The only sporting events I watch on television are college basketball games, especially when the NCAA championship tourney rolls around in March and April. The 2019 tournament was a good one, with a number of games coming down to the last minute or last several seconds.
This was especially true for games played by the University of Virginia team, which barely won several games as they advanced through the tournament and clinched the championship in a back and forth game with Texas Tech University.
When I went online to read the analysis of the game the next morning, I was surprised to see a reference to storyteller Donald Davis. Now, Donald Davis is a preeminent national storyteller, with numerous books and recordings. When he performs at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee, telling stories about growing up in mountainous western North Carolina and about life in general, he performs in one of the big tents that seat 1000 people, and there is standing room only.
The University of Virginia basketball team had suffered an embarrassing loss the year before, when they were the first top-seeded team in the NCAA tournament history to lose to one of the lowest seeded teams. As Tony Bennett, the coach of the team, was agonizing over how to help the team recover from the loss, his wife Laurel remembered hearing a TED talk by Donald Davis in Charlottesville four years earlier, How the Story Transforms the Teller. In that talk, Davis recounts his own father’s story of having suffered a crippling injury as a five-year-old, one which meant he would never be able to do farm work. His mother insisted that he tell the story over and over again—from his point of view and what he learned from it, from the doctor in Atlanta who saved the boy’s leg and what he learned, from the parents’ perspective. She insisted that he tell it over and over, because, in her words: “When something happens to you, it sits on you like a rock. And if you never tell the story, it sits on you forever. But as you begin to tell the story, you climb out from under that rock and eventually you sit up on top of it.”
Davis goes on to say in the TED Talk that telling and retelling the story of the unfortunate things that have occurred do not change what happened, but the story has the remarkable power to completely change our relationship to what has happened.
Coach Bennett showed the YouTube clip of that TED Talk to his team on their first practice, so that they would not continue to wallow in pity but instead reflect on what they could take from the loss and talk publicly about this. He credits the talk and their discussion of it as one the things that helped individual players and the team.
Here’s the TED Talk:
Storying the Human Experience
Yes, it's a grandiose title. But, as Flannery O'Connor once said, "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way."