Last Chance U has been my favorite show as of late. The Netflix documentary focuses on East Mississippi Community College, a juco football powerhouse that boasts a roster of troubled Division I dropouts and dismissed players. For these athletes, the two-year school and its football program offer a “last chance,” so to speak — a last chance to atone for past mistakes by playing well, keeping out of trouble, and, hopefully, transferring to another Division I program.
The show is great for a few reasons. Football fans will, of course, love the macho grittiness of the practice and game day footage. It’s got all the hits, anger, and highlight-worthy plays you could possibly want. But there’s more to it than just football. I love Last Chance U because it focuses on the vulnerability of the players involved in the game. Viewers are given an intimate look at the players’ struggle for success on the field and their struggle to transcend personal and systemic obstacles off of it. While the kids are confident and oh-so-fierce on game day, their actions in the classroom and in everyday life sometimes seem painfully shortsighted. They appear to sabotage their own success.
Common Ground Lessons from Last Chance U
There are some lessons to take from Last Chance U in terms of reaching common ground with those who seem reluctant to achieve. If we as teachers, mentors, and friends fail to look deeper into what creates and drives this reluctance, then we’ll fail to reach common ground, and we’ll fail again and again in the future.
“Disadvantaged” is an Exhaustive Concept
It goes beyond a mere lack of financial opportunities. Disadvantaged communities lack social opportunities, too. Underfunded schools lead to deficits of academic confidence and achievement. This breeds definitions of “success” that are anything but pro-social, and that leads to higher incarceration rates and, from there, a lack of political agency.
It’s difficult to rise above these challenges when you have few examples to aspire to. Even for those who do make it out (particularly through athletics), a mindset molded by oppression can still present a formidable challenge.
Examples in Last Chance U: Most of the athletes featured in both seasons 1 and 2.
Mindset Can Become the Arch-Enemy
Though someone may be exceptionally talented in a certain area, there are usually other areas in which they feel helpless. When people come face-to-face with a challenge in that weak area, they have two options: battle adversity and accept the potential of failure, or give up and avoid the challenge altogether. The latter occurs when failure is perceived as a dead end.
When a person grows up in an environment that’s bereft of second chances, then everything becomes all or nothing.Tweet
When a person grows up in an environment that’s bereft of second chances, then everything becomes all or nothing. Even minor setbacks become writing on the wall, and that makes quitting seem preferable to putting in an ineffectual effort. Remember: no one is a natural-born “quitter.” There’s always more at play.
Examples in Last Chance U: In season 1, Ronald Ollie, Wyatt Roberts, and D.J. Law all suffer from a lack of confidence in certain areas. They also refuse to compromise even when it appears to be their best option. In season 2, Kam Carter is plagued by both this mindset as well as attitude issues caused by past traumas.
You Can Provide Tools to Combat a Mindset — But They Have to Use Those Tools
You can motivate, you can inspire, you can tutor and mentor and teach, but you can’t force anyone to achieve if they feel it’s impossible. The goal, then, is to help that person get as close as they can to overcoming that feeling.
You can equip them well and reassure them of their preparedness, but you can’t do the work for them (and no one achieves anything if you do). You must observe and instruct, and that requires at times infinite patience and the ability to be stern yet respectful. Understanding the negative mindset and the individual background that gave rise to it can help with this. If you give up after one or two missteps and subsequently label someone a “quitter,” then you’ve fallen victim to the same negative mindset.
Examples in Last Chance U: Ms. Brittany Wagner, in both seasons, refuses to give up on any of the athletes despite the constant frustration they cause her. In season 2, particularly, coaches Marcus Wood and Davern Williams are persistent and (mostly) patient in pushing the athletes toward on- and off-field success.
A Highlight Reel Never Shows What Happens Behind the Scenes
Those with exceptional talent still feel inadequate (see imposter syndrome). Those who enjoy stunning victories still suffer painful defeats. Those who are strong or standoffish are still fragile when there’s no one else around. There are highs and lows, and no one is immune to the lows regardless of how great the highs are.
It’s easy to judge people based on first appearances and decide that there’s nothing to them beyond that. It’s a little more difficult to understand the failure and hardships they’ve faced and help them achieve despite those things. That’s the effort required to reach a common goal, a common good, and common ground.
Examples in Last Chance U: In season 1, John Franklin III suffers from considerable insecurity despite his cool outward demeanor and obvious talent. Though his on-field persona is thoroughly unlikeable (worse in season 2 than season 1, in my opinion), Head Coach Buddy Stephens is shown to grapple with personal demons and difficult fluctuations of faith.