Being a Coach
I don’t love talk of ‘smart’ or ‘high IQ’ basketball.
I got to coach a youth basketball team recently, and it was awesome. For a lot of these kids, I was their first real coach. And it was up to me to figure out how we should spend our nine practices together.
After all, there’s a lot of room for 11- and 12-year-olds to grow. Sure, we want their skills to improve: Can they dribble and finish with both hands? Can they create contact and create space? Can they knock down free throws and open shots?
We started out each practice going over one or two key skills: Maybe today, we’re learning how to box out. I'm throwing the ball off the backboard, do not let me get the rebound. Who wants to guard me first?
Everyone wants to guard me first! This is a very chaotic start to practice. And don’t worry, we’ll go over technique in a minute. But before I get them thinking, I want to get them moving so I can assess where they’re at. I also want to challenge them to compete hard and compete wisely with me.
Competing hard involves expending a lot of effort trying to win.
Competing wisely involves judging how to expend effort effectively.
And you really want both. Trust me, it’s gonna take hard work to box me out. But proper technique will go a long way.
In basketball, competing hard looks like sprinting in transition, playing defense with pride, and giving multiple efforts, even when it’s exhausting to run down a loose ball or painful to take a charge.
And competing wisely looks like avoiding fouling, knowing how to balance guarding your man and helping your teammates, making good decisions with and without the ball, not hurting yourself chasing a ball out of bounds in practice, not dribbling out the clock in the NBA Finals...
I don't like talking about ‘smart’ or ‘high IQ’ basketball for several reasons. These kids had no idea how to box me out when we started, but that's not because they were ‘dumb’ or ‘low IQ’ players. That’s not fair. No one had shown them the fundamentals before.
I made them learn on the run. We spent most of that day scrimmaging, but if your guy ever grabbed an offensive rebound that counted as an extra point. First to 7, win by 2. And once again, I made a point of showing them how to compete hard and compete wisely by showing them what it’s like to play against someone who does.
Me. Oh yeah, I was on a team.
If they didn’t get in a stance, I drove past them. If they didn’t put a hand up, I shot over them. If they didn’t box me out, I grabbed the rebound.
I showed them winning basketball.
That meant I really had to go for it, but I’m only 30. They’re 11 and 12!
I’m still in my prime!
And you know what? By the end of practice, they were way better at boxing out. We became a great rebounding team that season.
So what happened? Did they get smarter? Did their basketball IQ shoot up ten points in 55 minutes? No, they got wise to my tricks! It’s know-how, not some innate or fixed mysterious quality. You can gain know-how. One way is to be thrown in the deep end against a very competitive adult man who beats you, shows you the ropes, and challenges you to compete again.
Of course, not everyone’s ready to go head-to-head against their coach like this right away. Some players need their confidence built up first. And you need to help them get there:
You need to identify their strengths and talk to them about those. (Maybe tell them they’re a shooter before they fully believe it.)
You need to point them out to their teammates when they’re open.
You need to pass them the ball and yell “Shoot that!”
You need to pause the scrimmage after they score for a high five.
You might even talk shit for them at first— “You can’t leave him open! He’s a shooter!”
The one thing I didn’t want was for any of my kids to think of themselves as ‘bad’ or even ‘good’ players. Words like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ inspire fixed mindsets and complacency. If I'm already ‘good’, why compete hard? And if I'm so ‘bad’, why compete at all?
But everyone has room to grow. No one’s stuck at their current level, and even my stronger players can continue to improve. I want them to have growth mindsets, to believe that if they keep competing and learning from their mistakes, they can keep getting better. Winning’s not the only thing that matters anyway, especially in youth sports.
Instead of thinking of themselves as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, I wanted my kids to take pride in being competitive players. Because you can learn to compete more wisely, skillfully, and effectively with practice. And you're radically free to start competing harder right now! (Sorry I'm such a virtue theorist about sports.)
The parents all loved me as their kids’ youth coach because this is a solid approach. You challenge the ones who are already good enough to play some real, competitive basketball with you. And you build up the ones who are still on the way there, to get them to that point faster.
