I’m blessed in my personal and professional life to be surrounded by knowledgeable, courageous, and compassionate ‘giants’, as I call them. The picture above is of my father receiving a farewell gift in 1990 from one of his students in Botswana. Everything I believe about learning, growth, and change has been influenced by him, my family and mentors. As a soccer teacher and student of the game, I’m a constant observer and facilitator of human interactions and I’m an architect of learning environments. What I’ve come to truly appreciate, from coaching education and from my mentors, is that the players will learn from the game if the environment is set up properly.
Establishing a culture of humility with the teams I work with is an important part in what I do. What has especially piqued my interest is studying the concepts of humility vs. arrogance and how these attitudes affect the environments in which we nurture children. Many have said that our soccer culture—including the directors, coaches, parents, administrators, and players within it—too often falls more in line with a debilitating arrogance than a productive humility. While I tend to agree with that assessment, I feel that what is often lacking is a definition of the terms at play and examples of exactly what the issue looks like in application.
Everyday, I work with young people who are learning to play this beautiful game and I notice that they often struggle with some of the most basic and fundamental skills required to perform competently. Chief among these attributes is the ability to constantly scan and perceive their surroundings. Many youth players in our country lack an understanding and appreciation for the larger picture; a recognition that the game is about far more than what one individual can do with the ball. Their inability to recognize what is going on in the game, to think about the positioning of others, and to recognize and manipulate space is in large part due to our inability to demand that of them in our sessions.
How we use the concepts of humility vs. arrogance is often a function and euphemism for power. Simply put, those who have access to power—in any setting—are often given license to behave as they wish without reflection, hence the feeling that they can abuse their power. On the other hand, those whom the society deems powerless are most likely to be chided for a lack of humility when they do anything to threaten the established order.
What people really mean by humility in this sense is submission to whatever is considered normal and acceptable behavior. This explains, for example, the long tradition of non-white men and women being labeled “uppity” for daring to challenge the doctrine of white supremacy. In a racist society, those who strike out against the underpinnings and the inner roots of the oppressive system face severe backlash from folks who feel that their conception of the world and their way of life is under siege.
Similarly, when it comes to changing the prevailing structure of youth sports, the very adults who are benefiting the most from the current systems in place are the same people who will push back with all their might against any threat to their hegemony. Some people can cling to self-serving attitudes and behaviors because they’ve never truly been forced to reckon with the objective repercussions of their actions. They won’t face it, and even if they do, an escape route is immediately found, especially if someone else with less power can be blamed. For the adults out there who work with kids, arrogance manifests itself in how we shift the blame onto the kids in our care for our own shortcomings. Arrogance is refusing to self reflect; it is deflecting when we really ought to take ownership.
Rather than humility being a synonym for submission from others, we ought to think of it as a catalyst for growth and change within ourselves. Reflection combined with hard work is what humility looks like in action. This is what we can learn from individuals who are truly masters at their craft. Reflection and hard work are integral in an environment where everybody is pushed and supported to be the very best version of themselves. In education, on the athletic field, or in the classroom, the idea of the instructor being in service to the students is powerful because it shifts the paradigm for what constitutes quality teaching.
When coaches are in service to their players they think about what the players needs are, they plan with those struggles in mind, and they adjust based on what they observe the players experiencing. The focus transfers from what the coach wants or desires to what the players are empowered to achieve based on the environment that has been created. The result is the difference between producing insecure and submissive performers to nurturing intelligent and audacious artists. This requires humility in coaching, this is a culture of excellence, and this is what kids deserve in every single academic and extracurricular setting.
We must do this with the knowledge and the humility to appreciate that we are educating the people who will carry on the traditions of the present society or they will hopefully rise up and create a better one. We’re teaching young people how to be aware, how to carry themselves in the world, how to respond to struggle, and how to be in solidarity with others. This is the task we must embrace with every fiber of our being, with the conviction and clarity to understand what humility looks like in action. Together we reach higher, grounded in the knowledge that to reflect, to grow, and to work hard for change is to walk with giants.
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