A few weeks ago I watched, Athlete A. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a disturbing Netflix documentary that chronicles some alarming events surrounding female athletes, coaches and administrators whose lives crossed over a number of decades through USA Gymnastics. Honestly, it’s hard to watch.
My original intention with this blog was to provide analysis and commentary of that documentary. Trust me, there is plenty of important and relevant talking points to discuss. And, I was prepared to write about all of it. Including the disgust and outrage that I felt upon learning of the unimaginable acts of abuse perpetrated on these young athletes. I was keen.
But, then one week passed. No blog. Then, another week. Still no blog.
The trouble was, every time I sat down to write, I found myself sharing an old message—sport had, yet again, let down the very souls who were courageous enough to step into it’s challenging world with their dreams and ambitions of being their best, winning a medal, and, maybe someday, even going to the Olympics.
Like so many other disappointing events in the realm of sport these days, with Athlete A, we learn of the compromised lives of the gymnasts. Yes, another situation where the adults in the room pursued their own agendas to the detriment of the athletes.
It was a story I was tired of telling. Like so many times—too many times—egos and self-interests had interfered with what was best for the athlete. I longed for something new to get behind.
Then, I saw a post for a documentary about rowing—about rowing!Naturally, I was intrigued.
WHERE TO BEGIN:
A Most Beautiful Thing isn’t your typical rowing documentary. Yes, there are scenes of rowers training, getting stronger, improving their technique—all in the hopes of winning a community regatta, in this case. However, what makes this doc so engaging is the backstory. How or, perhaps even more importantly, why young Black youth were attracted to a sport that had previously made no attempt to look attractive to them.
It was the late 90’s when a cocky young trader had a crazy notion to bring rowing to the West Side of Chicago. He showed up one day in the Manley High School cafeteria with a boat, some old Olympic rowing videos and a few boxes of pizza. In the end, it was the pizza that attracted the students. From there it was up to this ambitious coach—Ken Alpart is his name. As a young white college kid, he had rowed on the UPENN crew team, and now had a strange desire to share his sport with some kids who otherwise would have never had a chance to step into a boat.
20 years later, the team members are back for a reunion of sorts. Again, for me, it’s not the allure of the race they’re preparing for that keeps me watching. It’s their reflection on how rowing in the Nation’s first all Black high school crew literally changed—some would argue, saved—their lives.
Arshay Cooper was one of those athletes. He was the captain of that high school crew, and now the author of A Most Beautiful Thing, the book the doc is based upon.
When I listen to Arshay describe rowing, he paints a scene I don’t remember. As a young boy of the same age getting into a rowing shell for the first time, I don’t recall “feeling the sun pressing against my skin.” I never experienced being in the boat with my crew-mates as “a feeling of peace,” or “a meditation.” Never, not even once. I was too busy thinking about the national championships we were training for and the university scholarship I was in pursuit of once my high school rowing was complete.
It’s clear that for all of these young boys rowing offered something different from what it offered me and my teammates—an escape. And, they had much to escape from—gang violence, broken and sometimes abusive homes, constant run-ins with the Police. You name it—their futures were bleak. Rowing together in that small fragile racing shell created the perfect cocoon for them to explore what another life could look like.
When you’re in a boat with individuals you don’t know, don’t like or in this case, are afraid of, it’s a precious and odd moment when you realize that if you don’t work together you may not get back to the dock. And, for some of those boys who couldn’t swim, it became quite literally a matter of life and death. In fact, there’s a funny scene where one of the boys is wearing swimming goggles on his head as he helps walk the boat to the dock. For anyone who knows rowing, you know those goggles would be of little help in making your boat go faster. However, he wasn’t wearing them to make him a better rower. Instead, he was likely thinking, “These goggles may save my life.”
Trust became their only option. It’s a must in team sport. It brings people together and invites exciting opportunities that otherwise could not exist.
