Sunday, August 4, 2013

Are Coaches Necessary? Centralism vs. Democracy in Competitive Sports

As standardized education spreads at a breakneck pace across the nation to anoint a new generation of robotic workers for the digital age, progressives resist with freedom schools and community campaigns against standardized tests and the gutting of public schools and their budgets. To be sure, these fights to restore creativity, critical thinking, the Socratic method of questioning anything and everything, and, in a word, democracy in education, are integral to redefining education in terms of personal growth and learning through experience and debate. Of course, these fights point to the greater irony of America's critiques of East Asian education models being too rigid, fact-based, and formulaic--petty excuses to mask the fact that Asian students (future workers of China, Japan, South Korea, and India) will soon be at the helm of the global economy, and by extension, that Asian capitalism is the new America. All for the purpose to allow American dreamers to continue dreaming sweetly at night.

Like many political revolutionaries, I myself am schooled by Paulo Friere, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). How one is educated is inherently political, he writes, and in a capitalist or colonial society, schools reflect the political agenda of those in power. Students in these societies are likened to a bank in which teachers deposit facts, ideas, and agendas that inhibit creativity and resistance while fostering complacency to an oppressive status quo. Friere flips the script on this traditional banking model of education and advocates for a dialectical education process where students teach teachers and vice versa. As an example, in the context of at-risk youth, it is key for the young to educate the older teachers who likely come from the outside (if not geographically then generationally), for the goal of education is for the youth to empower themselves, control their community, and overcome the system that produces their state of risk in the first place. This can only be done if teachers are willing to be taught and advise as needed, and if students accept the role of empowerment and are willing to learn through experience and struggle. Democracy in the classroom translates to democracy on the streets. Our public schools preach the rhetoric, but deliver authority figures who choke out creativity and breathe in standardization. I'd say it's ironic or hypocritical, but I think the best adjective to describe such contradictions is simply, it's American. In the words of J. Cole, Look at this nation//that's a crooked smile even braces can't straighten.

So if democratizing a classroom and unshackling it from standardization is the ideal, then what of democracy in competitive sports? What if players on a team mutinied against their coach and declared democracy on the floor? Or perhaps more moderately and in direct application of Friere, what if coaching became a mutual process in which athletes also coached the coach?

This summer, I assisted in coaching a high-level AAU boys' basketball squad. At least one player on my team, our center, will be a future D1 college basketball player, and his dominance in games both inside the key and beyond the arc allowed us to compete with talent above our own. Towards the end of the AAU season, immediately after we defeated another high-level AAU team, our head coach (the same high school varsity coach referred here) pulled me aside and snickered, So Veryl, do you think coaches make a difference? For someone who usually hits hard with words, this question was an unusually passive aggressive way to doubly insult my coaching ability and praise his own. Exactly one week prior, I had lost to the same opponent. Our coach was conspicuously absent that game. Actually, we didn't just lose that game, the opponents imposed their will, crushed our spirits, and made us disbelieve in our ability to play the game. We left the court like it was a funeral service, solemn and silent, doing the walk of shame. Recently deceased, Veryl and his basketball team, 2013-2013. Cries were heard from all over the city. How tragic, they were oh so young.

I want to establish, first and foremost, that coaches in any respectable program are the ultimate authority, the final word. Unlike Kanye's delusional mind, coaches are gods in flesh. What coach says, players execute. Fail to do so once in practice, it's a barrage of insults questioning your intelligence. Fail to do so twice in practice or if another player makes the same mistake, the barrage turns into an onslaught. They are pulled out of the drill, someone else gets subbed in who better get it right. If they fail, then the "midget with glasses", Veryl, gets to play and run with the big boys while those triers and not doers sit out the rest of the drill. The failure to execute a play or perform your hardest during a game is another matter. Coach has no qualms about benching star players for extended periods of time or the entire game if they don't transition back on defense or cut to the basket hard. Winning is NOT an individual effort. It doesn't take star players to win if our team outplays, outhustles, and outruns our opponent. If all five players on the floor commit to locking down the paint, pressuring the ball, playing the middle on defense ready to help stop drives, then our offense will flow from our defensive intensity and win us the game. During the regular high school season, we shut down the star future-D1 players in our conference like Zach Lavine and Tucker Haymond because our five guys on the floor stopped them, had their eye on them at all times, not just the one defender 'assigned' to them. If you think the natural conclusion to draw about winning is that it is a team effort, then either I have understated the point of this paragraph or you've been internalizing one too many cliches from an ESPN color commentator. Make no mistake, coaching is the difference and the key to winning.

