Comfort and the art of Parenting

Comfort. We all seek it. We love to eat comfort food, wear comfortable shoes. We want to make a comfortable living and seek the comfort of others. We want to operate in our comfort zone. You hear it everywhere you go, people have the right to feel comfortable with who they are and what they do. If someone makes a comment that makes us feel uncomfortable the reaction on social media is swift and punishing. We all want life to bend to our will and conform to our vision. If the world proves unwilling we can all just retreat to our computers or video games where we find any number of worlds which are willing to provide what we crave. Did not get the right outcome, hit reset. Not attractive enough, or wealthy enough, or athletic enough, create a new avatar. Comfort is only a click away.

What does any of this have to do with athletics in general or basketball specifically? In our effort to normalize everything, to make things acceptable, comfortable, we have reached into athletics and seek to lionize failure. Failure is the new success. Books are written, talks are given, blogs and vlogs extol the virtues of coming up short. Want to be a success? Just fail and you will be one. We are told that failure will teach us how to succeed. If we are only willing to fail we will surely overcome. We want our children to be comfortable and so we teach them that failure is more than acceptable, it is expected.

This all seems great, now our children do not need to be stigmatized if they lose, they need to lose in order to get better. As we revel in our newfound lack of success, here is the rub, what if failure is not a teacher, what if loss contains no educational value? Surely if failure was the great teacher there would be no way that the Buffalo Bills could advance to four straight Superbowls and lose them all. Surely the valuable lessons learned along the way would push them over the top in at least one of those contests. If losing is the great teacher then how do professional franchises spend decades wallowing out of the play-offs and mired in mediocrity. Surely they have a lifetime of learning acquired in these circumstances and after just a few years of struggle they will have acquired the knowledge to ascend the ranks.

The truth is failure is instructional but it is not educational. What is the difference? Losing can tell you things, most notably it can tell you what you are not. You are not athletic enough, you are not fit enough, you are not strong enough, sadly, you are not good enough. Losing cannot teach you anything, it is not educational because it does not show you the path to being better, it only illuminates that what you are currently doing is not working. The fact remains that we learn through our successes. Every step that we get right is motivating, every positive outcome causes us to push harder, we only learn what we are when we succeed.

I remember a former player telling me a story, we were going through a basketball season in which we were not terribly athletic and as a result we spent all of our time on defense in a 1-2-2 zone. We were very good in the zone and competed near the top of our league. The zone required our wings to make a particular slide that was very long. They had to go from covering the baseline on one side up to covering the top of the key within two passes. It was very hard and required a tremendous effort. This particular player asked me how she was supposed to be able to execute this slide. I told her there was no technical knowledge that would help her but that if she wanted the team to succeed she had to be able to do this. As was my way, I was quite blunt in this assessment, I very much doubt that it was delivered in a loving, caring way. The player then went to work and when a repetition came where she made the slide and got to the ball in two passes she said the experience was transformational. She did not learn that she could go from the baseline to the top of the key in two passes, she learned that all the limits she had placed on herself, all of the "I can't do that" statements that she lived by were false. In one moment of success she unshackled a lifetime of possibility. She considered it among the most valuable things she learned in sport.

Now, here is the thing, that player was made very uncomfortable. She was challenged, in front of her teammates, to find a way. What's more, the success of everyone was placed on her shoulders in that her failure to execute this slide would doom the team to failure. I can hear people now, "that is too much pressure", "that is unfair to one player", "the coach is taking the joy out of the game". The reality is that the athlete was challenged to do something that only required a great deal of effort. Then she was placed in the hands of the one true teacher, repetition. There will be good reps and there will be bad reps, but as long as one continues to repeat an action and gets the proper guidance while doing the repetitions one will come to success and in that moment one will learn. Thus, to paraphrase one of my mentors, basketball (and I believe life) is about finding comfort in being uncomfortable.

If repetition is the one true educator then what keeps us coming back for attempt after attempt. The key is the teacher. Finding the teacher that does not alter the drill to make it easier, or does not sugar coat our failures to make them palatable. Instead they have the knowledge to highlight our many small successes along the way that teach us and motivate us and yet challenge us with a job that is unfinished. That have the ability to give us meaningful feedback and when necessary the figurative swift kick that causes us to push that little more than we thought we could and gets us over the top and brings us to success and all that comes with it. This is a difficult process and along the way we will be confronted with many discomforts and a number of unpleasant messages. How we as parents help our children through this process is crucial.

Parents must be diligent and make sure that their children are safe. We are, however, in no way responsible to make them comfortable. In fact, we need to seek out opportunities to make them uncomfortable, challenges, difficulties all those things that life throws at us and that we must confront and be resilient in the face of. When they get bad news we should not fight the system to deliver a different message we should instead confront with them why the unpleasant message was delivered. If we lack the understanding or knowledge to see why the message was delivered, then we need to seek out someone who can explain it and tell us what needs to be different in a truthful and honest manner. Not someone who commiserates with us and tells us we are the victims of injustice. This kind of parenting helps our children gain real success and real knowledge. It lessens their anxiety and stress if they know that any problem can be confronted and overcome. That through their effort they can change outcomes and it is not the "system" that controls them.

Knowing the value of success too often parents seek the removal of any obstacle to their children's enjoying it. They try to short circuit the process, remove the necessary challenges. The result is that their children are comfortable but not educated. They appear to be successful but they have not been prepared for the larger battles and as a result they become frustrated on the bigger stage. They do not understand why the world will not bend to their will, they retreat rather then soldier on. Understanding the need to overcome discomfort is the path to true success. Taking the right guidance is the crucial decision. In the end it really comes down to the type of world we want to live in. Do we want to awake every day filled with the possibility of what we are, or do we want to struggle through every day knowing only what we are not.

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