Men’s Basketball, the Seattle U-Jesuit Way

December 7, 2018

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By Jim Hayford and Pat Kelly, S.J.

A note to readers: Soon after Coach Jim Hayford arrived at SU, the men’s basketball coaching staff has been meeting regularly with Pat Kelly, S.J., associate professor of theology and religious studies, to talk about the meaning of the work they do as coaches – to have what Jesuits have traditionally called “spiritual conversation.” Over this time they have discussed the flow psychology theory, the Ignatian examen of consciousness, Phil Jackson’s book Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior and Villanova coach Jay Wright’s book Attitude. They also had a Skype session with Villanova basketball chaplain Fr. Rob Hagan, OSA about the values and culture of the Villanova program, which provided them with the opportunity to articulate their own values and the kind of culture they want to develop at Seattle University as a Catholic, Jesuit university.

The article below is an articulation by Coach Hayford of the meaning or significance of basketball and its relation to the Jesuit educational mission at SU, woven together with reflections from Fr. Kelly.

Basketball is fun, first of all. At Seattle University, we play a style of basketball that is fun to coach, fun to play and fun to watch. It is important that our players continue to love the game, and have a passion for it. Enjoyment and excellence are not opposed, as the flow theory and other recent psychological studies make clear. People who excel in their fields love what they do. This is the reason they go beyond minimal requirements and end up breaking new ground. For us as well, it is fun to go beyond where we were, to be getting better, individually and as a team. We tell every player we recruit, “We will coach you to be your best and we will be consistent in asking you for your best every day at practice.” It is our hope that the games are also fun for students, faculty, administrators and alumni to watch. After all, a Catholic, Jesuit university campus that does not have joy is missing something fundamental to human life and the Christian life.

A person who enjoys what they do has to be disciplined and practice their craft over many years in order to develop the skills needed to excel.  In order to develop the individual and team skills needed to be successful at the Division 1 level, we continually remind our players that such discipline is required – and, of course, practice. In contrast to the internet age young people have grown up in, where what they want is available quickly and there is little waiting, real growth or progress in basketball – as in life – does not always come quickly. And there are no shortcuts. Players have to take one step at a time to improve. Sometimes they have to develop the virtue of patience and learn to wait for their turn to play a particular role on the team. The most rewarding part of coaching/teaching is when players apply themselves and commit to the process and attain substantial skill development. Conversely the most heart-breaking part of coaching/teaching is when players fail to trust the process and submit to the discipline necessary to grow as players and reach their long term goals.

One of the greatest services we provide our players is that we tell them the truth to the best of our ability. In our context, student athletes often get a lot of attention even before they arrive at college. They may have a distorted sense of their own abilities, and therefore the truth sometimes can be hard to hear. The kind of player we attempt to recruit has to have the humility to be able to hear the truth about himself, and to work on the weak areas of his game. We are very transparent about this in the recruiting process and in some cases it might mean we do not get the player. We also sometimes successfully recruit a player who says he wants this but once he gets into the process he finds it too demanding and he decides not to stay with it. Having the humility to hear the truth about oneself is a quality that can also be important in the classroom, as the young man will be able to receive feedback from professors about how he can improve as a student. Of course, at a Catholic, Jesuit school, “living in the truth” should be a priority.

Because basketball is a team sport, good relationships among the members of the team are crucial to playing well. This is why we often speak of a “brotherhood” on the team. We gather every day prior to practice at the center circle of the court so that each person in the program has to look every other player in the eye. Our process for conflict resolution in our team/community is to not let problems linger but to work them out so that when we “meet in the middle” of the court each day we have found a middle place of agreement on the issue where there was conflict.

Our players are from different countries and of different racial and socio-economic backgrounds. Living, traveling and playing with players from different backgrounds from one’s own is an invaluable learning experience. Indeed, such an experience can introduce the players to the notion of the common good, which has to do with the conditions that allow for the possibility for all persons in society to flourish. This type of learning was evident last year in that our players decided to wear warmups for the National Anthem with the quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Sports can be one way to build community at the university as well. They are one setting where students, alumni, faculty, staff, administrators and people of all ages from the community come together to enjoy a common experience. Having such moments for the building of community is very important in a Catholic, Jesuit university. As Pope Francis recently put it, sports are “a catalyst for experiences of community, of the human family,” a “place of unity and encounter between people.” Community is so important because, as Francis put it, “We reach great results, in sports as in life, together as a team!”

Love is a word that is heard a great deal in the locker room and in the gym in our program. We love our players and we do the best we can to let them know, by word and deed. One of the great joys of coaching is to see the players become comfortable with the meaning and value of love, and even their own need for love and to watch as they grow in their ability to verbally express this to other members of the program. Of course, love wants what is best for the other person. And we know that what is best for our players is that they earn a college degree and have a meaningful and transforming experience at SU as students. This is an important time when they can discover what they are passionate about and what their skills are in the classroom and beyond and begin to discern their vocation in life. In this way, their time at SU can lead them to a joy that can last the rest of their lives.

But basketball, too, can be a part of their education. As Pope John Paul II put it: “Athletic activity, in fact, highlights not only the person’s valuable physical abilities, but also his intellectual and spiritual capacities. It is not just physical strength and muscular efficiency, but it also has a soul and must show its complete face.” We hope that, in addition to taking note of the number of wins men’s basketball at SU is compiling this year, you also see a “soul” in our program. That soul is manifest in that while they are playing basketball, our players are also being educated as whole persons and empowered to be leaders for a just and humane world. In this way, the classroom of the basketball floor becomes an extension of the profound learning students are experiencing in the classrooms of the university.

About the co-authors: Jim Hayford is in his second year as the head basketball coach at Seattle University. Fr. Patrick Kelly, SJ is associate professor of theology and religious studies and has published widely on sport and theology.  He was one of the experts who helped to write the first ever Vatican document about sport, “Giving the Best of Yourself” (June 2018).