Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Crafting a New Coaching Pedagogy

In light of my previous post being re-blogged and discussed among radical educators, I have written its spiritual successor to introduce a new pedagogical role for coaches. I do not waiver from my initial position that coaches are indispensable to their teams' culture and inexorably linked to the success of their teams' performance over time. In this piece, I argue that an essential undertaking of a coach should be to build leaders among men, or more aptly, coaches among athletes. Given the theoretical implications and intellectual treatment of my previous post, I have deliberately chosen to write this current piece in less of my usual tone as an entertaining and lyrical blogger, but more as a calculated scholar. This is the thoughtful song delivered a cappella in an otherwise bass-heavy, thoroughly danceable album. My operational framework for this piece draws upon the organizational legacy of Malcolm X and the case study of Jeremy Lin and the current 2013-14 Houston Rockets team.

As it stands, the current standard of coaching at the highest levels is top-down, resembling a militaristic organization equipped with its own parallel culture, procedures, and discipline. Communication is entirely vertical. When a coach speaks, the athlete listens. When a coach commands, the athlete obeys. Early this April, when ESPN aired footage of Mike Rice physically and verbally abusing his players, Americans appeared to be in shock at how something so inherently fun to watch and to follow during the month of March could be so brutal and psychotic behind the scenes. Like the SEC placing Goldman Sachs alone on trial for the 2008 financial crisis, Rice was singled out from all corners, most notably the New Jersey state government, culminating in his termination. In the imagination of the public, Rice embodied the degradation of the profession under only the most atypical and the extremest of circumstances.

Though some of his methods of discipline were unconventional, Rice's power relation to his athletes and his freedom to impose his will on players are far from anomalous in the profession. Similar to any other worker under capitalist social relations, when an athlete becomes part of the team, they relinquish their rights to their physical body. This is true in both the processes of production and punishment. To train for the consistent production of victories, the athlete's limbs are manipulated and appendages are outstretched to exact specific physiological motions routinely. At the most basic level, practices are designed to build muscle memory and make permanent certain footwork (the jab step, lateral defensive slides). Conversely, when the athlete's body fails to perform a certain way, the body is subjected to punishment (running Monsters or suicides, wall sits, or in Mike Rice's case, ball chucking). Most importantly, athletes are stripped of their agency and the full use of their mental capacity--reduced to cogs in the machine--when their bodies are externally synchronized to a coach's playbook.

Despite what I laid out as the standard pedagogy of coaching today, coaching is an indispensable means to sustained victory. Please refer to my previous post for reasons why I believe so, including the coach's role in reigning in the excesses of superstars, crafting a team orientation, building a culture of effort and attitude, and strategizing on the fly to adapt to the opponent's playbook.

Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity

Malcolm X's vision for his Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which was never brought to fruition due to his assassination, serves as an analogous vision for a new coaching pedagogy. Influenced by the state socialist revolutions that swept the Third World, Malcolm's idea of Black Nationalism evolved from an internal African American struggle for political, cultural, and economic independence in the form of a separate state to a Pan-African, internationalist struggle whereby African Americans were part of the majority (and crucially no longer minority) of oppressed peoples struggling for land and independence. Once he formally broke from the Nation of Islam, he constructed the secularist OAAU based on this internationalist conception of struggle to prepare African Americans of all stripes to train for the impending revolution in the heart of the beast.

Of relevance is Malcolm's organizational vision, which radically departed from the Civil Rights organizations of the immediate years before (1960-1963) and the Black Power organizations to immediately follow (1965-1969). These organizations were dominated by male chauvinism and hierarchical structure. The latter proved especially potent in the undoing of these organizations. With so much concentration of power in the hands of a few leaders, both the Kennedy-Johnson administration and the FBI were given easy and obvious targets for co-optation and repression respectively. Like any good coach innovating and refining their tactics and philosophies, Malcolm was a man of constant learning and growth. He freed himself of these two organizational pitfalls. Upon his return from his second trip to Africa in 1964, he stressed that "Africa would not be free until it frees its women" (*this quote, on a side note, is much more shocking and blasphemous than the Mike Rice revelation due to Malcolm's significant Muslim following). To succeed in revolution, Malcolm realized that the OAAU needed democratic decision-making, gender equality, and a focus on leadership development. The OAAU, and by extension, the movement, could only grow if more leaders were trained who took to the streets and in turn, reached more youth and workers. Additionally, numerically increasing the amount of leaders would dually prevent the government from any divide-and-conquer strategy and would organically create checks and balances within the organization to reign in the excesses of one or two individualistic, electorally-minded leaders. Malcolm's visionary genius was ahead of his time, and these twin pitfalls still characterize most radical and progressive organizations today.

Malcolm's shortcoming was that he did not realize his own role as the charismatic head coach in the OAAU. While he was abroad on his trips to Africa and the Middle East to build connections with and emphasize commonalities of the African American struggle to Third World state socialists, he allowed the membership of the OAAU to enact his vision of democratic participation. Rife with interpersonal conflict and indecision, the organization failed to move forward. The nails were already in OAAU's coffin before Malcolm's assassination. Malcolm needed to guide his membership, most of whom joined due to his charisma, to the realization of becoming leaders of a new model of democratic organization. Moreover, he needed to convince his future leaders on the merits of democracy, collectivity, and gender equality in order for them to carry on these tasks autonomously and willingly when Malcolm moved on.

