Happiness > Winning

I’m always a little reluctant to talk about my observations and experiences here in China because I know just how trollish certain organizations of people can be when determined to undermine bad news or information that runs counter to their own narrative. I’ve just gotten used to saving it for my journal or internalizing it all together. Such is life here in China.

But I suppose I want to talk about my experience coaching high school basketball and how difficult it can be teaching Chinese high school kids to play together as a team. When I look at how most of these kids were raised, as an only child, often coddled by their grandparents, often without a strong father-figure or male role model, it’s no surprise when I see them get upset about missing a shot, making bad pass, or just turning the ball over because they lack some of the fundamental skills to execute basketball moves they’ve seen NBA players perform. Each of these boys wants to be the scorer, the playmaker, the hero on offense but doesn’t want or know how to work as part of a team. To a man and poor spelling aside, I think each of them believes there is an “I” in “team”.

Most of them struggle with the idea that they are not meant to be the superstar. They resist the idea that the play the coach wants them to run is a more effective, more consistent way to score than their own ideal of 1-on-5. Their preferred way invariably results in one of them launching a contested 19-foot prayer toward the hoop while their teammates stand around watching, frustrated that they aren’t the one with the chance at stardom.

A few of my players understand they need to work hard to improve their skills, and they stay after practice to work on something. But the majority of my team seem to believe they will only improve their game through the frustratingly inane 1-on-5 play I laugh at, then shout at them for. One of the best parts of coaching for me has been taking individual kids aside off the court and explaining to them their importance lies not in scoring points but in some other aspect of the game that they excel at.

This one boy who calls himself “Batman” looked a little depressed last Thursday night during our open-gym time because his team wasn’t getting him the ball so he could shoot more. He was so distraught that he didn’t want to play anymore that night. The next morning before first-period, I went to his classroom and had a short conversation with him in the hallway. I reminded him of the compliments I always give about his defense. He has become a hyperactive monster at the small forward position, disrupting opponents’ passing lanes, harassing and frustrating ball-handlers, grabbing rebounds, even blocking shots as he’s helping out. I told him any points he scores for our team are a bonus and that he should focus on his defensive play because that’s what the team needs most and what he does better than anyone else on the team.

I suppose our team won’t win any games against other schools this fall, but I really couldn’t care less about that. My philosophy about basketball has evolved a lot since I began playing here in China. No longer do I keep score when I’m playing, and I don’t argue calls. Instead, I focus my mind on one thing while I’m playing, and that’s whether or not I’m happy. If I’m not happy, I remind myself how lucky I am to be fit enough to play basketball nearly every weekday, how lucky I am that I work at a school where I have access to a gymnasium to play in year-round. When I consider how lucky I am and how good having basketball in my life feels, I can’t help but be happy. For me, basketball has become all about shared experiences and relationships I have with those I play with and coach. Winning is also nice, but I won’t allow not winning to affect my happiness.


Field Trip–Life Is Good

Despite all of the beginning-of-year mini-disasters at my school, I have to say that life has been pretty good for me so far this semester. I’m only teaching two literature courses (instead of 3), and my basketball practices will start tomorrow afternoon. I’ve been averaging over 7 hours of sleep for the past three weeks. That’s an improvement by about an hour over last semester. Although I haven’t yet lost the extra kg’s I gained over the summer, I feel pretty healthy, no aches or pains anywhere, and my basketball skills (such as they are) don’t seem to have diminished. 

For three days last week, I traveled with my school on our fall field trip to a place southwest of Shanghai called Nine Dragons. I guess you’d call it a secluded resort area on the coast surrounded on three sides by small mountains. I’d call it a picturesque local except for the three massive sky-piercing smokestacks clearly visible off in the distance from nearly every place in Nine Dragons.

On the afternoon of the first day, the students were placed at random on teams then performed a bunch of cooperation-based tasks, basically team-building 101. When I asked a few students how they liked it, they invariably said it was very difficult. They don’t get a lot of team activities at our school. 

On the morning of the second day, we rode horses around the inside of a coral, led by the horse’s trainers who held a lead. I found it a little boring, but some of the kids liked it. We also did some archery followed by kart racing, which I enjoyed most of all the things we did. I’m not hyper-competitive, but I’m proud that I passed everyone in my heat once and passed one person twice. After my race, another foreign teacher ignorantly said my kart was much faster than theirs. I didn’t waste my breath explaining to her that she was slow in the corners, didn’t follow the racing line, and probably wasn’t strong enough to press the throttle all the way to the floor. I just let her think my kart was faster. Hell yeah, it was faster. I drove it faster.

In the afternoon of the second day, we went boating in a small harbor and around some small canals which connected to it. Our small, under-powered boats each held four people. I rode with 3 of my 10th-grade students, and we had a pretty good time tooling around on the water.
Once we had found the outlet, we made a tentative plan to escape to the ocean, but we ran out of time and needed to head back to the dock to head to the next activity.

One of the 10th-graders brought a few clubs with him on this trip, a 7-iron, a wedge, and a putter. Too bad he didn’t bring his driver, or we could have had a little driving contest, but he thought we were going to be playing on a par-3 golf course. Most of us had fun pointlessly trying to hit little white balls into a rolling field full of little white balls while Andy, the boy who had brought his own clubs worked on his short game.

The last stop of the day was to play a war game the Chinese kids call CS (Counter-Strike). The war is fought with guns that fire plastic pellets which aren’t supposed to hurt much, but seeing as how I’m a teacher, I didn’t take the chance to get shot in the face by my students and sat this one out. Though most of the kids had a great time fighting it out among the modified shipping containers, one boy was obviously upset that someone he had shot would not admit to having been shot, and I suppose it might have changed the outcome of the game. So I reminded the boy that it’s only a game, and he calmed down. I think he was just hangry, and all of us were looking forward the the big meal at the end of a very long day.

No Favorites

As a teacher, you’re not supposed to have favorite students, or at least you’re not supposed to acknowledge that you do. I’m quite good at following this rule. That is until I heard the news this week that one of my favorite students, a tall, skinny, socially awkward boy who goes by “Mike” wouldn’t be returning to our school this semester.

I don’t mind stating that I find intelligent, self-aware students far more interesting than those uncurious students who struggle to speak their minds, or perhaps don’t even know their own minds. Mike is one of those kids. He was always asking my favorite question, “Why?”

Mike’s most endearing quality was his physique. He was tall, 6’4″, and built like a corn stalk. To call him thin would be a gross misuse of the word. But despite looking as though a stiff breeze could uproot and bounce him down the sidewalk, Mike often made the attempt to play basketball. He was actually beginning to make significant progress at overcoming his extreme awkwardness. So it’s super unfortunate that he’s not returning to our school this semester. He’ll definitely be missed by all of his teachers.