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Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Thinking About Thinking About Sports Coaching. Or: Philosophy is less boring than might think

This entry, and the next few, will focus on some of the philosophical issues that relate to sports coaching, PE teaching and so on.

The material was originally written for a book, but that did not materialise.  So I thought this blog might be a useful forum for publishing it.  Feel free to circulate to those who might find such things interesting.  And please do comment with ideas and suggestions for extending the debate.


I want to think about sport.  To think about why it is important for life, and for me.  In sport, as in life, we spend a lot of time mindlessly following the views and practices handed down to us, and there are some benefits from operating in this way.  For a start, it takes a lot less effort.  But since when is effort objectionable in sport?  Thinking about thinking – what is sometimes grandly called philosophy – does not present facts but suggestions, explanations, and, most importantly, questions.  What is sport?  Why does it matter?  Does it matter enough to force all young people to learn something about it?  Can a life without sport be complete?  Does it matters if some people cheat?  Questions like these require something more than reflective practice.  They lead us to examine and discuss complex ideas and come to see sport anew in light of our endeavours.

Philosophers, on the whole, have not taken sport very seriously.  They have tended to consider it a trivial escape from the real business of living.  Philosophers’ distain for sport is often an expression of a more fundamental ignorance of the body.  For them we are primarily minds; our bodies merely move us around and help keep us alive.  Lovers of sport suspect this misses the point – both of sport and of life.  Even the most intellectual of activities takes place thanks to our senses and our feelings.  Our bodies give shape to our thinking.  We can more think without our bodies than we can move without our minds.  Sport is one expression of this knowledge writ large.

The understanding that comes from thinking philosophically about sport will probably not improve my game.  But to examine sport in this way changes the way I engage with the game.  Not in the moment-by-moment experiences that give me pleasure, but as a way of life that gives my life meaning and happiness.

Teachers and coaches are practical people.  In my experience at least, they tend to be intolerant of too much talk.  I don’t think Elvis Presley was ever a PE teacher, but his demand for ‘a little less conversation, a little more action’ captures the shared feeling nicely.  Philosophy seems to be the supreme example of ‘too much talk’, and not surprisingly, many people are wary of its never-ending series of discussions and arguments.  They are, as Bertrand Russell put it, “inclined to doubt whether philosophy is anything better than innocent but useless trifling, hair-splitting distinctions, and controversies on matters concerning which knowledge is impossible” (Russell, 1959, p. 153).

My goal in this and subsequent entries is to show that this image of philosophy is mistaken.  More than merely arguing that teachers and coaches can think philosophically, I will suggest that they must think philosophically.  By this, I do not mean that they need to immerse themselves in the endless debates of academic philosophy.  All I mean to suggest is that a philosophical approach to one’s work is the mark of an intelligent and professional practitioner.

“Philosophy is not a theory but an activity.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

“Philosophy is a wonderful subject, but it is necessarily unfinished and infinishable … At the end of my life I want to know more than I did at the beginning ..” (Isaiah Berlin)

“Nothing so absurd can be said that some philosopher has not said it.” (Cicero)(All quotations from Lloyd and Mitchinson, 2008)

Philosophy (from the Greek for the love of knowledge or wisdom) requires thinkers to think for themselves.  This is why the great philosopher Immanuel Kant asserted that it is not possible to learn philosophy; it is only possible to learn how to philosophise.  This does not mean that the philosopher ought to live a life of solitary contemplation (although some have done just that).  But it does mean that the philosopher is compelled to think for him or herself.  This is perhaps why philosophical conversations often seem characterised by ambiguity and perplexity.  Important questions are rarely resolved with simple answers unless, of course, we choose to borrow uncritically the dogmas and doctrines of others.  For Russell, the person who does decide to live so uncritically “goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason".

Let’s pause for a moment to consider Bertrand Russell’s use of masculine pronouns (‘he’ and ‘his’) as general terms referring to all humans.  This was common usage when he wrote, but has increasingly become replaced by gender-neutral language (his/her, abandoning pronouns, pluralising, etc.) following claims that gendered language is misleading, inappropriate or simply sexist.  Is this a reasonable evolution of language use or ‘political correctness gone mad’?    As soon as we start to reflect on these questions we are engaging in philosophy.

It is possible to think and act without philosophising.  It is certainly possible to teach without giving a moment’s thought to philosophy.  But it is not possible to think for ourselves, especially to think about matters of value, without philosophising in some way.  Sports teaching is a subject rich in philosophical issues:
  • ·      What should I teach?
  • ·      What experiences are most valuable / relevant / necessary for my students?
  • ·      Are some ways of organising or presenting the curriculum inappropriate?
  • ·      Should sport be compulsory for all young people?
  • ·      Should all students be taught together, or grouped according to their ability / gender / interest?
  • ·      Should teachers and coaches prepare their students for the world of competitive sport?
  • ·      What type of person should sports teachers aim to develop?

We might turn to sociology or psychology to help us gather evidence for our enquiries.  For example, psychology might help us understand how children’s minds develop.  But psychology can never tell the psychologist which forms of development are worth supporting.  Sociologists can help us understand about the influences of gender, class, ability or ethnicity on young people’s experiences of learning, but as soon as they start to talk about why it matters, they shift to philosophy.


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