However, these young men had no reason to feel trusting, generous, loving, or even care about the others in their crew, and yet at some point they all became exactly that—trusting, generous, loving and cared tremendously for one another. How was that possible? How did rowing—a sport—enable that sort of emotional growth and coming together of such a misfit group of teens?
With Athlete A, it’s all there, as well. The equipment, the expertise, the environment—everything one would need to offer a positive life-changing experience within the context of gymnastics. And, yet, that didn’t happen—anything but.
So, what was different? Clearly it was the adults in charge. And, I believe within those adults lies the glaring difference in purpose.
With USA Gymnastics you had a purpose that was self-serving. It was about world domination. And, no surprise, the fuel of that domination was ego which became toxic.
With that unassuming high school rowing program, you had a coach that wanted to change the lives of the young athletes who chose to show up. Ken Alpert was in service of that change. Therefore, all of his decisions were based upon what was in the best interests of the athletes, not necessarily himself. His default behaviour was to connect with those young rowers. Show them he was there to serve them.
Arshay shares the story of Ken arriving at every single athletes home to meet the parents of each rower and show them his intentions were pure. Think about that. This white kid drove into some of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the country and knocked on doors. It didn’t take long for those young boys and girls to trust him.
When we talk about servant leadership in our workshops, sometimes we get questions that suggest there may be a compromise when striving to attain measurable and impressive outcomes, AND be in service of your team. In fact, some participants see finding purpose in the needs of others as “soft.” I understand that. But, it’s an old story. And, one that needs rewriting.
In the last number of months, I’ve read countless online posts that have suggested sport has to change if we’re going to address these reoccurring events where athletes are compromised at the hands of coaches and administrators. As much as I appreciate that prescription—certainly something has to change—I wonder if that notion is too simplistic or even shortsighted.
Maybe it’s not just sport that has to change. Maybe, instead, it’s us. As we like to say, “we are the work,” and that work is really, REALLY hard. Because it involves asking prickly questions like, why are you involved in sport to begin with? How important is winning? Are you prepared to invest time and energy into the lives of the athletes you coach regardless of their ability? Diving into the essence of who we are as people, and who and how those people show up as coaches is what’s going to begin to shift how our youth experience sport.
When we help to facilitate those shifts with our clients, we encourage participants to heighten their awareness of themselves and others. To develop the ability to connect with the individuals they coach. To be open to the concept of love being a competitive strategy. And, finally, embracing the role of joy in developing empowered youth—this is where our work lies.
And, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, the biggest opportunities for sport exist on the other side of that work. But, we must see ourselves through it first.
When the service of others is the paradigm with which we coach, our best-self shows up. Whether it’s running a national team program or coaching as a volunteer in community youth sport, we’re still dealing with people. Humans who have basic needs to feel heard, appreciated, cared for and loved. Servant leadership almost always guarantees all of those needs are met.
In moving on from Athlete A and choosing to write about a positive example of what sport can do, what it can be, instead—I’m not advocating we bury our heads in the sand and ignore the goings on of scandals like what happened with USA Gymnastics. There’s much to learn from those atrocities.
However, sport on its own doesn’t abuse people. Sure, the opportunity is always there, but it’s not inherent. Pertaining to the documentaries, both sports have the ability to transform lives for the better. However, in some instances, as with USA Gymnastics, it’s the individuals in power—the decision makers—who chose to abuse. And, that abuse resulted from what those individuals saw as their purpose.
As with so many things is life, sometimes it’s not all about what we don’t want to do, and more about what we do want to. In this instance, the examples that are laid out for us in A Most Beautiful Thing are there to be replicated. When coaches see their role as creating positive life-changing experiences for their athletes two things happen. People thrive—physically, emotionally and mentally. And, the byproduct is you help develop exceptional athletes.
As we continue to explore and develop our relationship with sport, if we can see ourselves embracing that sort of purpose, through servant leadership, we’re in for some exciting times ahead.