Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Cult of the Coach

What is it about basketball coaches that makes us want to turn so many of them into gurus, seers and heroes? Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker about how underdogs defeat stronger opponents by “refusing to play by Goliath’s rules,” confers the full genius treatment on the coach of a team of 12-year-old girls. Gladwell tells how the coach taught his undersized and underskilled team to employ full-court defensive pressure and ended up leading them to the third round of a national tournament. I think we’re supposed to understand that the piece isn’t so much about basketball itself as it is an analysis of innovation and unconventional tactics, using a pee-wee basketball team as a case study. (Lawrence of Arabia’s campaign against the Turks is also considered, making this one of those rare works of journalism that manages to link pre-teen girls from suburban California and Bedouin warriors as kindred spirits.) As masterful as Gladwell can be at this sort of thing, I’m not convinced that there is all that much life wisdom to be gleaned from dissecting pee-wee basketball strategies. I suppose we’d all like our own calmly perceptive authority figure, a version of Gene Hackman in “Hoosiers” maybe, to guide us. Maybe that’s what the cult of the coach is about. Maybe that’s why you can’t watch a basketball game on TV without hearing some announcer say something like, “That’s a great timeout the coach just called.” But, really, the coach’s first job is to unlock the gym and let the players play. Which is enough of a life lesson for me.


  1. "...we'd all like our own calmly perceptive authority figure..." --that's why there are life coaches.

  2. AnonymousMay 12, 2009

    When I read the Gladwell piece, it seemed a bit like: on your mark, get set, be a genius! I'm sure that's a desireable state, but since I'm not a genius, your life lesson is a little more realistic.

  3. I guess my complaint is that we already expect too much of coaches (life, basketball, whatever) and give them credit for too much. So looking to them for insights about innovation and management really gets iffy. And this particular coach's credential seems to be that his pressure defense managed to fluster and unnerve a bunch of the other teams' 12-year-old girls.