Bagger Vance: Not Only a Legend. Coaching as Education

Bagger Vance: Not Only a Legend. Coaching as Education

The Legend of Bagger Vance is a film from the year 2000 directed by Robert Redford. It intends to be a metaphor for life.

Redford explains in an interview, "nobody knows better than a golf player that in this sport, all of life's morals are condensed. The 'Legend of Bagger Vance' is not only a story connected to the world of golf. It has to do with a person that can't hit the ball like he used to--with his own unique style--and so has to find a new way of doing it.

In this way, the movie has a universal moral that goes beyond the sport, because we all lose our "hit" in one way or another at some point in our life. All of us are put to the test by adversity...and I suspect that at some time, we've all wanted someone like Bagger Vance to exist and help us." I'd like to suggest this story for two reasons: first, because in the person of Bagger Vance you find educational attitudes and behaviors that are very interesting to explore; second, because of the good news that these attitudes and behaviors aren't only a legend.

It is possible to find them altogether, formalized, and lived in the expertise of a current professional figure: the coach, who applies these tools as incredibly effective instruments in an educational journey. Here is a summary of the story: Junuh (Matt Damon), an extraordinary golf player who has returned home exhausted from his experience of war, is unrecognizable. He no longer participates in public life, neglects the relationships he once nurtured, and neither works nor dedicates himself to his old sport. He is called to compete in a match meant to rescue his nation from misery, and tries to recover his talents as a golf player without success. He is not capable of hitting the ball anymore, "he lost his swing." Precisely while he is half-heartedly trying to find what he has lost, Bagger Vance (Will Smith) appears in his life. Vance is a mysterious and unconventional character, but nevertheless with few words gains his trust and becomes his caddy. With the help of his caddy, Junuh finds his swing again, his identity as a golfer, and wins the match, returning to life renewed. After the shock of war, he needed to be re-educated about existence, and Bagger Vance is an educator in the true sense of the word: one who helps another person to draw out of himself what is already inside, but can only be brought out by personal action (from e-ducere draw out from).

Bagger Vance's Role

Which of Bagger Vance's behaviors foster this e-ducation? He accompanies Junuh on the course, walks with him, and helps him to see reality, that of the course and of the people around him. He urges him to observe people who are successful, to get in contact with reality from inside their shoes, and to look at it for what it is. Vance teaches Junuh to see himself in their reality, without looking too quickly or superficially. He puts him in front of his own choices, and projects the possible consequences of his actions, overcoming the obstacles of fear and the ghosts from his past. Bagger Vance doesn't explain how to accomplish all of this. He suggests who and what to look at, but does not push Junuh in any direction. In one of the game's important moments, when Junuh asks which club to use, Vance doesn't tell him--he lets him decide on his own.

The essential attitude, intrinsic to Vance's behavior, is complete confidence in the fact that Junuh can win. Junuh's ability is blocked, but really his block is in the will. He doesn't believe in himself any more, and there appears Bagger Vance, whose belief in him is almost frightening. Vance believes in Junuh so much that he never tells him how he should hit the ball or perfect his shots, that would just mean to substitute him. Bagger Vance knows that Junuh has a unique and personal style, and it is this style, this swing, that needs to be found. It would be useless to use other kinds; he must draw out his own, and only he can do it. Vance isn't afraid that Junuh won't succeed, and doesn't fear his mistakes. He is convinced that the moment Junuh decides to seriously look for his swing, he will find it, and this will allow him to overcome whatever mistake he may have made before. He trusts in Junuh, and shows it in his behavior. Junuh, on the other hand, lives up to that trust and succeeds.

The Coach's Role

Now we arrive at the second reason why I have suggested this story: Bagger Vance is not only a legend. He is an embodiment of the professional figure of the coach with all his different expertise. A coach, in fact, is a person who helps another reach his goals. This profession was born in the field of sports, but amply extends to any existential field where a greater need for development or personal realization is manifested. A coaching relationship consists in a series of meetings in which the coach asks the coachee questions about his will, his world of values and meaning. He seeks to help him understand what he really wants in order to enter into his own desires without fear and understand the possible obstacles, risks, and consequences associated with his choices. The coach is thus a probe for desire and a generator of awareness. His role is precisely tohelp the coachee draw out of himself his authentic desire, that personal swing often harnessed or hidden, that will let him once more find energy to make a difficult step, confront change, or modify some aspect of his life. Great masters of coaching have many things to teach parents and educators regarding the strength of the human person and its most intimate, profound resources. They can also teach much about its hidden fears and obstacles that often, even at a young age, hinder children and make them insecure and fearful. Every professional coach knows that the first step to be taken in order for a person to achieve his goal is to communicate complete confidence in the other's abilities. Their trust is in the fact that the human person has remarkable resources and capacities regarding personal fulfillment and the ways of obtaining it. It is also confidence that fulfillment is never obtained alone, but always in a "happy" relationship with another person that believes in him, and shows it. One of the clearest ways of showing this confidence is perhaps by the coaching tool called "powerful" questions, or questions that broaden one's consciousness. It is a way of asking open questions, not oriented towards a specific answer, and not entering into the content's merit: What do you think about...? What is your strongest desire regarding...? How would you act if...? What do you expect to happen when...? How would you behave if...? In just a few words: the coach doesn't say what to do and doesn't offer solutions. He listens attentively and leaves space for silence and the flow of thoughts, accompanying them in such a way as to explore the coachee's own world and find the answers that are inside him. There is a later moment when the coach accompanies real action, and then the questions would be: What will you do when...? What is the first step towards...? By when are you planning to...? Each question should help to project oneself in reality, visualize the moment of action, and actually put one's desire into action. The art of questioning is ancient; Socrates was its master. The Socratic method however, is aimed at thought, while coaching is a method for desire. It is through the revelation of desire that the person wakes up to himself, and by placing this desire into action, becomes himself. The coach isn't limited to questioning: he opens up horizons and offers his ideas with feedback, but his style is always like that of Bagger Vance. He always leaves the ball in the coachee's hands. The coach is thus an accompanying presence on the journey. His neutrality is not indifference, but a presence that allows the thoughts and will of the coachee to emerge.

In a complete educational program, many moments of confrontation, teaching, and of transmission of experiences and advice are necessary. The approach found in coaching is only one aspect of this journey. The coach's formative style however, privileging openness and acceptance of the other's will, communicates confidence. It is the key to educating in a way that reinforces the other person's identity, promoting their freedom and responsibility. Implementing this approach is not always easy, but the coaching world can always provide helpful tools for whoever wishes to understand it more deeply.

(*) Federica Bergamino teaches Philosophical Anthropology. She is a professional coach.