If players buy into a coach's philosophy--in our program, effort and attitude at all times--and if the coach keeps players honest by rewarding those who execute this philosophy regardless of talent, then the team will upset teams appraised higher by analysts and statisticians who look solely at individual stats and team personnel to determine the outcome of matches. In contrast to our program, which devalues star players and emphasizes team effort, many other programs live and die by their star players' individual performance. This may work against another team with similar minimalist or non-philosophy, but against a team that plays team defense with integrity and intensity, they will often lose because their star players get shut down. And for those star-power driven teams, since offense runs through their stars, when they are shut down, then team offense stagnates. Just look at the Miami Heat's road to the finals this year, and how the Indiana series was so tough for them because Miami ran the majority of plays through one or two individuals, leaving the rest of the team frozen like statues beyond the arc. More importantly, coaches of these superstars tend to give them a carte blanche to shoot themselves out of a slump or to solely play a one way game and not worry about defense. At the State Tournament this year in the Tacoma Dome, I saw the star-endowed teams of Seattle Prep and Lakeside, whose coaches allowed their superstars total control on the court, lose to teams that were more disciplined and better coached.

A coach's personnel decisions are crucial to the game's outcome. Better coached teams are unafraid to sit out their star players when needed because coaches know it's harder to defend a team of five players who move on the floor, set screens for each other, and patiently look for a good shot. The 3A Champions this year, Rainier Beach, defeated Lakeside not only because they played much more cohesively, but equally as important, their superstar, Louisville-commit Shaqquan Aaron, who has a tendency to play loosely on defense, did not play at all during the second half or overtime. I will be in the minority in saying this, but I truly felt that the Miami Heat upset the San Antonio Spurs during the NBA Finals this year. Up 3 games to 2 in a best of 7 series, San Antonio Coach Popovich made unforgivable personnel decisions that cost them the title. Overplaying superstar Manu Ginobli and rising star Danny Green (who started the series with unbelievable three-point shooting but ended the series completely cold) and underplaying Kawhai Leonard and Boris Diaw, role players who were smart and secure with the basketball, especially during the final stretches of the game. Taking out Tim Duncan in the final seconds of regulation in Game 6 who had the size to potentially get a defensive rebound; instead allowing a second-chance opportunity by Miami that led to an unbelievable game-tying shot by Ray Allen. Taking out Tony Parker in final seconds of Game 7 and allowing Manu Ginobli to not only handle the ball, but drive the ball on his weak side, leading to a turnover and basket at the other end that all but closed out the Spurs. Perhaps in the case of San Antonio, without a coach in Games 6 and 7, the players would've decided to keep Parker and Duncan on the floor, thus winning the championship. But, this hypothetical scenario is an exception to the rule that good coaching involves smart substitutions and no loyalties to superstars. Because of their professional distance to players, coaches are ultimately poised to make the tough decisions to bench a star for the greater good of the team.

The aforementioned aspects of coaching--the philosophy and personnel decisions--come second and third to coaching strategy. Games at the highest level are duels between coaches. Players are pawns in a bigger chess match, and when the pawns do not run the play exactly as the coach called out and envisioned, then they are substituted with another on the bench. Some programs are defined by their strategy. Syracuse's 2-3 Zone. VCU's relentless full-court press. But most coaches have dozens of plays in their arsenal and a few aces up their sleeve for guaranteed buckets. They have thought and rethought how to attack certain defenses, how and where to utilize screens to get their best shooter open, and how to stifle an opponent's offense before they get going. Some coaches change defensive formation in the middle of the opponent's same offensive possession. Others change it up after every made basket. But the key is change and adaptation at a moment's notice. The skill and brains required for the task is extremely difficult and requires immediate decision making by an authoritative voice. Additionally, unlike chess players whose pieces from game to game remain the same, coaches have the challenge of creating, tailoring, and ultimately innovating their strategy to best fit their players from season to season. A "timeless, tried-and-true" response to situations created by the opponent, without regard to your own personnel, is not enough of an adaptation to win the duel. In its purest form, when players are executing a coach's strategy perfectly, coaching is art. Watching Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) duel Tom Izzo (Michigan State) is like watching Mozart duel Salieri, Alexandre Cabanel duel Claude Monet, or Biggie duel Pac.