To be clear, this is a good approach in youth basketball, because all sports are thinly sublimated violence anyway. But I don’t think it’s the best approach in philosophy. Philosophy doesn’t have to be so competitive. (Even if academic spaces and peer review sometimes feel like a dogfight...)
Philosophy doesn’t even have to look like an argument!
In my philosophy classes, I start by emphasizing that we’re on the same team. I tell students on the first day that they should think of philosophy as a cooperative game we’re playing together. We don’t have to agree, but we’re all trying help each other think harder and wiser.
(I stole this from someone whose name I forgot on Twitter and it’s great. Happy to pick up a little more teaching know-how.)
It’s kinda like if I put a chess puzzle on the screen, and said, “White to mate in 2. Anyone see any interesting moves?”
I’m not expecting anyone to solve a puzzle like this immediately, or to be right 100% of the time. This puzzle’s tricky, or I wouldn’t show it to you! (I could ask a computer engine if I wanted instant perfection.)
The point is for us to grow. We’re just trying to find good moves in the game together by reasoning through moves as we see them, good or bad, and talking about them.
My goal is not to make anyone feel ‘dumb’, or even ‘smart’, because again, words like this just encourage fixed mindsets, where improvement is limited or impossible and you’re stuck at a certain level forever.
If students think they’re dumb, they won’t even try because they’re ‘dumb’. And if students think they’re smart, then when they do find something difficult, research shows they’ll give up quickly because they’re ‘smart’. This was supposed to be easy!
I don’t love those words, and I don’t think they’re super helpful or specific anyway. They strand us at a conversation-ending level of analysis about our own thinking. They’re anti-philosophical.
Instead of thinking of themselves as ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’, I want my students to take pride in being curious and careful thinkers. Now those are some virtues to strive for. You can learn to think more wisely, skillfully, and effectively with practice. And you can decide to start thinking harder right now! (Also I'm a virtue theorist about philosophy.)
But being curious and careful can be deceptively hard work:
It involves thinking about the ways in which our assumptions might be wrong, which is often pretty shaming. Most of us are pretty worried about the possibility of feeling ‘dumb’.
It involves thinking through the full possibility space, which takes a lot of effort and imagination. What objections or counterexamples might be lurking, and what can you say in response? (Is it any good?) Where might you have moved too quickly?
It involves admitting when you're wrong and then changing your mind once you've reassessed what you should think and why.
And these aren’t just abstract opinions—sometime we realize that we can no longer affirm key values we’ve been living by. There’s a lot to lose in being curious and careful. Your whole worldview is at stake! It’s hard work, both intellectually and emotionally.
(If that's surprising, maybe it’s because we don’t see much intellectual curiosity or care in our society.)
But when we do show real curiosity and care in our thinking, we get to know ourselves, and to find where we stand on important issues.
Only then can we begin to live more wholeheartedly, without unasked questions or lingering doubts about who we are and where we stand on the important issues in our lives.
And that's really good for you.
Socrates famously proclaimed that the unexamined life is not worth living. I think that’s a bit too strong.
But the examined life is way better for you!
Anyway, I wanna run some online philosophy workshops this summer and see if there’s any interest in practicing being curious and careful in small groups.
You wanna get on a team together for a friendly scrimmage with your philosophy coach?
In a few weeks I’ll be running a free workshop called ChatGPT and Bullshit, combining two of my longstanding interests here.
I wanna chat with you about 3 kinds of bullshit in our lives. And then I want to ask: Will ChatGPT drown us in more bullshit, or relieve us of some of the bullshit in our lives? Maybe it can even do your bullshit job for you? (Or would that just make your bullshit job more bullshit?)
I have a whole dissertation chapter on bullshit (called “Why Assholes Bullshit”) so you could say I’m an expert.
I hope something like this could take off and become a workshop series, where people could learn philosophy and practice being curious and careful for way cheaper than college, without slogging through 3 essays a class and endless lectures to wind up $300k in debt.
Great philosophy doesn’t just have to happen at University. We can cut straight to the real conversations that lead to genuinely transformative experiences. Most of those don’t happen in traditional classrooms anyhow.
This first workshop’s on me as a proof of concept. Will it work? I dunno!
But here’s the link to check it out.
I’d love to see you there.