Jeremy Lin and the 2013-2014 Houston Rockets

In this final section, I turn to the current Houston Rockets team to illustrate the potential benefit of athletes as coaches on the floor. On paper, the Houston Rockets have a team that can win it all. They have a top 5 scorer in shooting guard James Harden and a top 3 center in Dwight Howard. However, these two superstars lack the sustained discipline to play with a team orientation. To complicate matters, Hall of Fame inductee Coach Kevin McHale is unable to reign in the excesses of either superstar and is content with winning games through the performances of his two stars. Of course, I deliberately emphasize games and not championship because despite how the Rockets perform this regular season, they will not go far in the postseason with this type of undisciplined mentality under their current coach.

James Harden is a superstar who needs to have the ball at all times, which is uncharacteristic of shooting guards, since point guards are the playmakers and facilitators on most teams . Coach McHale does not utilize his point guards in this traditional role, and allows Harden instead to freely dominate the ball and decide on shooting or passing the basketball. This is problematic because Harden is currently shooting at an abysmal 27% from 3-point range, which is his go-to shot on many occasions. What makes his shooting percentage so low is because his shot is predictable and is usually guarded tightly, so he ends up shooting with a defender's handing in his face. Coach McHale hopes that Harden will make plays for his teammates, but this conceptualization entails Harden driving to the hoop, and then passing to his open teammate when a second defender collapses to defend against Harden's layup. There are two problems with this "drive-and-kick" strategy. First, Harden is only an average ball handler and a sloppy passer and turns the ball over most among the current Rockets. Second, the offensive formation is essentially stagnant (with four of Harden's teammates stationary looking for a pass), so even if a second defender collapses on Harden's drive, a third defender can quickly predict where the pass heads and defend the pass recipient. Other NBA teams stacked with superstars will still run plays and have strategies that are designed to facilitate offball movement (the movement of other role [non-superstar] players to get them in open spots where they have the highest percentage shots if they receive the pass). In other words, while superstars can create their own shots, plays are drawn up to involve their teammates to get open in spots where they'll have the highest success.

In contrast to the strategic incompetence of Coach McHale, his player Jeremy Lin possesses high basketball IQ and sees the floor like a true point guard, or coach on the floor. I speculate that Jeremy's high IQ stems from being the first and only Asian American basketball player in the NBA. It's a survival mechanism to ensure that he can thrive despite the change of scenery. Early in his NBA career, he was tossed around from team to team like an old rag doll. As such, he's been forced to play under coaches with very different systems, playbooks, and philosophies. He's had to quickly pick up the versatility of the point guard position and thus knows the game on a very strategic level. His roles in the past have included being a spot-up shooter with limited minutes (Golden State), being an aggressive Pick-and-Roll starter (New York), and now being an all-around sixth man (Houston). Because he primarily plays with the Houston second unit (he is a sixth man, not a starter), he is not impeded by the selfishness of his superstar teammates.

His smarts really come through on this second unit. Though the playbook (dictated by McHale) is still nonexistent, with Lin on the floor, his second unit teammates naturally move around a lot more without the ball because they know that Lin's first instinct is to look for open teammates. His presence makes his team play unselfishly and smarter. Because he creates for his teammates, Lin only shoots high percentage shots (he doesn't force his shots when defended). Unsurprisingly then, he leads the entire team in Field Goal percentage at an astonishing 54% (this is better than Dwight Howard's, who, as a center, only shoots within three feet of the hoop). While racking up assists, Lin is also the second highest scorer on the team. I want to emphasize that his team-orientation is infectious: the second unit of the Rockets routinely outplay the first. When he broke through in New York two years ago, Linsanity was more than Jeremy Lin. It was about how he elevated his team to play together as a unit, believe in each other, have fun in the process, and win games.

Lin's smarts are rare. I believe that they were developed through struggling against racial barriers and adapting his play to different styles for different teams, which forced him become an analytical general on the floor. A head coach, however, can expedite this process by emphasizing mental, analytical, and leadership development among his team.


Hypothetically speaking, what if the NBA had an entire team of team-oriented, high IQ players like Jeremy Lin or Bill Russell, and they faced off against an entire team of statistically superior superstars like James Harden or Wilt Chamberlain? Though the latter will undoubtedly win a few battles, the final victory will go to the adaptive, strategic team of coaches on the floor.

Malcolm's organizational vision highlights the role of the head coach in creating leaders among men who will, in time, be able to organize in society independent of him. They will appreciate the values of democratic organization, gender equality, internationalism, and revolution on their own merits in contrast to those values under capitalism. The key here is that the pedagogy of Malcolm needed to be intentional for the OAAU to survive and thrive. The case study of Jeremy Lin reveals the championship potential of a team of coaches on the floor and unselfish players. Despite the lack of a cohesive playbook from Coach McHale, Jeremy's informal coaching, through his mere presence on the floor, inspires his teammates to help each other get open for Jeremy's passes. In this way, the Rockets' second unit are reclaiming their bodies and acting with collective agency. To synthesize the lessons from both Malcolm and Jeremy, more leaders like Jeremy need to be created, but it takes a specific type of coach armed with this pedagogy--one with the vision, strategy, flexibility, and charisma of Malcolm--to reach revolutionary championship level.

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