Monday, January 16, 2017

Music, Sports and Venn Diagrams

I‘d like to share highlights of my recent meeting with Adrian Crawford, author of “Get To Know Coaches Before Criticizing” (Dec. 8), written in response to my article “Coaches Should Be Held To The Same Standard as Teachers” (Nov. 30). 

Once we had a chance to discuss our vantage points—Adrian from a coaching household, an All-American who played basketball at Tulsa, Florida State, and later as a professional in Spain, now a local minister and coach—and mine, a professionally-trained musician with an international teaching, performing, recording, and service career, working in one of the largest and most respected music programs in the country—we found a great deal of overlap in our Venn diagrams.  Here are some examples.

Professional musicians and athletes share a great number of experiences, including having more candidates than there are professional positions, extremely high levels of competition, performance anxiety and stress, dealing with criticism, teamwork, and exceptionally high levels of specialized training reserved only for those talented and driven enough to “make it.”  Most musicians who grew up playing sports (like I did) already know about this, but I think it safe to say that many athletes are unaware.  Adrian was genuinely surprised when I told him how professional orchestra auditions work, and yes, there are obvious factors outside the overlap—I’m not attempting to perform with a 300-pound lineman trying to level me with millions of people watching, just as a basketball player doesn’t have only one chance to sink a shot from mid-court or be sent home.  But the majority of the basic experiences are shared.

Many place a premium on the academic reputation and operation of the Academy, quoting the alarming inequity of salaries and lack of behavioral standards as a symptom of large-scale identity problems (see The Athletic Trap: How College Sports Corrupted the Academy, Howard L. Nixon II, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).  However some may not be aware of the comprehensive mission to train student-athletes to be successful outside of sports. As Adrian noted, no one sees the support the coaches give their student-athletes off the field—just as no one sees the support of our young musicians off the stage.  As spectators we might only get those few seconds of outburst to make a generalization.  And that brings up an important point about how coaches are trained.

According to B. David Ridpath’s “College Coaches Behaving Badly: Time to Enforce Some Common-Sense Standards” in Forbes, one major factor separating the Academy from athletics is that coaches receive no formal certification.  Where academics typically have increasingly streamlined paths through degrees, certifications, and professional experience, coaches follow more of an apprenticeship trajectory—they play for a coach as a student-athlete, teach as graduate assistant/trainer, become assistant coaches under a head coach, and finally a head coach.  In most cases, they simply coach the only way they know how—as their forbears did it, and for some that can include use of obscenities.  Adrian and I agree that you can have intensity without cursing, and I suggest once you start down the obscenity path it’s a slippery slope to other unacceptable coaching behaviors.  While admitting no one is perfect, I believe some certification or system to monitor coaching behavior should probably be in place if Athletic Departments continue to function within the Academy.

Here’s an interesting fact concerning those obscenity-laced rants as culture.  I learned recently from an Air Force veteran and master musician that Military Training Instructors (MTI, aka Drill Instructors) have been moving away from obscenity-fueled training over the last seven years. In 2009 the Air Force started a new program called “Military Training Instructor Deliberate Development,” where mentorship and valuing trainees as individuals with intrinsic worth became the instruction standard.  Instructors became capable of intensity without profanity, without threats of physical abuse, and without personal verbal maltreatment. 

If an entire wing of the military can implement a new way to train soldiers more efficiently, free of obscenities, physical abuse, and other trademark “Bad Coaching Behaviors,” then perhaps there’s hope for everything else.

I know that over my 20+ years as a Professor, now spanning three successful programs, I have not been perfect for every single minute.  There are fortunately many more moments where I know a huge difference has been made in the life of young people than not.  However, if I were under the insane amount of scrutiny some coaches deal with—and had a bad day—and had it captured on national TV and social media in front of millions of people—I would not want people to extrapolate and somehow come to the conclusion that those seconds of camera time defined me as a musician, teacher, or person.  I believe this was the main point of Adrian’s article, and I agree with him.  

One thing I have learned above all others in my career is that you must give respect in order to get it.  Respect your students, your staff, your workers, and most importantly those who may not see things as you do—and let them know that you love them and appreciate them—and anything is possible.  It’s not about manipulation, it’s about modeling best practices for your students. 

Therefore I remain convinced that obscenity-laced rants are disrespectful, unsuitable and unsustainable as teaching tools.  If they weren’t we would have tons of pedagogical research lauding this approach as a viable way to motivate and instruct across all levels.  One of my esteemed colleagues called this behavior a kind of willful laziness, substituting obscenities and personal insults for real information, and it happens systematically at every level—college, high school, even junior high.  One argument regards colorful language as the only way to get the attention of a student-athlete who knows no other method of communication, which likely is not the fault of the current coach. However the chance to elevate the discourse and prepare student-athletes for life after University—from that point onward—rests squarely with that coach.

If it were up to me, there would be fines for every instance of these tirades—on TV, heard by children behind the bench, or caught by media.  I imagine that coaches would act a lot better after paying $10,000 for every obscenity caught by the press.  By the way, that 10k is 0.2% of a 5-million dollar salary, and just for the sake of comparison that percentage would come to a $160 fine for me.  And my opinion has nothing to do with anyone’s ability to take intense criticism or instruction, weakness, or being called a “liberal snowflake”—it’s about class.  Words like tradition, pride, and excellence are rooted in class.

Will some coaches stop throwing their headsets, clipboards, screaming obscenities, shoving student-athletes, and acting like children as a result of this ongoing discussion?  Probably not.  However, will the continuing collaboration between Adrian and I make a difference? Could it provide a model for people to celebrate evolved discourse between two seemingly disparate people or points of view? That is our hope.

My program within the College of Music, as well as our Athletic Department, Adrian’s basketball academy, and every other cognate of Florida State University has a common mission.  We are to cultivate, train and support our students to be successful after graduation, period.  Does every gifted student-athlete have the chops to excel academically?  No.  Do people think student-athletes enjoy a status that protects them from the full rigor of academics shared by the rest of the student body?  Yes, many of them do.  And do people largely misunderstand what student-athletes do? Yes—and it goes both ways.  But here’s the thing—the coaches are doing the same thing I am—they’re trying to prepare their students for life after FSU.  And while I still cringe when I see coaches around the country using pedagogical approaches that are morally and ethically questionable—and I’m not alone there—I think I’d rather start the discussion with what we have in common, just as Adrian and I are doing.  And after becoming more familiar with what we do on our side of campus, coaches might have some suggestions for me, just as I have for them.

I’m looking forward to learning more about how our athletes are coached, and as I hoped, Adrian is excited about coming to watch our percussion ensemble (which has won our version of a National Championship, twice).   That will be fun for sure, as Adrian is a first-class guy, and I feel lucky to know him. 

The good news:  There are more people out there like us who are interested in continuing this conversation and making a difference, and I hope that what we’re doing will inspire people with divergent beliefs or practices to sit down and discuss their positions with respect and understanding.  

You might be surprised just how much you have in common.