Coach Almighty

It seems as though Jim Carrey, the star in a 2003 American religious comedy film Bruce Almighty is not the only mortal to be endowed with god-like powers. In the movie starring Jim Carrey as Bruce Nolan, a down-on-his-luck TV reporter who complains

It seems as though Jim Carrey, the star in a 2003 American religious comedy film Bruce Almighty is not the only mortal to be endowed with god-like powers. In the movie starring Jim Carrey as Bruce Nolan, a down-on-his-luck TV reporter who complains to God (Morgan Freeman) that is not doing his job correctly, and is offered the chance to try being God himself for one week. As I witness college and professional basketball teams race up and down the court, I am impressed with how often these outstanding, and often, incredible athletes look over to the bench for guidance. It seems as if there is not a time when a team moves from offense to defense or defense to offense that the coach is not shouting instructions to his players. It is amazing to me that these coaches, most of whom are excellent teachers, cannot trust these players to make intelligent decisions on court. Apparently there is no one on the team the coach can count on to know what needs to be done on a play-by-play basis. Have these athletes not been adequately trained to know how to work with their teammates to meet the challenges presented by their opponents? It that is the case, it is sad that at this point in their development they have not yet reached the point of competency or confidence to execute a game plan without the coach calling out instructions on nearly every play.

Maybe I am just being nostalgic when I recall the days when basketball coaches remained on the bench and trusted the team captain to know how to make adjustments to the moves of our opponents. Increasingly athletes have been robbed of the opportunity to assert leadership on the playing field at all levels, in many team sports.

I have vivid memories of the joys of sandlot sports where we established our own game plans and enforced our own rules without any interference from experts, unless it was one of our older “brothers” who gave us unsolicited tips when we screwed up, or showed us “the way” by beating us to the basket. We learned to take responsibility for our own actions, to take control of our lives in sport so that we could experience the joy of mastering and performing sports skills on our own teams. That was enough for us. The sheer enchantment of being engaged in competition brought us enormous satisfaction and kept us on the courts until darkness set in.

Then we were introduced to “Coach Almighty” with his commandment, “My way or the highway.” We quickly learned not to make a move that departed from his directives unless we wanted to lose favor with mellow coaches or become the object of the wrath of the screamers. It should not be surprising that 70% of the children (in the US) drop out of sports by age 13.

My question is simple and straightforward: Do we really need to make young athletes feel impotent with a battalion of drill sergeants who fear they may lose control of their troops? Do we really need to turn our children over to professional sports experts to induct them into a Culture of Obedience where conformity is king and creativity and individuality are treated as sins? Is it possible that the tattoos, earrings and wild “dos” are ways many of today’s athletes assert their individuality and independence from authority figures who are controlling their every move on and off the court? We should not be surprised to find professional and collegiate athletes asserting themselves through risky off-court assertions of their independence. Police blotters all across my nation are marked by incidents that have the markings of bold gestures taken by athletes to test the limits of authority.

Life in the world of sports seldom does much to promote maturity, in spite of all the pronouncements to the contrary. As legendary coach John Wooden often said, “Sports does not build character. Instead, sports reveals character.” I would add that sport might actually retard the development of character in many cases, by keeping young people in a state of dependence.

Please do not interpret what I am saying as in endorsement of undisciplined sports training. That is a misreading of my intent. My concern is that the culture of sport increasingly promotes dependency and hence immaturity. This dependency upon controlling and dictatorial coaches keeps young athletes from becoming deeply involved in the games they play, thus robbing them of opportunities to experience the joy of being fully immersed in the competition where sport can perform its primary function of renewing the human spirit.

Maturity can only be promoted when athletes are assigned rights and responsibilities in their team communities tailored to their level of experience. Then, and only then, can sport realize its full potential as a source of empowerment that derives from helping children develop into full-fledged citizens in their sports communities. We need to transition to an era of “Almighty Athletes,” young men and women who have learned how to advance their interests in ways that contribute to the creation of vibrant team communities founded upon the principle of mutual respect.

But wait, this is not end. Instead it is only the beginning of an era where the culture of sport is challenged to adjust to the requirements of the times. We need more young people to develop the skills for becoming contributing citizens of their teams, in their schools, neighborhoods and communities. While we need to empower athletes in ways that promote their maturity, we also need to worship the “Almighty Team Community” where parents, athletes and coaches can turn for the nurture and support they all need if sport is to perform its functions of inspiriting, enabling, and uniting.

By Dr. George Selleck

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