I’ve taught philosophy now for 15 years at the middle school, high school, and college level. And I’ve been involved with water polo for almost 30 years, first as a player at every level and, for the past 17 years, as a coach at various levels, though primarily high school. I share this briefest of resumes not in defense of my expertise but, ironically, as a cautionary tale.
To welcome the Fourth of July Weekend, I ventured with my wife to her favorite cardio-dance class. Actually, it was just as much a dance-cardio class. Because, while our instructor, Taliah, seemed to have energy enough to dance at a frantic pace for hours, she spent a good portion of the class teaching dance technique and routines as well. All the while, with the jumping and twirling and gyrating and twerking (oh yes, it had it all) we were getting a serious workout, as evidenced by my shirt completely drenched in sweat, new muscles burning, and the ensuing nap.
My wife is a natural dancer. It’s one of umpty-ump things I find attractive about her. I’m naturally athletic, but I don’t, um, gyrate my hips as naturally as my partner nor our dance instructor. So it was about three minutes into this 55-minute extravaganza I realized I was being coached, and so I began reflecting about myself as a coach.
It’s very likely that educators—which coaches certainly are—easily become numb to the excitement, the fear, and the flat-out difficulty experienced by students—which athletes certainly are—as they progress through the ranks of learning. Yet these are the exact things we should explicitly recognize. In short, this sort of awareness should be at the foundation of a good educator.
On the one hand, this is very easy to recognize with beginners. During Day One in my philosophy course, when I introduce topics like the soul, freewill, euthanasia, and the meaning of life, I’m nearly always met with blank stares. They’d never really thought about these things, it seems—actually, many of them don’t even know what exactly philosophy is. Yet, I can immediately envision them learning to think philosophically, just as prior classes have come to do: to properly reason, apply logical laws, utilize cogent analogies, draw on current research, and engage in respectful discourse, all en route to their truly becoming gifted thinkers.
Likewise with the neophyte water polo player. This summer, I conducted a week-long clinic at our school for the first time. Of the 30 attendees, about 10 had a great deal of water polo experience. Though, on the other end of the spectrum, 12 had never played.
With these newcomers, it was easy to empathize with them and, thus, celebrate their various victories. On the one hand, they were literally trying to avoid dying. As with most players, it took a full day or so just to learn the overtly awkward means of propulsion in water polo known as the egg-beater kick. I can harken back to my own struggles learning this, similar to that point in the dance room struggling to snap my hips side to side during the Frantic-Hyper-Salsa routine.
From this point, these new players celebrated victories along the way, such as learning how to pick up the ball properly, dribble it, catch—and then catch ten passes consecutively!—and pass, and shoot a ball into the goal. The learning curve is steep for the newcomer and provides immediate rewards for both player and coach. And so Taliah truly must have enjoyed having me as, not only did I not die dancing, but I think I actually figured out how to “pop my hip” amidst the Super-Fantastic-Hip-Hop routine.
But here’s where my dancing revelation really hit me. Amidst gasps of air and choking a bit on my own sweat, I realized just how easy it is for an experienced coach to take for granted the challenge of learning for the more experienced athlete.
The high school team I coach has a tremendous track record. As one of the top teams in the country each year, these young men repeatedly perform at a very high level, both physically and mentally. So, while forty minutes into my own personal classroom today, learning some combination of salsa-meets-hip-hop, I re-realized two things.
First, learning to move your body in a novel manner can be extremely frustrating. I could see the women—it was all women—around me all executing these moves. Taliah would instruct and then perform exactly what we were all supposed to be doing, and yet I’d see myself in the mirror looking nothing like the cohort around me.
This was especially insightful to me because I know I can become stubborn at times while coaching. After I’ve clearly—at least, in my mind—explained exactly what we’re doing, how to do it, and then demonstrated the skill on the pool deck and in the water, players of mine still occasionally fail to perform the task correctly. Given the character of the boys I coach, this is rarely, if ever, a result of their lacking focus or not putting in maximal effort; it’s because they’re (young) humans, trying to get their bodies to do something exceptionally difficult.
I clearly remember a team pool party after my second year as a head coach, at which the father of one of my players jumped in and called out to his son to pass the ball to him. The ball bounced off the dad’s hand, hit him in the face, and he then began choking on water. He reemerged, gasping, proclaiming, “Wow—what I’ve been watching you do in the water all these years is really hard!” My dance class was another reminder for me not to take this for granted, but, to instead look for these instances and celebrate them a bit more.
Secondly, I was reminded this particular morning of how exciting and fulfilling it can be once you do succeed in getting your body to do something novel. Yes, even if it’s twerking.
Having been around high level water polo for almost 30 years, this is something easily taken for granted. One goalie I’m currently training was recently named to the National Youth Team, essentially deeming her one of the top two goalies in the country her age. Just this week, we worked on getting her to alter her base hip angle and angle of attack a mere two percent. And when she finally made this change, she smiled in the same way that first time goalie does when she learns to perform the most basic of all fundamentals.
Following my morning dance session, as I was drenched in sweat, a woman in the class approached my wife and me and said to me, “Great job! After the first two minutes, I didn’t think you were going to make it.” (She seemed sincere so I didn’t take it as any form of heckle.) I actually did feel like I’d done somewhat of a “great job.” While my moves never looked like those of my instructor or my wife, I repeatedly got myself to do exactly what Taliah had instructed, and felt myself learning more about my body’s possibilities and, incidentally, my limitations. Not to mention getting an amazing workout all the while…and, lest we forget a primary component of all of this learning and training, it was a lot of fun. All in the course of a 55 minute session.
So I think to myself, imagine extrapolating that feeling over the course of an entire school year and water polo season. Jumping around on the pool deck celebrating frantically as these experienced players make that small tweak in their core fundamentals, or in the classroom as a student recognizes the potential inconsistencies in the theory of, say, hard determinism. It’s challenging and exciting to get your body—and brain—to perform in such novel situations. As well it should be.
And now, I’m going to go take a nap. Seriously. I can’t believe I made it past the first two minutes of today’s session.
Jack graduated from Stanford with Honors in Human Biology and earned a masters in philosophy with an emphasis in Sport Ethics graduating summa cum laude from California State University, Long Beach. He has published four books, including “If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers” (Random House, 2010), a philosophical novel, “The Dream Weaver” (Penguin, 2008) and a college-level philosophy textbook. His most recent book, Ethics and Leadership in Sport, comes out in July, 2017. While at Stanford Jack was a 2-time water polo All-American and NCAA MVP and was the alternate goalie on the 2006 Olympic Team. He has coached water polo at Menlo School for the past 17 years, winning the league championship 15 years and the section championship 5 times. In 2011 he was named by the Positive Coaching Alliance as a National Award Winner and now serves as the chair of the National Coaches Council for PCA. He teaches philosophy at Menlo School and serves as their College Athletics Councilor.