My Old Friend Entropy

A natural law and its application to coaching

Brent Jameson, High School Basketball Coach, Free Agent

This spring I came across a concept I couldn’t get out of my head. Now I must admit that I’m the type of guy who gets really excited by ideas—but this particular concept wasn’t your normal, ‘catch your attention and then forget about it two days later,’ type of concept. It was more of a, ‘I can’t stop thinking about this idea and how much it explains so many different areas of life’ type of idea. So if you haven’t been formally introduced to the concept of entropy, please allow me:

“Everything that comes together falls apart. Everything.The chair I’m sitting on, it was built, and so it will fall apart. I’m going to fall apart, probably before this chair. And you’re going to fall apart. The cells and organs and systems that make you– they came together, grew together, and so must fall apart. The Buddha knew one thing science didn’t prove for millennia after his death: Entropy increases. Things fall apart.” – John Green, Looking for Alaska

Right now you might be thinking, “Wow, thanks bud, just what I needed. A real cheerer-upper.” And I totally get that. I felt that way at first, too. You may also be thinking, “How in the heck does this apply to coaching? Did I click the wrong link?” Or maybe you’re just thinking, “man I need to buy a new chair…” In any event, I’m going to try to make a case that understanding and accepting entropy as a natural law reduces stress and frustration and makes you a better leader of young men and women.

But before we move on, it’s important to gain an understanding of social entropy: 

“We cannot expect anything to stay the way we leave it. To maintain our health, relationships, careers, skills, knowledge, societies, and possessions requires never-ending effort and vigilance. Disorder is not a mistake; it is our default. Order is always artificial and temporary.” -From the article, “Entropy: The Hidden Force That Complicates Life”

As coaches, how often do we get frustrated when we “leave something” only to discover that entropy has taken over? I often tell myself, “geez ‘o peets if we go away from ‘such and such’ for a few practices, all of a sudden we act like we’ve never done it before.” First of all, DUH! Second of all, understanding entropy helps me accept that regressing at something we haven’t practiced in even just a few days is normal and even expected. And it’s certainly not anything to be frustrated about, it’s simply one of nature’s many undeniable laws. We don’t get frustrated at gravity for holding us down (although you may have as a player), so why would we be frustrated with the natural law of entropy? Thirdly, and most importantly, it reminds us that it is certainly not the players’ fault, although that is always a self-soothing cop out. I’m as guilty of this as any other coach and in a moment of weakness have most definitely said, “My goodness, these kids just don’t retain anything. I swear they leave practice and don’t ever think about basketball again. And I guarantee they don’t even watch basketball… they just aren’t basketball kids (rant continues for 20 minutes).” This downward spiral is neither helpful, nor true. But understanding entropy is both of these things.

I often float these types of ideas by my friend and teaching colleague, Adam DePreist (who has wisdom for days). When I shared the concept of entropy with him, his first response was, “sounds like our jump shots are entropic.” See, I told you. Mad wisdom. However, in a follow-up email he got a little more serious.  “According to the article,” DePreist said, “entropy impacts literally everything. Without care and maintenance, everything will succumb to entropy. Therefore, you’re left with a choice. What are you willing to let dissolve into chaos and disorder? My wife and I have resigned ourselves to the reality that we will not have a clean bedroom. It’s not worth the energy to us. However, our children’s homework will always (almost always) be completed. It’s worth the effort to us.” 

He then challenged me to the core. “As a coach,” he asked, “what are you willing to let fall into disorder? Player relationships, parent communication, individual skill work, offensive schemes, defensive schemes, team building exercises, player grades, locker room appearance, social media presence, youth program involvement, scouting, etc.? Within each of those elements of your job, there are subgroups and subgroups within subgroups. It is not reasonable or even feasible for you to be responsible for the care and maintenance of all of those different enterprises,” he continued. “That leaves you with some choices. First, what are you willing to let become your bedroom floor? Just totally abandon if necessary? Secondly, what things are you absolutely NOT willing to relinquish control over? You want total control all of these things.” “Lastly,” he asked, “WHO do you trust to be responsible for the maintenance and care of the items that do not fall in the other two groups?”

I’ve been pondering these questions ever since. I considered sharing my list, but I still have a lot of figuring out left to do. Besides, I’m not sure how helpful it would be anyway. My bedroom floor is going to be different than yours and yours different than the next coach. But maybe if entropy is going to happen one way or another, it does make sense to be thoughtful and intentional about what we allow to succumb to entropy. So maybe next time you’re frustrated with your players or spouse or a certain area of your life, you’ll become aware, smile and think, “that’s just my old friend entropy, and he ain’t changin’, so maybe I need to.”

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