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A Return To The Fundamentals, From Coach & Philosopher Jack Bowen

by Jack Bowen


I’ve taught philosophy for the past 20 years and, over the past few months and especially in light of the attack on the Capitol, the running joke is that the United States government has provided me with a full month’s worth of lectures.  But I’ve gone in exactly the opposite direction.  These recent months and these past four years have been wrought with a divided country, he-said-she-said-they-said banter, and a mountain of facts and data and fake-news that could fill an entire semester.  While I do agree we’ve been given a unique motivation to delve into the nuance of what “he” and “she” and “they” have said, I think we have an even greater opportunity for something more fruitful: getting back to the basics.

Let me entertain an analogy from the other part of my job description over these past 20 years as an interscholastic water polo coach.

When a sports team gets rocked—really beaten badly on repeated instances, failing to counter the nuanced schemes of recent opponents—good coaches nearly unanimously do one thing: return to fundamentals. (They also tend to condition the heck out of their athletes, but that’s a different, albeit relevant, part of this.)  As Michael Jordan once opined, “Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise.”

Teaching fundamentals is often the biggest challenge for a coach, leaving room for pithy phrases like, “How to put the ‘fun’ in ‘fundamentals.’”  Young athletes, understandably, want to do the actual “fun” stuff: what they see Jordan doing on the court.   They often don’t consciously recognize that for Michael Jordan to dribble left, cross over to his right, and stop on a dime to hit a jumper, he executed countless hours of core fundamentals, working on simply dribbling the ball correctly, with his knees at a precise angle, until his forearm burned so much he could hardly hold his Gatorade bottle.

So, for me as a coach, the horrors of this pandemic have yielded at least some very small silver lining.  Without the ability to have any contact whatsoever, and during the summer months when we couldn’t even pass a ball, only fundamentals and technique remained.  I had the added bonus of athletes pleading for more because, it turns out, fundamentals and technique (and conditioning) only, is infinitely better than no sports at all.

The results are in.  I’m now able to run some of our quantitative tests which measure core skills required for water polo players and we are seeing an improvement like nothing we’ve seen before.  We’re still not playing competitive, full-contact games, but when we do, I’m excited for the athletes to put their new foundation to work.

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And so it goes for all of us: the concerned citizens, the philosophy students, and everyone in between. Regardless of your political stance and party affiliation, you’ve likely been rocked.  Defeated by an onslaught of nuance and, over the past six months, having very little time to step back and really frame what’s going on.  Most people haven’t revisited their foundation-building courses recently such as philosophy, statistics, logic, neuroscience: all components of establishing a sound foundation for thinking and democracy.

So, you can imagine your Thinking Coach bringing you back to the fundamentals. You don’t want to: it’s not fun.  You don’t get riled up and you won’t get the easy dopamine boosts you’ve been getting from your bipolar news and social media. This, though, is a good thing.  Because as we know from our study of Philosophy and the human condition, short-term dopamine boosts just aren’t what we really want.

Our brains aren’t designed to maximize our flourishing in a modern-day world.  They are the product of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, having not caught up to the modern age.  Knowing this, we can overcome that inclination and do what’s actually in our best, long-term, interests.

Likewise with the rational side of our lives.   As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Life happens far too quickly for us to think about it.”  I coach goalies and the game truly does happen too quickly for much conscious thought: goalies need the time and space of training (and, now, a quarantine) to hone their fundamentals for when competition resumes.  And now, we all have some time to breathe, to reflect, and to think about our respective foundations before things start happening so quickly again because they will.

My Philosophy class has not spent a minute on the details of the past month and years.  Instead, we’ve stepped back—way back.  We’ve gone back to a sort of “First Principles” approach, dating back to Aristotle.  We’ve carved out some space and allowed ourselves to take nothing for granted: something philosophers are often mocked for but, now, we see it may be more important than ever.

We’ve explored some truly foundational issues and questions in my classes these past few weeks:

What is justice?  How does it differ from fairness?  What’s the difference between happiness and flourishing?  Is Patriotism good (and, what is Patriotism and how does it differ from Nationalism)?  Is bravery always virtuous?  Is life objectively meaningful?

Philosophers are often the subject of another sort of heckle: these questions are either unanswerable or just too theoretical and not practical enough.  And in a sense that may be correct: but just like Jordan won’t ever sit in one place during a game dribbling with his left hand repeatedly, we may not ever consciously, explicitly come back to the distinction of justice and fairness, but we will know that, moving forward, our views of justice are constructed on a solid edifice.

From this approach of questioning all assumptions and building this foundation, the “fun” starts to increase.  Maybe not “dunking from the free throw line” fun, but close.  Because then we can build into an exploration of our own brains: looking at how we are wrong about certain things by definition, come pre-wired with countless biases, are terrible at statistics and simply don’t like looking at issues from both sides.  My Philosophy students have given the sub-title to this semester’s class, “Discovering what we’re wrong about.”  Teacher included.

In sports, being a fanatic and, thus, defending your team with uncritical zeal is part of the fun.  Irrationally defending your allegiance to your team as better than all the rest has no real impact.  A 1954 study asked Princeton and Dartmouth fans to view a football game between the two schools and report rule infractions.  Princeton students reported twice as many rule infractions by the Dartmouth team—which was also twice as many infractions as the Dartmouth students reported.  All fun and games, along with some great insight into how our in-group bias skews our view of reality.  But, as we’ve seen these past months and years, uncritical zeal in our non-sporting lives has profoundly harmful impacts on the well-being of others and the country at large.

Once we recognize these biases and intellectual shortcomings, we can tweak our lens a bit: become less the defenders of our intellectual castle and, instead, strive to be, as Socrates once referred to himself, “a citizen of the world.”

All of this confers a deeper sense of freedom.  With each of us shackled by subconscious, unknown biases and a foundation we never took the time to fully construct, we’re actually constricted.   The athlete who focuses on her weak hand goes through real struggle to do so: it’s just not as much fun.  But, developing that weak part of her game nearly doubles what she can do as an athlete moving forward.  Likewise the rest of us: we now have time to step back, work on our weaknesses, allowing a greater sense of freedom, insight, and empathy moving forward.

In Amanda Gorman’s now world-acclaimed poem recitation at President Biden’s inauguration, she started and finished referencing light: “Where can we find light in this never ending shade?” and then, at the end, “There is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it.”  I couldn’t help but connect the dots to one of our first philosophy coaches, Plato, who gave us the Allegory of the Cave.  In short, he reminds us that while it may be comfortable in the dim, cozy cave, comfort is not what we truly seek.  Instead, we should be willing to overcome the blinding light and fight through that pain and discomfort involved in building a foundation.  Interestingly, it is the Philosopher Kings who Plato then suggests should rule the Republic, but I leave this for a future discussion of First Principles.

This all comes full circle because it reminds us of our hubris and encourages humility, while providing a motivation to return to the fundamentals.  And it all brings with it the hopes of reaping the boundless fruits of critical thinking, civil discourse, and a sort of slam-dunk for the future of democracy.

Jack is the author of 4 books, including his latest (co-authored), Sport, Ethics, and Leadership (July, 2017).  His other books include San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and Amazon Top-500 selection, The Dream Weaver and, If You Can Read This, featured in the New York Times, USA Today, and NPR. Jack has coached water polo at Menlo School for the past 21 years where they have won the league championships 18 times. Finally, he spoke at TEDxStanford in 2017 on the topic of awe and in 2020, at TEDxGunnHighSchool, "The Unexamined Sport Is Not Worth Playing".  Jack graduated from Stanford University with Honors in Human Biology and earned his Masters Degree in philosophy, graduating summa cum laude.

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