On the subject of duels and strategy, winning in sports is like winning in war. The few moments that are enshrined in leftist history, where popular democratic militias were created such as in the Paris or Shanghai Communes, do not make good case studies for democracy in wartime since these militias were severely shorthanded in size. Nonetheless, without authority in situations of crisis and the ability to make immediate decisions that are enforced by the militia, parity in army size will not make much of a difference in the outcome. Currently, many progressives, in critique of the hierarchical structure that has plagued traditional revolutionary organizations, are making a big push for horizontalism--the dispersing of knowledge and the fostering of leadership among all members. On a sports team, it's ideal to have players understand why they're doing something (i.e. why they run a particular play against a zone defense) and be able to help teammates out when those teammates are clueless. But in times of crisis, in the heat of the moment, it's far more important to have players doing the right thing and being in the right spots even if they don't understand why they're doing it.

The game of basketball is so counter-intuitive to everything for which a political revolutionary stands. And it's so ironic, or to invoke an earlier phrase, so American, that I love basketball so much. If you ever go to a public court at a park and spectate a pick up game, you'll discover pure chaos. It's so ugly that sometimes I don't even recognize that 'basketball' is the game that is being attempted. Even in glorified pick up games featuring NBA players, such as the summer Pro-Am League in Seattle, there is no sense of urgency, intensity, effort, or defense. Players don't run plays and those who believe that they are heroes play selfish hero ball; the other players implicitly consent to extended conditioning sessions where they run up and down the court without touching the ball.

In basketball, structure and organization is beautiful. Even an unpredictable offensive strategy like a motion offense has rules within it, basket cuts that are imperative after each pass, and reactions players make based on reads on the defense. It's undeniable that the beautiful all starts with centralized leadership, the coach, who makes his players understand and respect the system and in turn, become the best players that they can possibly be. But not everything is counter-intuitive. Like all things with a centralized leadership, too much power can be abused and athletes pick up life lessons and perspectives, and not just the sport, from their coach. Some of these problems will be alleviated as society changes through struggle and newer democratic and liberating values are normalized. But in a competitive culture requiring quick planning and quicker action, coaches are as indispensable as the hoop itself.


  1. Booo! Hey Mussolini, you know where Coach K and others got there strategies and philosophies? - the U.S. military aka the most destructive and dehumanizing force in the history of the planet. Maybe winning basketball games with a dictatorial asshole at the helm isn't the most important thing in sports. Maybe pickup games are actually more authentically basketball than highly structured, hierarchical "programs." Perhaps pickup is a practice in on-the-fly cooperation and self-management. True, most athletes living in racist, sexist, and capitalist societies aren't particularly adept at this sharing and coming together as a team in a short amount of time. But, how much more valuable is that attempt (and possible success) than being, as you say, a "pawn" in some egotistical, power-hungry, white man's world?

    1. Not sure why you needed to label me after a right-wing fascist (I mean, if you had to name call, you could have labeled me after a state capitalist dictator instead like Castro), but that's beside the point. I appreciate the sentiments you express. This is not an easy subject for me, and I've reconciled it by understanding that we're talking about sports, not political organizations or social movements. In those categories, I am, by principle, for self-activity and direct democracy. It's crucial for people to figure out how to break from capitalism from their own experiences, struggles, overcoming of contradictions and learning from mistakes. No one should be at the helm or the vanguard, in the Marxist-Leninist sense, of the working class.

      Pick up games are inherently non-competitive, whereas organized basketball is. They are two different phenomenon with two different goals, one for exercise/fun and the other for victory. To venerate sloppy hero ball as authentic basketball disproves your point that on-the-fly spontaneity can get things done collectively. If we're talking about winning a game, let alone overcoming the system politically, then pick up ball should not be your example of self-management. That's why I see it necessary to separate the world of sports from organizing questions and principles.

      I think even in a new society, competitive sports will exist and coaches as well. The difference is, as I indicated in the post, that since the broader culture of oppression has changed, the coaches will reflect that change. There will be less abuse and machismo. But to rob athletes from a full experience of playing as a team and outsmarting their opponents is to say that anything with a semblance of leadership needs to be destroyed, regardless of its function in society. Furthermore, while you mention Coach K specifically since he has a West Point background, I don't think it's true to generalize a military inspiration to others in the profession. Coaching takes a high level of skill and analysis in the moment, and if we are against analytical thinking, we may as well erase the positive contributions of revolutionary thinkers from CLR James to Silvia Federici.

