Youth sports coaches assume a uniquely prized position: one based on trust, mentorship, and couched in leadership. As we all work through the country’s recently heightened battle against racism, many feel overwhelmed, almost helpless: it seems as though any action available to the common citizen just won’t make much of an impact. But this is not the case for coaches and other educators in such a role.
If a coach has done his job, then his athletes certainly understand the X’s and O’s of their respective sport. More importantly, though, any successful team at any level has a foundation built on a culture of trust: a family in which players have each other’s backs, who embrace the team-first mentality, and know the real importance of being a teammate.
Coaches have an opportunity to meet their athletes where they are emotionally, intellectually, and socially. There’s a real opportunity to have difficult conversations, in an authentic way that’s impactful. It may feel uncomfortable, but it’s worth it, on so many levels.
For the first two weeks of my own team’s Summer Season, we devoted the first half hour of our team meetings and training sessions to the topic of racial injustice. I shared with them that it felt uncomfortable, I was in no way to be considered an expert, and that we would do this together. Granted, I did a lot of reading the week leading up to our team’s Day One, not so much so I could prepare something, but so I could get an understanding of where I was personally, and what those who’d been thinking deeply about this topic for a long time had to say in their reflections.
Following that intro, I started with a question: “How are you all feeling about this?” I wanted this to feel like a discussion, not a lecture.
It was silent. And, as they know, I find value in silence. I teach Philosophy and the silence following a comment or question only provides time for students to actually think and digest, versus feeling the pressure to quickly react and blurt out. Because deeply philosophical, introspective issues like these take time to truly ponder.
What followed, for those four days, was a rich, honest conversation with players of varying ages and backgrounds, sharing together, all in an attempt to grow personally, and as a team.
As I reflected on this, I realized there were some real virtues that resulted from this and will continue to flourish as our team has made this our theme for the year. Here are six benefits available to coaches as they consider discussing this topic with their athletes:
Throughout our team’s discussions, I loved getting to hear where my athletes were and even, at one point, respectfully disagreeing with them, and them with me. For example, we all discussed how to handle and think about racially inflammatory language in the context of popular music and rap. What should we do, for example, if a song is played somewhere on campus with such language? Do we turn it off, or is it not our place to “reclaim” that language which has a certain significance to a particular culture, all historically rooted in something we may never fully understand? Regardless of our individual answers to this, we came out of the discussion better people, just as one would from any deeply philosophical, thoughtful discussion. And our team realized we could trust each other, they could trust me with their different views, and they knew each other in a deeper way.
I did bring something to the conversation on Day One because I wanted to be prepared in the case the conversation went off the rails (which it didn’t) or things fell flat (which they didn’t). I’d read an article on the TED website by DeRay Mckesson entitled, “How You Can Be An Ally In The Fight For Racial Justice." This, incidentally, was the article that motivated me to bring this topic to my team as two of his eight recommendations include, “Figure out where and how you can do the most good,” and, “Start where you are.” The quote I brought to the team fell under the heading, “Own your privilege,” and he writes, “[You need to realize] every Band-Aid in this country looks like your skin and not mine, baby dolls look like you, and the color ‘nude’ is your skin color. That’s what the privilege of whiteness looks like—it’s not about what you’ve done; it’s about what society does when it treats white as normal.” And then I prompted the team, “Discuss,” and sent them into small groups of varying ages and skill levels. In matters like these, it often can be helpful to take quotes from someone else, so the students reflect on their words and not those of the coach or educator.
Mckesson urges us to talk about what’s uncomfortable. Recognize the discomfort. Know and admit you’re not going to get it right, but that you’re going to try. And then know your players will be better off, as will your team culture and all those with whom your players interact on and off the playing field moving forward.
Athletes are good with discomfort: the entire athletic endeavor involves being uncomfortable at the level of both team and individual, risking losses, and pushing beyond boundaries while accepting personal failure on a daily basis. And yet the rewards are so rich and valuable that the discomfort is worth it. In the case of a discussion like this, it is even more so the case. And the rewards here will likely reach further than any other few hours of practice time spent training.