coach and I were talking about a problem he had with a project he was working on. He told me that he had worked hard to come up with a practical solution that ensured the project would go forward and was justifiably happy with his efforts. At the time, I was working on a writing a post about the importance of talking on defense and had used some of the ideas from the previous year's post on how to deal with on-court contradictions. It dawned on me, that my friend was dealing with the same concepts in a real life setting, and that in turn, triggered the sudden realization that life on this planet is about nothing but dealing with such contradictions, many small and inconsequential, but others larger and very impactful.
I reached this conclusion after reading a book about DNA titled "The Divine Code of Life" written by a Nobel Prize winning Japanese scientist named Dr. Kazuo Murakami. The author argues that our genes are hardwired for us be the best that we can possibly be. The way I figure, if our genetic make-up is wired for us to be the best, then, that is probably what we are supposed to be doing. Murakami also argued that such things as enthusiasm, curiosity and positive thinking can change our genetic make-up for the better. One insightful reviewer wrote that the book offers, "a devastating argument against genetic determinism and the idea that one's identity is written in the genome. It captures the majestic and spiritual dimension of the universe without being too religious."
The book points out the mostly hidden connection between what the spiritual teachings of the ancients actually said and modern science. Some support for this belief comes from no less an expert than Jesus Christ and his Parable of the Talents, in which the master of a house goes on a trip and hands out 100 talents of gold to each of three servants. Upon his return, the master only gives his blessing to the one servant who returned 100% profit on the money he was given by the master to invest. A fifty percent return from one of his servants did not cut it and the servant was admonished and dismissed. The parable clearly states that a 50% effort is not good enough. It occurred to me that a lot of the ancient spiritual teachings were about this same idea, and actually were used to explain scientifically provable concepts way before the invention of science and its terminology.
While searching on-line for a printable copy of a fictional plot-line in order to have my reading class label the terminology, what showed up on the page was a fictional plot-line, a plot-line of a hero-quest, and another plot-line for the psychological concept of individuation where an individual maps his/her progress toward psychic wholeness. It only took a second to realize that they were all dealing with the same idea. This suggests that the ancients used the mythic stories (hero quests) to teach a metaphorical message about how people were supposed to live their lives. The hero/heroine is called to go on a journey, fight monsters and overcome obstacles, and return to the community stronger, more confident and powerful than before he/she left.
I believe, the fictional narrative, invented a little over 500 years ago, was created and used to pass down the same message as the hero quests. In the Middle Ages, the Church had become totally obsessed with eradicating any and all mythological roots of Christianity. At the time, you could be tortured and burned for merely pointing obvious truths contained in the Scriptures.
I believe the narrative plot line used in fiction serves the same purpose that the ancients used hero quests to convey, which is that people are supposed to learn to overcome obstacles and slay their psychological monsters in order to become the best version of themselves. Which also happens to be the same message that the Dr. Murakami argues for in his fascinating book. The protagonist is usually a normal person who has issues and dissatisfaction with his/her current state. It's this dissatisfaction that propels the story forward where it is intensified by the addition of obstacles (life contradictions). In books and movies, the final obstacle is usually constructed so it appears the the hero/heroine will not be able to overcome it because of their character flaws. The climax (highest point of interest) of the story deals with the actual inner transformation of the main character into a stronger, emotionally healthier individual who becomes, upon return, a much better asset to the community as a whole. In other words, the hero achieves psychic wholeness by overcoming a final test or contradiction only after obtaining the necessary inner transformation, or a rebirth.
In modern life the concept has been increasingly complicated by the advent of mass communication, and the Church has been replaced by those who control the mass media. In the fifties, an anthropologist by the name of Gregory Bateson while researching the causes of schizophrenia, advocated the use of extreme contradictions to control populations. It was called the Double Bind Theory, "Bateson’s research focused on double-bind theory as a brainwashing and propaganda technique. A double bind is an emotionally distressing dilemma in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages, and one message negates the other. This creates a situation in which a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other (and vice versa), so that the person will automatically be wrong regardless of response. The double bind occurs when the person cannot confront the inherent dilemma, and, therefore, can neither resolve it nor opt out of the situation." In other words reaching an apparent dead end causes psychic paralysis. This might explain why our media only tells two conflicting sides of the story and many modern issues never seem to get resolved.
This also explains the insane efforts to commodify everything about sports. In their infancy, athletics were always a form of the hero-quest, where the participants sacrificed time and effort in to prove they were not ordinary, or profane but special. Now, professional sport is all about the branding and the money. It's hard to escape the realization that most fans nowadays watch a lot more commercials than they do actual sports; even the rights to name home runs and extra-points are being sold. Sports are also currently being used to serve the narrative message of the state. Even amateur sports, once a bastion of the mythic experience, are currently being destroyed by the quest to make a profit from commodifying everything involved in human existence.
Sport itself is one of the most important vehicles we still possess to teach the importance of resolving contradictions in order to achieve personal positive transformation. Modern politicians want to resolve our contradictions for us in order to buy our votes, and also to steal the power for transformation that resolving our own issues offers us. In the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, wrote about the importance being able to achieve the flow state which enables one to find true and positive meaning out of his/her efforts to become the best that they can be. It involves sacrifice and not mindless hedonism as our culture seems to suggest. The author says that a study he conducted revealed that the two most important factors in achieving such a state were doing the right things for the right reasons. True hero quests were never about the acquisition of wealth or getting a pair of tennis shoes named after you.
That day after practice, I admonished the team by telling them that I didn't think they boxed-out on 10% of the rebound opportunities presented. Driving home, I realized that this has been the case in my entire career. In the thirty-five plus years I've coached, my players have always resisted the need to box-out as a team discipline. This time a lightbulb went off. Most kids I've coached have been very coachable, and this is also the case for the girls we have now. It finally dawned on me that there has to be a deeper issue involved, maybe something similar to the double-bind theory, that they just can't figure out how to resolve the issue, or some psychological issue (Say something like the inability to leave a comfort zone, or fear of failure) stops them.
In literature, the climactic moment where the hero/heroine transforms is often accompanied by a lot of noise and action, gun shots, squealing tires, car crashes, thunder, lightning, etc. I used to teach my classes that the noise and commotion associated with the transformative process is meant to signify the tremendous release of psychic energy involved in such a transformation. However, I now believe it alludes to the destruction of the former self necessary to bring about the rebirth of the newer version. I also believe that the real message is that everyone on this planet will eventually be led to that final confrontation with their own version of the monster that guards the gold, or the ultimate contradiction they need to resolve.
It is not enough to keep cajoling or screaming at our our athletes and students about the need to do right things. We must also teach them about the necessity of overcoming contradictions, teach them how to overcome extreme frustration and anxiety, teach them how to face down demons and keep making decisions that might not be perfect but represent the best that they can do with what they have, and also teach them about the need to keep moving forward and never settling for trying to give back only 25% or even 50% as long as perfection is out there. And when they insist that they have reached a limit and can't perform what's needed, we must teach them how to understand how to slay the monster within that keeps telling them no.
In sports, we need to fight back against the idea that amateurism is a bad and out-dated idea. We need to make our colleges go back to the days when they were about teaching and the free exchange of ideas and not about creating super conferences and allowing more commercial time outs that interrupt the flow of the contests. We also need to take the ridiculous amounts of money out of professional sports and put it to a better use. Most importantly, we need teach our kids the importance of always trying to be the best that they can be and the role that learning to solve your own problems plays in that effort.