Bartlett: Even Now, the Answers are in Sports

Lessons learned from a youth basketball game can help us conquer our coronavirus fears

Posted on March 27, 2020

  By Nick Bartlett, SuperWest Sports


rdinarily, I would be writing about Pac-12 football or basketball in this space. But we’re living in unprecedented times, and the extraordinary fear that has gripped our lives has transcended sports. 

Yet, as I recently realized while coaching my youth basketball team, the answers to our problems, even now, can be found in the lessons we learn from sports. 

In many ways, our fear has created a bigger problem than the virus itself. People are hoarding toilet paper, getting in fights at the grocery store, and worst of all, feeling isolated from their family and friends.

And while all this has been manageable for most people, the last straw for many has been the loss of comfort and familiarity that comes from watching sports.

I’m here to tell you that we’re going to be alright: Keep believing, stay inspired, and do one thing each day for someone who has no means of returning your love. 

First and foremost, the coronavirus situation should be respected, as it does have very serious implications for vulnerable populations. Obsessive hand-washing and social distancing may feel awkward, but as long as the health experts tell us to do so, they are the right things to do.

With that being said, people don’t need to live in fear. Those grocery store fights, reminiscent of MTV’s Celebrity DeathMatch, only increase our distress.

Still, while irrational behaviors are, well—irrational—they do give us a feeling of control, whether real or imagined. But know this. Control is only an illusion. All we can ever do is adapt. 

I have a funny idea. Instead of worrying, posting panic on twitter, and jostling for the last container of disinfectant in Aisle 7, why not heed the lessons we learn from those sports we so dearly miss? 

* * *
As a youth basketball coach, one of the first things I learned is that no one can know what’s going to happen in a game. The same goes for life. And in the end, what happens doesn’t matter as much as how we handle it.
In the spirit of that adage, I’d like to share an example from my coaching this past season. I hope you find it heartwarming, if not instructive. 

Entering our third game, my team had compiled a 1-2 record. In a seven-game season, there’s a big difference between 2-2 and 1-3. We needed a win to fend off the threat of a losing season, and I felt confident that we were ready. At least, until I looked across the gym. I couldn’t believe what I saw. There stood three seventh-graders who were magically over 6-foot-2 inches tall. Seventh-graders

Clearly, my boys were undersized, and I couldn’t blame them for feeling intimidated. I quickly realized we had no business playing this team. On paper, anyway.

My assistant coach—Kurt “The Man,” as I like to call him—and I had gathered our squad together for the pregame huddle. Neither of us had a realistic strategy to overcome our opponent’s towering height advantage.

So we did the only thing we could do. We continued to preach the message we had been selling all year: Have fun, play the best you can play, and believe in yourself. 

The game tipped off, and our team promptly fell behind 6-0. Things weren’t out of hand yet, but the way we were getting pushed around, they would be soon. I took a timeout. 

We huddled up, reinforcing our “game plan,” which translates to playing our style of defense. At the seventh-grade, junior-varsity level, that means attacking, causing havoc, causing more havoc, and doing everything you can short of tackling those giant 6-footers to get after them. 

Most of all, we told the boys to have a heck of a lot of fun while doing it. The players grinned, taking the court like kids running onto the playground at recess. 

Immediately, our crazy, chaos-causing defense confused the giants. We tied the game at 6-6. Still a long way to go, to be sure, but the players and Coach Kurt were thrilled. So was I. 

* * *
hese crazy times are much like the game I was coaching that day. It feels as though our society is fighting an uphill battle against a tremendous giant. And understandably, our confidence is wavering.
But right now is the time to believe in ourselves, to do the best we can, and to celebrate small victories. Has the curve of new virus cases gone down, even a little bit? Terrific. It’s progress!
No one saw this sudden change in our lifestyle coming, and no one likes it. But some would say it’s a sign of the universe’s plan for us all. And they might just be right. So instead of grasping at straws, and turning on each other, let’s continue to work together, as if we were still on a normal path. 

And while the loss of sports may seem like the final straw of sanity for some of us, it’s important to keep that loss in perspective. In fact, this may be a good time to analyze our relationships with sports. 