    2. Thanks for bringing CLR into this. i believe he would say that, yes, analytical thinking is very important, and who are coaches to think that they have a monopoly on that ability?

      i would argue that players are much more capable of adjustments and analysis - except they rarely, if ever, have been given that opportunity in the modern culture of sports, and thus, they do not see themselves as possessing this skill. As a player/coach, Bill Russell was one exception to this in the history of high-profile, competitive, professional sports. But, while i'm not an expert, i would wager that Black players, who have self-organized teams and leagues in a whole variety of sports (due to the laws and culture of white supremacy that excluded them from the larger, more well-funded, white leagues) have functioned very well and have developed a whole variety of styles of play - often without coaches or with coaches who have minimal authority and are seen as more part of the team (or a consultant/manager), rather than the unquestioned general at the head of the army. i would guess this to be true of various leagues in Third World countries that don't have lots of money poured into forming capitalist bureaucracies that will pay coaches. Why are these models not legitimate basketball? Why can't players be coaches? Or, why don't teams have injured players, or some other EQUAL member of their team (player or not) be an observer (video-recording, notes, etc) that provides observations and reflections for the team to use to improve (think CLR's “recognize and record”)? Why is a specialized authority figure (more often than not, a white man), the most indispensable part of sport?

      i find it telling that it is easy to predict the skin color of those basketball coaches/fans/former players that are part of the "Old Guard;" those that argue there is a "right way" to play and often are dismayed that Black athletes, for the most part, dominate the game, and what's more, that people enjoy watching these newer (meaning post-1960s) styles. For the "Old Guard," the old, white, hard-nosed, intellectual coach was an essential part of the game; someone who could civilize unruly athletes and mold them into a methodical machine. i'm not saying i don't like team-first basketball, but i am saying that there is more than one way to achieve this, and the "Old Guard" view tends to be dripping with white supremacist notions – and not surprisingly, ultra-hierarchical.

      In your response to my first comment, you say that sports and revolutionary politics should be seen as completely separate and not analyzed with the same criteria...then why did you write this post comparing the two? While i agree that it may not be really useful to try to apply a revolutionary political analysis to organized, competitive sports; since you brought it up, and since it seems we both enjoy discussing both topics…what the hell. Plus, I’m sure we agree that values of domination, hierarchy, white supremacy, and patriarchy permeate and influence all aspects of life in the U.S. Clearly, this is true in sports. But, I would argue this doesn’t mean it has to be this way. Like CLR, who constantly highlighted examples of workers’ self-activity and the emerging socialist society, I prefer to search out and imagine ways of engaging in sports that don’t rely on authoritarian leadership, commonly referred to as coaching.

      P.S. I apologize for the Mussolini comment. It was meant as a joke, but I often forget that sarcasm doesn’t translate in the written word over the internet.

      P.P.S. How’d your high school team do in comparison to those teams you referenced that had superstars but didn’t play the game correctly?

    3. Not to mention Silvia Federici, who would probably have some invaluable insight into this debate. i imagine she might say something about how players in high school and college ought to get paid since schools and leagues are making shitloads of money off their labor. Many push their bodies so hard for love of the sport that they end up with debilitating injuries and no support from those institutions that got rich off them.

      Also, can't forget the extreme patriarchy that permeates competitive sports. i'm sure Federici would have many pearls of wisdom on that. Indeed critical thinking is very necessary, but obviously, with the (often) violently misogynistic and homophobic culture that athletic coaches tend to foster, they are neither demonstrating nor encouraging any meaningful critical thinking. If they were, their first practice would be dedicated to blasting patriarchy and homophobia and analyzing the damage it has caused to athletes, to their families, and to fans who learn from their attitudes and behavior. These discussions would continue throughout each season. Ever heard of a male coach that does that? Me neither. Way to go coaches!

    4. Some players I meet are incredibly analytical with the game. They possess a keen eye for the game, much more naturally than someone like me. I constantly vibe with my varsity players and gain insights from them about how they run plays. Players teaching the teacher, much like Friere.

      But since the best coaches were former players who themselves played the game (and were not hired from outside the industry), their level of engagement with the game usually incorporates multiple layers that smart players do not yet see. That said, at the same time some players may see beyond the limitations of coaches of the 'Old Guard.' And to that extent, I am for democracy insofar that these players can speak their minds while coaches listen. But that is not to say that coaches should be abolished altogether or even rotated among players.

      I imagine that player coaches from a past era gained the respect of players through their hard work and exceptional analytical abilities. Even though they were a 'player,' they were the head coach and ultimate authority on game-time decisions.

