Interference and reflection

As a coach and an economics teacher, I consistently run into the same dilemma. From the physical education side, I deeply believe having a healthy approach to physical activity, especially when experienced as part of a team, can change anyone’s life for the better. Not only have I seen it over and over again, but I have lived it (#separateblogpost). From the microeconomics side, I truly believe that individual action, people making decisions in their own self-interest, is sacred. No one knows what’s best for me better than I do. These two beliefs often can be at odds with each other. Yeah, I’m talking about recruiting.

I was at the introductory meeting tonight for cross country, and the coach told a story in order to encourage the committed team members to recruit their friends. The story was from his own high school experience, about a player he convinced to run cross country as a freshman. He didn’t say convinced, though, the verb he used was “bullied”. And I totally, 100%, believe that the so-called bullying had a positive outcome in this story. The subject of the story changed his stars. Turned his life and fortune around and earned a full ride to college, in addition to the self-discipline and communal benefits of being part of a cross country team. Oh, and the team won the state championship, thanks to the runner who-could-have-never-been. Geez.

How can you experience something like that and not walk (run?) away thinking you should interfere in other people’s lives when you truly believe you recognize something that could benefit them/a team and have an opportunity to convince them to do it?

Sometimes I give a little speech about peer pressure to my students. There are two basic points: 1) adults like to pretend peer pressure only applies to children, but it’s always a factor in human decisions, and 2) peer pressure can be good, in the right setting.

At the meeting tonight, there was a student whom I have been encouraging to join a team sport for multiple years now. I have taught him in Economics and coached him in P.E., and one of my primary takeaways is that it would be good for him to be in a team environment. In one sentence: he’s highly competitive, but has trouble managing his competitive instincts in a team setting. Anyway. He was sitting at a table with some of his friends as I was passing out information, and right as I was going by, he noticed something on the handout and reacted. “Races are only 3 miles?! I thought it was way longer than that. I feel much better about this now.” Then he looked at me and said, “Peer pressure can be good, right coach?”

Geez.

Teachers and coaches spend much of their time at work telling other people what to think and do. We don’t necessarily treat it like that, but that’s what it is, right? It takes a certain amount of confidence, or arrogance, or something, to stand in front of people and say “this is right, and that is wrong.” Maybe it takes denial. Maybe we are only okay with what we do because we put on blinders, focus on what’s in front of us and forget the peripheral.

I’m comfortable explaining why GDP is a flawed statistic, or telling someone how to set a screen, but when I venture into giving advice, the vastness of the realm of possibility creeps in, and I become paralyzed by the peripheral.

Advice is telling someone what’s good for them. Advice is an abyss. No one can see the bottom, but we all dive in.

As someone who tries to observe human action and the consequences of it, and who wants to be an expert in decision-making, about the most frustrating thing I experience in life is giving someone advice, watching them do something else and have a bad outcome, then them telling me I was right — when it’s too late. I’m not saying that it’s common, just that it drives me crazy when it does happen.

At the same time, I’m dumbfounded by how quickly people give advice to others with no real thought behind it, or worse, a selfish thought. Example: “‘shipping”. Every so often, I see kids encouraging their friends to pursue relationships with other students. Usually, this sort of advice seems to be intended to create intrigue or drama, not because the advisor actually believes this is the best long-run decision for their “friend”. I don’t see much thought put toward the possibility of the advisee following the advice and everything going horribly wrong.

I tell groups of students things that could be interpreted as advice on a daily basis. Been doing it for a while now. Yet, when someone does follow my advice, when I realize that thing I said has affected someone else’s behavior, it’s frightening. Yes, those are the two primary options when I give advice, frustration or fright. When that student, the one I have been encouraging to join a team, actually submits his paperwork for cross country, I’m going to get a feeling similar to being on a roller coaster as it starts a big drop. And. here. we. go. Things are now in motion that cannot be undone. I feel responsible for the outcome of that decision, anxious that it could go wrong, and therefore I’m wholly invested in doing what I can to make sure it goes well.

That’s a huge reason why I am so focused on creating healthy environments for all of our teams at my school. I believe that being part of a team will be a positive experience for every individual, regardless of individual role or team success, IF the team has a healthy culture. That “IF” is just like anything else good in life, it’s elusive. Less common than the alternative. Culture starts with the coach, and I’m in charge of deciding who the coach is and helping them build something good. Responsibility on responsibility.

[side note: it’s paradoxical to feel personally responsible for my own decisions (which are by definition influenced by others), and others’ decisions (which may have been influenced by me). I recognize that, but I feel what I feel, okay? back off.]