Are the competitions still a valuable addition to our lives, or have they become an obsession to escape our own life circumstances? If it’s the latter, why not use this time of reflection to make a change? We will appreciate the games and events all the more when they return. 

Events in life, as in sports, unfold in phases. Right now, it feels like we’re entering the fourth quarter of this pandemic, with the coronavirus still holding a seemingly insurmountable lead. The world has shutdown, the death-toll keeps rising, and the news just keeps pumping out fear. 

But now is the time to overcome all of that, to believe in ourselves, to believe in the universe, and to keep on dreaming. Just like my young players did the day they tied the score early against the giants.

* * * 
s the fourth quarter of that contest rolled around, one boy on my team, whom I’ll call Arthur (not his real name) was struggling. He was our team captain, and normally an excellent long-range shooter. But he couldn’t buy a basket the first three quarters, going 2-15 from beyond the arc.
During a timeout, he approached Coach Kurt and me with a look of fear and desperation. “I don’t know what to do, coach. I’ve never had a game like this.” 

We both nodded, staying calm. “Just keep shooting,” I said. “You’ll make some.” Arthur shook his head. There was panic in his eyes. “Coach, I can’t make a shot. I’ll pass off to my teammates.”

I looked at him the way a father might look at his son, knowing the boy’s unselfish plan wouldn’t help his confidence, or his teammates. 

“Arthur, that isn’t an option. You MUST shoot the ball.”

* * *  

 ith the world diving deeper into these unprecedented times, without the escapism that sports can offer, we must continue on our journeys of self-improvement. For some, that may be meditation. For others, it may be relaxing with music, a book, or a couple of beers. Whatever it is, we all need to keep moving forward. 

Fear isn’t the answer.
Now, more than ever, the world needs heroes. People like you. Your heroic actions could be as simple as smiling at your neighbor, calling a frightened family member, or comforting a friend. Anyone can do these things. But not when they’re blinded by panic and fear. 

We have survived Ebola, SARS, MERS, Bird Flu, Y2K, 911, numerous Middle East excursions, and two World Wars. Humanity is the strongest life force on earth, and we ought to believe in our ability to heal and grow from this, yet another troubling period in our history. 

* * *
ncredibly, as the fourth quarter of our youth basketball game began, the game was still tied. The giants, who once seemed like monsters, were starting to wear out. Our rabid defensive attack had gotten into their heads.
Suddenly, our little guys didn’t seem so little. One of our players literally jumped over the back of a monster, who was holding the ball over his head, and yanked it away. Somehow, he managed not to foul. I love those darn kids. 
But back to Arthur and his cold-shooting streak. 

Coach Kurt and I threw him back into the game, despite the uncertainty written all over his face. Three possessions later, he got a good look from the wing. He let a three-pointer fly. Bang! A little later, same look, same result. 

Everything started going our way. 

One of our players stole the ball, and while simultaneously stumbling and dribbling, flipped the ball over to Arthur for an easy layup. Arthur scored eight points in a matter of four minutes, leading our team to a two-point victory.

After the game, it felt like I was talking to a new kid. His smile lit up the gym, and I have a feeling it will linger in my memory for as long as I live, as one my happiest moments.

For the rest of the season, Arthur lived up to his role as captain, leading our team to a 5-3 record, including a victory in our one and only playoff game. 

His confidence shined through because he continued to believe in himself in the midst of trying times. He continued to love something he was passionate about, firing off those deep threes without fear of missing, even after his athletic gift seemed to have been taken from him. 

* * * 
challenge all of us to learn from Arthur, and to continue to display confidence, trust, and love—to our friends, family, coworkers, health providers, and politicians alike—despite the loss of sports and so many other activities we desperately miss.
Make no mistake, this disease is nasty, not something to be taken lightly. But all of us can contribute to the cause, and we can do it from a standpoint of love rather than fear. Remember, we can only control so much, and in the end, control is just an illusion. 
Stay strong, stay healthy, and keep spreading that love. 

—More from Nick Bartlett—