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A ten-hour flight delay gave my family and me plenty of opportunity to get to know fellow travelers at Midway airport a few weekends ago. By far the most interesting conversation was with the members of an elite travel basketball team, all of whom were black males in their teens.

My two boys, both good basketball players who want to be elite, peppered them with questions about the colleges they hoped to attend and whether they thought they’d make it to the NBA.

I was more interested in a slightly different question: how do you prepare for the emotional challenges in a game? When your opponent trash talks after he hits a jumper in your face? When a ref calls a foul on you that you didn’t commit? When you’re on the free throw line with five seconds left, down two points and in a hostile arena with the crowd screaming at you?   

The point guard of the basketball team motioned over to a middle-aged black man reading a newspaper and wearing a serious look on his face. “That’s our coach,” the player said. “He makes us do drills over and over. He has us run every time we make a mistake. He doesn’t give out many compliments. He always says that he makes practices harder than games so that by the time we get there, we find the game easy.”

My boys were rapt. The player looked directly at them and said, “You practice harsh like that, and you become mentally tough enough to deal with anything.”

I marvel at athletes, especially high-profile college athletes. They regularly play in stadiums with tens of thousands of people and are watched by millions more on national television. Half of those people are screaming for those athletes to fail; the other half are irrationally invested in their success (I’m a huge Notre Dame fan and am fully willing to confess that my emotional investment in Fighting Irish athletics is totally irrational).

Remember, these college athletes are eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old. When I hear a twenty-year-old college student say that reading a particular book is violence, I wonder how that compares to the kind of violence that a 190 pound wide receiver experiences when he is blindsided by a 240 pound middle linebacker running at full speed. 

Remember also that the approach coaches take to practice is an educational philosophy that is tested during every game.

It ought to be added that many many of the athletes in the most high profile college sports, namely football and basketball, are young black men from very challenging backgrounds.

So here’s my question for higher education more generally: if coaches of elite athletes prepare their students for ‘the real world’ of the game by making practices extremely challenging, should colleges prepare students for “the real world” more generally in a similar way.

I’m not really making a proposal here, I’m more asking what I find to be an interesting question, buttressed both by personal experience and by observations of, and conversations with, people I admire.

A little about my real world experience. I was a hair-on-fire diversity progressive activist when I was in college, and I followed through on those ideological commitments by teaching in tough neighborhoods in Chicago for two years after I graduated.

My job had its equivalent of trash talking opponents, bad calls and hostile fans - and of course structural injustices. I am enormously grateful for my undergraduate experience, but there were very few courses or co-curricular programs that paid attention to the mental toughness required for diversity work in the real world. 

(Read this piece by Atul Gawande, on a parallel experiences in medicine.)

Shouldn’t college prepare you for the challenges of the real world? Isn’t college, as one professor told me, “practice for the public” - in the same way that basketball practice is preparation for the game? 

If you asked those athletes I spoke to at the airport whether they enjoyed their first few elite basketball practices, my guess is they would have said no. They might have wanted their coach to give more compliments, wished they didn’t have to run so much, hoped for a break between drills. 

But when they got to the game, and figured out that all those tough practices had indeed prepared them for the harsh mental and emotional realities of basketball-as-it-really-is, they were more than grateful.

By the way, that’s not a guess – that group of athletes told me so themselves. 

Look at it this way. What would we call a coach who taught her athletes how to dribble, pass and shoot, but didn’t prepare them at all for the other side of the game, the mental toughness and emotional fortitude part? We would call that person a bad coach who didn’t prepare her players well. And the people with the right to be the most frustrated would be the players. After all, they trusted their coach to know the game well enough to prepare them to excel.

If we ignore the mental and emotional toughness that students require to succeed in the “real world”, are we meeting their immediate need for “easy practices” but betraying a deeper trust of preparing them for the realities of the game?  


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