This is all magnified by being in a position of authority. I don’t feel bad about advising (or just straight up telling) coaches, because that’s part of my job description, I trust my experience and judgment, and I don’t ever give feedback or direction flippantly. It’s different with kids, though. Different power dynamics, more leveraged outcomes.

When the advice I want to give is to join my own team, the inner turmoil hits a whole new level.. I try my best to separate my P.E. Teacher/Athletic Director perspective from my Coach perspective, but I’m never quite sure if I get there.

That happened last year. I knew the girl well, and I believed that being on my team would be good for her, but I also couldn’t deny she would help the team, which made me wonder if my motives were selfish. She was on the fence, and to make it more delicate, her mother had taken the opposite position and thought it would be better for her not to play. I talked to the girl before the season, and I was so careful not to pressure her into playing that she accused me of being afraid of her mom. I mean, in my defense, advising a student to do the opposite of what their parent advised them to do is not something to take lightly.

She decided to play, and a teammate later thanked me for “convincing” her. Of course, I rejected that word choice. I just gave someone information, I didn’t convince anyone to do anything. All throughout the season, I was highly aware of my responsibility to deliver on the information I had presented. Hopefully, that awareness made me a better coach, and wasn’t just a distraction from my main focus — what is best for the team. At the end of the season, she told me she was glad she did play. She attended the team summer camp, too, for the first time. The feedback there was “it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.”

On the flip side, I also had a conversation last season in which a student told me she would be leaving the team. She chose to tell me in a crowded lunchroom, and I couldn’t help but wonder if that was a safety net of sorts, because she didn’t want to allow the possibility of me attempting to interfere with her decision.

If I’m having a conversation like this and the student shares the thoughts driving the decision and the thoughts are clearly unhealthy or surface-level, I’m much more comfortable being more assertive and digging deeper. Interfering. Unhealthy motivation could include things like “I’m not good enough to contribute”, “Player X doesn’t like me”, or “Coach Y is too demanding”…surface-level could be things like “I don’t have a ride to practice”, or “my family can’t afford it”. I hear all of those things, and more.

Most of the time in these conversations I can offer new perspectives or insight, simply because I have many more years of relevant life experience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean my opinion is the best, or right. The reasons why students play or don’t play sports are not only infinite, but constantly evolving. Sure, I can group them in categories that help me understand and respond, but there’s never going to be a point where I’ve heard it all.

My solution to all of the above is to avoid giving advice. I provide information. “Have you thought about it this way?” “If you considered this, would that change your thinking?” “Here’s how I would look at it…”

[side note: should I write a blog advising everyone not to give advice? is that something I would do, if I were me? probably.] <ignore this>

Avoiding advising somewhat limits the frustration/fright dilemma. Part of the problem is I am so aware of the stereotype of coaches recruiting mindlessly, with no real thought of the student’s well-being, and I want to distance myself from that, and part of the problem is that I am in a position that carries a significant amount of influence, which I cannot ignore.

Am I okay with my coaches recruiting harder I than I do? Totally. For one, if I have put someone in charge of a team, I believe they care about the individual team members along with the team’s success, and I want them to believe in their own ability to deliver what they’re selling. If that wasn’t true, I should be looking for a new coach. But from another angle, they don’t have the personal relationships with the students that I do, which is a result of working with said students every day over the course of many years, as well as my position of authority at the school [context: as of writing, I am the only Varsity coach who is also a full-time employee]. So, it’s a different equation. For me, a few off-hand words can come across as direct as an off-campus coach saying “you should run cross country this year, we need you.” Seriously, if I casually ask a student if they’re playing sportball this season, and they say “no”, the most common next word is “sorry”. Stop apologizing, kid, I just needed to know if I had to email your parents to get you a new physical or not.

Ultimately, the way I sleep at night is by applying lessons learned from participating in athletics. If you give your best effort, there is nothing to regret. Outcomes vary, processes are what matters. In other words, I might share information with someone which leads to a decision that turns out badly, but as long as I was intentional and had their best interest in mind, that’s the best I can do. I can’t be paralyzed, so afraid of the worst that I don’t pursue the best, and settle for mediocrity. You win, or you learn, or both.

[side note: is that a good conclusion? revealing that my experience being a jock has led me to a place where I cope with being a recruiter of jocks by falling back on lessons learned as a jock? full circle, see? jock.]

In the first few days of my economics class, I always ask my students why we make bad decisions, or decisions we regret. The answer? Imperfect information. It’s undeniable. So, maybe that’s a better ending. Teaching, coaching, advising, recruiting, even peer pressuring and bullying, are all just ways of communicating information. All we can do is share information in the way that seems best at the time, and the rest is out of our control. That’s all there is to it. R-E-L-A-X. We’re gonna be okay.

*constructive and destructive interference*

 

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