Monday, February 17, 2014

Beware of Veryl the Bully

It's 4:30pm. We're en route to Juanita High School for Game 2 of the KingCo 4A Varsity Tournament. The four coaches occupy the first four seats on the team bus. The cheerleaders are sandwiched between the coaches and the team. The bus is eerily quiet. You could feel the focus in the air. Like guerrilla fighters approaching a colossal military force, fate unknown but purpose clear, we are up against the only team to defeat Garfield High School this season, the perennial superpower in our conference that produced NBA phenom Brandon Roy and most recently, Tony Wroten. Undeterred by the mission ahead, the team is fired up from the post-practice talk I delivered a day before. In it, I mention the undisputed, unanimous perception of our team from the students at the alternative high school where I teach: we're weak, we're shit, and we're losers. I mention that each game day, when I wear our team's athletic garb to the alternative school, my students come down extra hard on me. Who you guys playing today? *Insert school here* will fuck you up by double digits. Intent on where my story is heading, I redirect the team to our recent game against Garfield, in which we lost by only two points. That game shut up a lot my students, who expected nothing less than a blowout. Fuck external perception, we know what we're capable of and what we will accomplish. I tell the team that I'm proud that we're not composed of superstars, that we have to rely on each other and our bench to pull out each victory, and that we're the hardest working, blue-collar team in the league. Our 'star' (loosely used here) point guard who, just days before, was awarded a First Team All-League honor, pulls me aside afterwards and tells me I hyped him up. He's ready to play the big game right now. Another coach creeps from behind and pushes me off-balance while approvingly shouts, fucking Veryl. Getting us all pumped. Motivational speaking. One of the tools that I developed and refined through coaching.

4:35pm. Still not so much a word muttered. For most, the focus is at once intoxicating and infectious, like a meditative journey experienced in collectivity. I'm silent for another reason. I'm pensive. Just thirty-five minutes before, I was confronted by two parents of a player at my level with perhaps an ugly truth about myself. They accuse me of the polar opposite in skills that I picked up through coaching: bullying. They didn't outright label it as such, but the implication was clear. The conversation lasts for nearly half an hour. Just before we walk onto the bus, I talk to two coaches about it.

4:40pm. The silence is finally broken. They should put up a poster at the school with your picture that says, "Beware of Bullying," says the same coach who complimented me the day before. This generates a few laughs from the nearby cheerleaders.

Veryl the bully, the head coach echoes with a huge grin and a dreamy stare, as if recalling a pleasant memory.

I've learned from the best, I retort in a smart-ass kind of way. Coaching has taught me to become an asshole. I reciprocate the grin.

I get a lot of shit from parents. But it comes with the territory. Or so the head coach says. In the three years of coaching, I've received the most parental complaints this current season--the year when I'm most confident in what I'm doing and attaining the most conference wins. You don't win enough games, parents question your knowledge and hint at a replacement. A player gets injured, parents blame the hyper-intensity of practices and lack of education towards players regarding sports-related injuries. You don't assign minutes to a player, parents challenge the integrity or fairness of your rotation. After a while, complaints sound like a broken record. They have to, or you begin to doubt yourself, which reflects on your performance and reverberates back negatively to the team. Fortunately, since I teach at-risk youth who experience trauma or systematic and individualized violence for eight hours each day before I coach, these parental complaints sound like what they are. Yet, to completely write off these complaints runs the risk of missing a chance for critical reflection and self-improvement.

Given my own history of being bullied, conceptually I hate bullying. Given that some studies show, however slight the statistical significance, that those who were bullied in their childhood are prone to becoming bullies themselves, perhaps working in a profession where militarism is a prized value subconsciously increases my propensity to bully. After all, it's so easy to get away with what you say when you monopolize the power through controlling playing time and a player's status within the program.