      Strategizing during a battle is neither simple nor something that many athletes want to do. Players want to focus on their own game during the game. They already have enough stress sweating without having to think of what their teammates should be doing. During practices, players want to think about the footwork and moves needed to dominate their position (why would a center think in terms of a guard's fundamentals?). Do many athletes want the challenge of constantly thinking about personnel, abilities, and strategies; or do they want to be better players and just play the game? Even for programs endowed with superstars, good coaches allow superstars to play their game most efficiently, teach them further individual fundamentals to maximize their potential, and allow them to be comfortable against different defensive matchups and formations. Furthermore, how do coaches involve the three or four players off-ball so that they move to spots on the floor where they shoot the highest percentage? With superstars on the team who can create their shots, it's tempting to isolate and have your other players sit aside but not know what to do when they are passed the ball because they have not moved to optimal positions for themselves. So constant strategy is needed to maximize team and individual potential and not just allow players to freely play against another structured program.

      I agree with your analysis of the 'Old Guard' vs. 'newer' style of play. No dispute that historically the game was dominated by top-heavy coaching and certain programs like Duke were exclusively white. No dispute that basketball still possesses a heavy division of labor. But I don't think the dichotomy is so black and white though. Rather, coaching strategy has changed and adapted to their personnel. I think even at the NBA level, coaching matters and Spoelstra's simple adjustments allowed his players to maximize their abilities. When Miami isolated (an example of poor or no coaching), Indiana stopped Lebron and DWade. When Miami ran a play off horns or flex to get other teammates involved and open, Indiana's defense couldn't gamble as much. Even something as simple as Spoelstra telling Lebron to post up against Paul George every time proved more effective than Lebron isolating from the perimeter in the Indiana series. But I hear the point that ultimately, Lebron is Lebron and he can, by himself, win a game or the series. Which poses another question I don't want to get into now: what if a superhuman player can take over his team, believes he is the centerpiece and his team is just the supporting cast, repudiate his coach, and does what he wants?

    5. P.S. During the season, our varsity squad lost against the star-power teams. We held them to about 60 points (when they averaged above 70+), and lost by single digits every time. We just weren't that great personnel-wise, but we played hard, smart, and kept ourselves in the game. During the state tournament, I saw a lot of these teams get upset by lesser skilled but more disciplined teams (which prompted this post). Also in the summer season (which doesn't count for anything), our varsity squad was one of the teams to beat (some of the other program's stars had graduated). I see a lot of stars hang their heads down when things aren't going their way or not transition on defense after a missed bucket. Ironically, as hierarchical as some top-heavy programs are that are not endowed with stars, the best programs play a much more blue collar game. It's fun to watch because players are giving it their all, believing in themselves, and wanting to shut down the opposing star. That's why spectators get on board with smaller programs like FGCU and Wichita State. And yes, athletes should indeed be getting paid for their effort and work ethic.

      P.P.S. Are you someone I know? If so, we should rap about this more in person/over the phone.

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  3. This post was re-blogged recently on and facebook.

    As per a facebook comment request, I am re-posting a comment of mine onto the blog.

    Honestly, it depends on the coach. Just as you would not want a Stalinist at the helm of a revolutionary organization, nitpicking everyone's role and ruthlessly punishing insubordination/errors, a bad coach can either force their team to incorporate inept strategies OR conversely, allow superstars too much agency at the expense of the team. Too many GMs misunderstand the game and assume that the acquisition of superstars will change their franchise. Wilt Chamberlain holds the highest scoring record per season (among other scoring records) and scored a 100-point game, but he only has 3 championships compared to his contemporary Bill Russell, who diminished his individual stats for team victories. Russell has 11 championships. All this said, there is no substitution for good coaching, fostering team mentality, cohesion, discipline, and collective effort and attitude. A lot of young talent these days let their stardom get to their heads, and, without tough coaching to reign in their excesses, then the team will not win championships. Detroit Pistons Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas once said that the secret of basketball is that it's NOT about basketball. It's not about individual talent or how many points you can put up, but team mentality and buy-in. After coming so close to winning championships in 87-88 and 88-89, the Detroit Pistons traded away their selfish star guard for a statistically lesser performing player (but was a better fit in terms of attitude and team mentality). The coach redistributed playing time relatively equally among 8-9 players on the team that next season. Their opponents suddenly needed to worry about stopping 8-9 players, instead of 2-3 'stars'. There was no "best" player on Detroit, and looking solely at individual stats that next season like scoring and points total, they were one of the worst teams in the league. No one player dominated games for the team, and any given night another teammate would step up and make a difference. That season they ended up winning the championship.