So. As coach Herm Edwards famously said: “You play to win the game.” This is true at the professional level of sports, and this idea certainly filters down all the way to Little League–despite the belief in “tanking” by some professional franchises. As a coach of more than ten years now myself, I understand Coach Edwards’ sentiment, but there can be more to a game than winning.
For a writer, “winning” might be defined as publication. As someone who fancies himself both coach and writer, I understand there’s more to this game than “winning” literal and figurative contests. There’s value not only in loss, but also in process. (Insert your favorite Joel Embiid meme here.) For me personally, I’ve pulled three specific elements from Coaching that can help me as a Writer: Preparation, Discipline, & Creativity.
Basketball is my game. While it wasn’t the first sport I played as a child, it was certainly the first one I excelled at. (I didn’t like all the running in soccer and I couldn’t hit a baseball to save my life–unless, of course, you count turning away from a fastball and getting plunked in the shoulder-blade as “hitting.”) As coach of the women’s varsity team at my high school, I learned very quickly the necessity and value of communication. I needed to communicate my vision not only to my elite players, but also to those still learning the game at the end of the bench. That’s where Preparation came in.
In basketball, preparation is important. High School coaches have a finite amount of time with their players, and those players are often juggling myriad responsibilities that pull their attention in a number of different directions. Without being prepared, without knowing my vision and where I wanted to be by the end of practice, I would waste the two hours I had my girls. My team needs to master the fundamentals, as well as ready themselves both mentally and physically for the games ahead. They hate conditioning, but it’s an integral part of that physical preparation. The mental fitness includes developing a positive, willing and winning mindset.
Preparation is important for me in writing as well. Sure, some writers can craft a story from the seat of their pants, but that’s not me. I need a vision of where my story is going. I need a vision of who my character is at the start, so that I know how they are different by the end. I need an outline to generally guide me along my intended path. And finally, I need to develop a positive, willing, and winning mindset, despite what my inner-critic might think of the work-in-progress. And this is where preparation and discipline come together.
As a basketball coach, discipline is a must. Yes, the atmosphere can be fun and funny (we are playing a game after all), but that doesn’t mean we’re not taking the competition seriously. In order to succeed on the basketball court, you need to master the fundamentals of the game. It’s about “muscle memory,” doing something so often that you don’t even have to think about it to do it correctly. Basketball is a process-oriented game. As coach, I need to scaffold skills to put my girls in a position to succeed. As a team, we need to develop winning habits. But a crucial aspect of Discipline is Accountability. If a player doesn’t perform to the level at which they are expected to perform, then they must be held accountable in some way.
In my writing life, Discipline is the element I struggle with the most. I lack the necessary discipline to really call myself a writer, and I know if I don’t develop those winning habits or that necessary muscle memory that I’ll never “win” the publication game. I need to physically condition myself to sit my ass in the chair (as author John Dufresne commands) on a regular basis. I need to hold myself accountable. I need to engage in the process in order to see the results. And it’s through the process that creativity comes to life.
Creativity in coaching is far more than just drawing up an innovative out-of-bounds play. In reality, drawing the plays themselves is probably the least creative aspect of the art of coaching. Creativity in coaching is finding new solutions to old challenges, finding another way to communicate vision, and, perhaps most importantly, being adaptable. The ability to adjust to the players in front of you, to adjust to the opponent across from you, is far more important than the playbook you’ve spent years assembling. But this is often the most difficult, and perhaps selfless, aspect of coaching.
In writing, creativity if often the easiest part. It certainly is for me. Writers get to play god in the worlds we build, but I need to understand there have been others playing god in their own worlds for far longer and far more successfully. That’s where adaptability in creativity remains integral. I need to avoid the derivative, the cliché. I need to find that new solution to an old challenge. I need to find a new way to communicate my vision. I need to change with the times and evolve right along side these genres as they blend and meld and birth new versions of themselves.
Coaching basketball is an important part of my life, just like writing is. Both have their difficulties and both have their rewards. As a coach, my vision for my teams is that they master the fundamentals, prepare mentally and physically, be unselfish (contribute, cooperate and share), be alert and aware, adapt, and persevere. Those are all lessons that I know my players can move to other parts of the life beyond basketball. Each one of those elements aids me as a writer, but of those elements Preparation, Discipline and Creativity can help me the most toward my goal of winning the writing game.