The problem with Kobe Bryant’s Instagram post about youth sports

Kobe Bryant probably thought his Instagram post about coaching youth basketball was motivational. Instead, mocking a fourth-place finish and shaming a player who missed a game read as emblematic of a larger problem.

Bryant later edited the post, removing the line about the player and playing it off like he was just clarifying the absence. Then he tried to tweet his way through the uproar before posting a video of himself dancing at age 12, saying he skipped two weeks of basketball for it. 2019 is dumb. Intended or not, Bryant’s original message was clear: There was a player who wanted to dance instead of play basketball, and that wasn’t good enough for him.

It’s all part of the dichotomy of Kobe Bryant. He often preaches the need to be well-rounded, citing his love of soccer while living in Italy as being part of his formative process. He strongly recommended the recent best-seller book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World when asked for a review by Amazon. At the time, he said:

“This book looks at how an emphasis on specialization can actually hamper our ability to really excel at something. It aligns with what I try to do when I am coaching, in my stories, and what we’re doing with Mamba Sports Academy.”

But the brand and mystique Bryant has built around himself is at odds with this well-rounded approach. Bryant has a history of saying that single-minded determination is how you excel. Take his quote from the 2015 documentary, Kobe Bryant’s Muse.

“We all can be masters at our craft, but you have to make a choice. What I mean by that is, there are inherent sacrifices that come along with that. Family time, hanging out with friends, being a great friend, being a great son, nephew, whatever the case may be. There are sacrifices that come along with making that decision.”

In no uncertain terms Bryant is laying out his manifesto for what would later become his “Mamba Mentality” brand: You have to sacrifice important things, even family, in order to become the best.

This is symptomatic of a common thread in modern sports. Apparel ads, shoe commercials, and sports drinks all preach the same gospel: single-minded obsession with sport in an effort to be great. “Just Do It”. “Dedicate Yourself”. Concepts that not only play into the notion of “hard work pays off” — a repetitious message handed down from older generations to a next generation they perceive to be lazy — but also in the ethos of The American Dream.

Naturally this became another revenue stream for stars, yielding lifestyle brands like “The Mamba Mentality” and “The TB12 Method”, which are rooted in elite athletes telling people the secrets to their success. Ultimately, they’re carefully curated lessons playing off fandom and a cult of personality to sell books, supplements, and classes, all designed to make people think they can tap into some hidden potential.

Self-help is big business, and you can’t blame athletes for wanting to get in on the hustle. But the unfortunate side effect to this life-coaching is when people use it as a road map for their children to attain success.

It wasn’t long ago that we praised the multi-faceted athlete. Bo Jackson, Michael Jordan, Deion Sanders — guys who proved their excellence through their ability to play different sports with varying degrees of success. Now, the idea of being interested in multiple pursuits is slandered. Kyler Murray had to profess his loyalty to football before NFL teams would deign to take him with a No. 1 pick.

There’s a common response if an athlete dares to talk about wine or fashion or interest in politics: “Why are you focusing on ____ instead of winning?” When LeBron James decided to use his platform to discuss social justice, people told one of the best players in the world, who had already reached the pinnacle of success, to “stick to sports.”

Bryant suggested that one of his players didn’t have her head in the right place because she chose dance over a game of basketball. It told the world that children should be entirely focused on one activity, regardless of what that activity it. Then it suggested a kid isn’t “enough” because they aren’t enough for your standards. It’s dangerous, especially when those standards align with a brand more than personal belief.

It’s for this reason Bryant worked so hard in the hours following his post to try and course-correct. He wasn’t just trying to make himself look better — he was trying to triage his brand.

The beauty of sports is how they act as a microcosm for life. A collective need to work together to achieve a goal, handle success and disappointment, triumph and hardship — all distilled into a fraction of a year. By telling kids they need to focus on only sports, we block off a route for these skills to be transposed into other fields. When we reinforce the idea that winning is everything, we send the message that anything less than first isn’t worth the effort.

Bryant’s idea of motivation serves his brand better than the children he’s coaching. That should tell you where his focus is.

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