Sunday, 26 September 2010

On Self Esteem and Coaching

Today and yesterday I attended a hockey coaching clinic.  It was mostly an excellent course, but things deteriorated badly at the end of the day when the presenter gave a presentation on "self esteem and positive coaching".  It began with a caricature of the nasty old coach who berates his players loudly and angrily in full view of everyone.  As the presenter noted, we'd object to this kind of behaviour from our boss, so it's odd that we'd do it to children or allow people to do it to our children.  Fair enough, but the presenter then argued that unlike the nasty coach, we should each strive to be a "self esteem" focused coach (SEFC).  SEFC is a man or woman who identifies something positive each of his players have done in every single game, and finds encouraging things to say at all times, even when his team is losing by a huge amount, by reminding them that the point is not to win but to have fun.

I've spent a fair amount of time watching and participating in kids' sports and I've met a few SEFC; they usually bug me.  I tried, not very successfully, to explain what bothers me about SEFC by mumbling something about kids being good at detecting bullshit and that this kind of false praise can backfire and trivialize.  (This was met with loud murmurs of disagreement steered at me and various anecdotes about nasty coaches or beloved coaches that always found time for a positive word for the kids. )  Here's what I wish I had said, "The SEFC disrespects the game, the truth and the players."  Here's why:
  • The SEFC disrespects truth:  If most everything, including the most trivial accomplishment or act, is praiseworthy, then how do we distinguish between the truly remarkable and the expected, required and mundane?  Or worse, what of praising something simply because we want the kids to feel good, not because the act is praiseworthy?  Praise inflation is like monetary inflation because it devalues our words and praise.   To put it another way, the SEFC, insofar as s/he is focused solely on using his/her words to make kids kids feel good, spews bullshit, and as Harry Frankfurt argued, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
  • The SEFC disrespects children: The assumption that kids are tender flowers that require contrived compliments regardless of whether or not they've been successful or done anything praiseworthy is extremely patronizing. 
  • The SEFC disrespects the game: Insisting that having fun is distinct from winning a game and fully independent of success in the game trivlalizes what the kids are doing. Imagine going to work and finding that something you'd been working on was irrevocably destroyed but then having someone try to cheer you by telling you that the project was a joke and hadn't meant anything to anyone in the first place -- it was just busy work that they'd had you working on to keep you amused.  If we think results don't matter at all, that only feelings of pleasure somehow unrelated to whether one has won or lost, why enroll kids in sports in the first place, why not just take them on picnics or to the movies?

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Religion and Politics

There was a good article, "A religious test all our political candidates should take", in last Sunday's Washington Post about, essentially, religious bias or the potential for it in politics.  The article noted that John F. Kennedy's famous speech about his Catholicism helped to push  the view that a person's religious beliefs are politically irrelevant.  However, this notion of religion being a private matter changed at some point.  Politicians in the US, it's very atypical elsewhere, I believe, wear their religion on their sleeve and we've come to expect candidates for office to give us some sort of "testimony".  An atheist would be very unlikely to gain office in the US, so the US electorate expects politicians to embrace a traditional, from a US perspective, religion and politicians like to use their religion to gain political points.

The article contends that while it may be tempting to go back to relegating religion to the private sector, that that may not be prudent.  As a matter of fact, one's religion has profound implications for one's views on morality, the government's role in enforcing it,  and authority.  So,  rather than letting the candidates simply make pietistic feel good statements about his/her religion, we need to be asking candidates how they would resolve possible tensions between the dictates of their religion and their church and their rights and responsibilities as leaders. 

I would add, and perhaps it's implicitly stated in the article, religion has the further potential to have profound implications on a person's views of ontology and epistemology as well. In fact, if a person is serious about his/her religion it will have a profound effect on their actions in the political realms even when there is no explicit conflict between church dogma and legislation.  For example, one's views on the acceptability, or non-acceptability, of divine revelation as a legitimate means of coming to have knowledge might affect one's views on the breadth of the school curriculum.  One's interpretations of Christ's demands to love one's enemies might affect one's perspective on foreign policy and willingness to launch attacks.  Or the flip side might be that one's views that all non-Christians (non-Muslims), are doomed to hell and/or that this life is nothing but a painful precursor to an eternity of bliss may also affect one's willingness to attack another nation.  One's views that Christ's return to earth is imminent might affect one's willingness to implement long term environmental policy requiring short term pain.  If one's religion postulates a lower role or traditional role for women, one might be less likely to pursue Equality in the Workplace legislation.  So, not only should we concern ourselves about explicit points of conflict but we should also try to understand how religion might affect the politician's entire worldview and the policies s/he might enforce.

Religious convictions are convictions on matters that are of fundamental importance.  (In fact, I'd contend that we all hold religious beliefs of some sort, insofar as assumptions, even working assumptions,  about the nature of humankind, whether we're alone in the universe, whether there's a higher power, legitimate means of coming to knowledge, on the sorts of things that exist, are all, in some sense religious beliefs, insofar as they're profoundly important and usually embraced with a measure of faith. )  In America, however, we've sort of come to the worst of all possible worlds.  We don't ignore religion in political discourse, but we allow it to operate only at the level of platitudes.  As the article suggests, if religion really means something , let's ask hard questions about what it means.  These fundamental convictions may very well mean something important and candidates owe us an account of what they think they mean when the rubber hits the road.  Now, I also think that for very many politicians religion isn't operating at a profound metaphysical level, their religious practice is more or less a social activity and/or a comforting set of rites and rituals.  Nonetheless, if that's the only role it's serving, candidates should  be clear about that.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Terry Jones

When I read about and when I see this Terry Jones book-burning Quran guy I'm impressed with a sense that he's like a classic internet troll.   Yet despite all that we've learned from internet discussion boards we're feeding this guy rich tasty food like calls from the Secretary of Defense and non-stop media coverage as if he mattered and weren't some obscure mindless pastor of a tiny fundamentalist church.  If anyone thinks this kind of attention will put an end to anti-Muslim hysteria, they haven't learned a thing from the internet.