When I was a young hoopster in the Bronx, I read a comment by legendary Oscar Robertson that stayed with me forever. A reporter asked the Big O why he was always chatting up officials. His pithy response was an American proverb: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
I had never heard the expression before and didn’t automatically grasp the sheer breadth of its significance. I eventually came to realize its fundamental importance to how we live our lives and pursue our dreams. As an adult, I recast the proverb for personal use by putting a positive spin on another time-tested saying, coming up with, “They can’t say yes unless you ask.”
When I became a basketball coach, the meaning underlying these expressions formed the basis for a major teaching tool. I discovered that the athletic experience, especially at the high school level, provided countless opportunities to teach young athletes to stand for themselves, and that as coaches we have a duty to identify and capitalize on the underlying teaching moments whenever they arise.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that the first substantive chapter of my forthcoming book, The Other Classroom: The Essential Importance of High School Athletics, is entitled Self-Advocacy and is devoted to how self-advocacy skills are central to a vibrant high school athletic program. High school athletic programs are rich with occasions for student-athletes to ground their individuality, whether vying for a specific role on a team or more opportunities to contribute (“OTC,” my spin on PT), expressing frustration or disappointment in the coach-athlete relationship, wanting to change how practice is run or certain plays are structured, suggesting defenses or players to use in game situations, and so on.
Coaches can understandably be reluctant sometimes to open the floodgates to “complaints” about every little thing to minimize drains on energy and time. It is important to pick spots and listen to other perspectives. But these concerns are of a piece with mentoring how and when to self-advocate, and what to learn from the process, an integral part of personal growth. This can mean a willingness to accept a “no” answer or not getting what is wanted. At bottom, the priority is to encourage speaking up and seeking.
There can be impediments. Parents, it must be said, can be—and often are—obstacles to self-advocacy. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that virtually every coach, if not literally every coach, has dealt with a parent (or more) who wants to rob their child of their voice and replace it with theirs. Coaches must resist those misguided (even if well-intentioned) tendencies, and athletic directors and school administrators must stand firm behind their coaches and insist on adherence to communication protocol. Emotional angst and political craziness can undermine the vital long-term learning at stake. When we teach self-advocacy, we seek to draw out the courage of the student-athlete. Responsible adults must exhibit the same courage they expect of their players. Otherwise, we fail the kids.
Schools can emphasize self-advocacy in handbooks, in meetings with coaches, teams and families and in individual player interactions. Student-athletes can be commended, when appropriate, whenever they stand for themselves. We cannot do enough for them in this area.
The ability to live by your own voice is essential to an effective and successful life. Indeed, in the modern world, with its suffocating chaos, roadblocks and, yes, acrimony and division, it is difficult to overstate the value of standing up for ourselves, advocating for what we want, understanding our strengths and weaknesses and making thoughtful and impactful decisions. High school athletic programs are ripe for laying a strong foundation for the development of these vital skills.
Where does self-advocacy stand in the hierarchy of values in your scholastic athletic program?