The Intellectual and Moral Virtue of Coaching Basketball

Last week, I saw Shop Class as Soulcraft recommended for incoming college students. As I prepare to re-enter academia, I picked up a copy. Author, philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford includes an extended excerpt from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

The excerpt starts with Pirsig taking his motorcycle to a shop. He sets the scene and says that the mechanic barely listens to the piston slap before diagnosing a problem. When Pirsig returns to pick up his motorcycle, now he hears a bigger problem. He points out the problem to the mechanic who manages to create a bigger problem. When he eventually gets on to the road, “the shop had neglected to bolt the engine back into frame; it was hanging on by a single bolt.”

Pirsig writes:

I found the cause of the seizures a few weeks later, waiting to happen again. It was a little twenty-five-cent pin in the internal oil delivery system that had been sheared…

Why did they butcher it so?…They sat down to do a job and they performed it like chimpanzees. Nothing personal in it.

…But the biggest clue seemed to be their expressions. They were hard to explain. Good-natured, friendly, easy-going – and uninvolved. They were like spectators. You had the feeling they had just wandered in there themselves and somebody had handed them a wrench. There was no identification with the job. No saying, ‘I am a mechanic.’

In reflecting upon Pirsig’s tale, Crwaford points out that the problem (the sheared-off pin) was the same for any mechanic.

But finding this truth requires a certain disposition in the individual: attentiveness, enlivened by a sense of responsibility to the motorcycle. He has to internalize the well working of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern. The truth does not reveal itself to idle spectators.

A coach is, in a sense, a craftsmen. Unfortunately, many coaches and trainers are like Pirsig’s mechanic: idle spectators. They are inattentive. I watched one trainer this summer run a workout and commented to him that he could record his instructions and feedback and simply hit play before each drill or workout because his feedback was impersonal and unspecific.

He touched on simple generalizations: faster, harder, lower, etc. It’s not that his comments were incorrect; most players need to work faster, harder and in a better body position. However, his feedback was ineffectual: it became like white noise in the background of the workout as it lacked meaning to any individual.

Before a coach or trainer can reach a player, he has to understand the player. He has to pay attention. There are some vague generalities that any coach or trainer can utter to sound knowledgeable: bend your knees, hold your follow-through, etc.

However, to impact the player, the feedback must be specific and meaningful. If a player bends his knees, and the trainer sees a shot missed short and instructs the player to bend his knees, is he identifying the problem or is he making an idle assumption based on the result, like Pirsig’s mechanic who barely listened to his motorcycle before reaching his (incorrect) conclusion?

Coaching is more than pontificating to illustrate one’s mastery of basketball terms and concepts. Coaching is a personal profession that depends heavily on one’s ability to analyze and assess an individual’s psyche as much as his biomechanics or sport-skill technique. Once one understands the player (or team), he must have the ability to communicate with the player in a way that impacts the player.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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