Though the parents' accusation rested on a false premise--that I exclusively singled out their son--it made me reflect on how I currently interact with my players and what type of coach I aspire to be. If I want to embody a coach who values each player as a human being with potential to become leaders in their own right, I would need to temper some of my spontaneous quips to my players. I would neither have remained with the program nor become the coach I am today if the head coach repeatedly harassed me for my inconsequential knowledge of the game during my first season. Why should the dynamic be any different between coaches and players, especially since I'm coming from a theoretical framework that values athletes for more than their bodies, but also for their mental capacity as coaches on the floor? I want them to appreciate the game as a symphony from a conductor's point of view, and not as a second violinist obsessed with correctly playing each note from the sheet of music on their stand.

My fault is that I'm quick-witted with my tongue. As basketball runs on horsepower, I am quickly yelling in reaction to what happens on the floor. There's no time to censor my reaction and my words, because the moment it takes to think of what I should say to mitigate the emotional damage, another action will happen and I would fail to react to something new. In games, I might yell out I can't play this kid loud enough for the entire gym to hear after a player commits a mistake, bench him, and then turn to him with a mean mug and yell out Why did I take you out of the game? If he answers I don't know, I will most certainly come up with a smart ass remark along the lines of I know you don't know, that's why you did it before explaining to him calmly what the correct course of action should have been. I am not adverse to yelling at a player during games for two reasons: 1. I do not want the player committing the same mistake again when I put him back in and he should know that I'm serious as it seriously impacts the outcome of the match, and 2. I do not want his teammates to commit the same mistake as him. Calling players out for their shit is an effective way to get them to play smarter and harder.

Practices, though, potentially bring out my 'worst' because I am afforded the time to make an example out of a player who commits a mistake. I certainly need to change my approach in this area. I am haunted by one particular practice from earlier this season where what I said had a prolonged effect on the player. I introduced a new drill to the team. After most of my players demonstrated and executed the drill satisfactorily, one of the last players to participate in the drill stepped on the floor not knowing what to do. This player happened to be someone who goofed off and neglected to pay attention regularly in practices, so I put him on the spot...once again. Are you shitting me? Over half the team just did the drill, and you don't know what to do? He nervously stuttered and I heard him start to say, I'm s.... I cut him off and interrupted before he could finish his sentence. He may have wanted to apologize (I'm sorry), but I ran with the s sound to poke fun at him. You're what? STUPID? Or perhaps you wanted to say 'I'm SLOW' since you don't understand what's going on. At that point, he courageously attempted to repeat his original sentence. No I was going to say I'm s.... I cut him off again and, with disregard to his feeling, brazenly continued, What were you going to say? I only hear the 's' sound! Were you going to say you're SMART? That wouldn't make SENSE. If you were, then you actually mean you're SARCASTIC. The whole team laughed at how clever the whole sequence was, but I overdid it. One of the next practices, when the same player once again failed to demonstrate knowledge of what was taught, he told me that he did not know what to do because he was stupid. He said it with a straight face, as if he were citing a truth. I pulled him aside after practice to apologize for what I said before, but the damage was already done. When it came to basketball, he internalized his incompetence thanks to me.

It's 8:30pm. We board the bus to return home from Juanita after losing a hard-fought game. The playoffs are double elimination, so we live to fight another day. Atypical of most players who congregate together at the back of the bus, our 'star' point guard decides to sit in front beside me. We look at each other during the ride home but don't exchange a single word. We respect each other's silence. We pay our dues to the powerful process of reflection, in hopes that tomorrow will yield a better outcome. My mind wanders back to the interaction with the parents from earlier that day and the grander implications it held. I tell myself that if my players cannot experience joy in the game because of the way in which I interact with them, then I fail to get the best out of my players and together, as a team, we will not succeed. As the bus pulls into our school's parking lot, bringing us back to reality, I look to the players at the rear of the bus arising from the trance of deep meditation. I am comforted by how small I am in relation to the whole of the team, and in fact, changing for the better and growing are interwoven into the very fabric of each and every one of our DNA.

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