Friday, June 25, 2010

Longest Tennis Match: Time/Space & Sport

4/6   6/3   7/6   6/7   68/70   Mahut/Isner

Just another tennis line at Wimbledon, all except the 68/70 last match score won by Isner after 11 hours and 5 minutes. The match consumed 46 hours and 39 minutes, the longest tennis match in history. People better situated than I will  extoll the vast range of records and accomplishments generated by an 11 hour match.

I want to talk about what this match teaches us about the discipline of a sport and its relation to time. The vast majority of sports are time or event determined. A football game lasts four quarters of 15 minutes; a soccer game 90 minutes; a slalom lasts a race down the course. The point of the game is defined by the clock. Clocks set the stage, determine the strategy and when time runs out, the winner is known (except for in soccer which seems to be another story).

A much rarer type of sport redefines time and creates unique space and time controlled by the rhythm of the sport. Here the sport cycles through its own unit of competition--an inning, a game/set/match. Each one must be played to its completion. Each player and team must get their full turn. In baseball or softball a team gets three outs--no time limits. In tennis or volleyball, the player/team must win the game by two points--no time limits.If t the end of the required units--nine innings--the game is tied, then the game continues on to the next unit.

The competition does not end until every player and team has cycled through their complete opportunity to score/win. You cannot take away a player's serve or last strike and declare the game over because the clock ran out. You cannot hang on and hope to be rescued by the clock. You cannot husband strength with an internal clock knowing after X minutes you don't need to give any more.

This demands a type of mental focus and toughness that never gives up. These sports require a form of mental endurance that does not assume a clock will rescue you. It means a player or team always has hope because the opportunity to come back will not be taken away by a remorseless clock but only by a player or team's inability to continue a rally.

When the game starts, players do not know when it will end. The vast majority of games end  within a predictable time range. But no clock determines how long an inning or a match can be. The inning can go on as long as batters do not get three outs or the match as long as no one wins by 2 points. When a player is batting in the bottom of the ninth inning, he or she is not denied their last swing because time runs out. A player can always start a rally, catch up and force play into another inning or another game.

The world of TV has assaulted these games. They take too long; are too boring; the attention span of people raised on Sesame Srteet and MTV won't sit still for endless nuance and unfolding. Volleyball and tennis have streamlined themselves and deployed rally scoring or sudden death to be TV friendly. The sports and the mental attributes are not the same, and it creates very different end games defined by time, not endurance; defined as much by luck as skill.

Games can go into extra innings and no limits exist on the number of innings that can be played. I once had the joy/tragedy (depends upon whether you ask my wife who called the police when I did not come home at a reasonable hour) of going to a twenty inning game with the Detroit Tigers and straggled home at three AM in the morning exhausted. Both teams were running out of players and pitchers, but the game went on until someone won. W. P. Kinsella captures this dynamic best in the Iowa Baseball Confederacy that tells the story of a mythical team and league and game that goes 2000 innings and ends with the Angel of Death patrolling center field. Kinsella reminds us that these sports have their own mythology and power.

Never ending focus; immense endurance; hope when it seems hopeless; never accepting a tie. These define sports whose rhythm is not determined by the clock.


Monday, June 21, 2010

The Right Time to Leave

Why must it end like this so often?

Shaquille O'Neal shuffles around the court vainly seeking one last ring. Chipper Jones hobbles with an average 60 points below his career level contemplating retiring. Ken Griffey Jr. leaves the Mariners after a sad sad stint trying to reignite the spark of the Mariner's as he did last year. David Beckham makes millions to sit on benches or model clothes while limping up and down the field.

The Greeks would say "call no man happy until he is dead." In athletic terms they were all too right, but then the Greeks invented what we call athletics. Humans, demigods, athletes reach an instant, a true apex of their talent and achievement. It lasts for a limited time but that apogee generates an an extraordinary human moment, an aura for them  and their career. For the Greeks this moment defined the song that would be sung for them, their glory and reputation. For us who see and sing the song it reminds us why it is good to be human.

The ideal moment captures the pinnacle. This is the moment to leave. Few of us have moments like these, very very few understand and leave at the height of their glory.

The Greeks knew that an athlete or hero should retire at the perfect moment, the synthesis of accomplishment and glory. Sophocles' tragedies recount the quiet horror of loss after the heroic has faded and the human remains.  Heroes, demigods, the ones who get it right shun the slow decline, the gradual loss of speed, coordination, endurance that enable them to be a master of their craft.

Remember  athletes make a bargain with their body; a bargain they must lose. The greatest athletes maintain rigorous training and conditioning. They carve from their physicality all that their bodies can give long past when a normal body could give. But in the end, our bodies betray us, and athletes feel the betrayal more deeply than anyone.

Michael Jordan got it right. The perfect shot, a classic Jordan shot that cinched the Bull's six title in the last second of the deciding game. This is the moment, the leave now moment for the Greeks. Jordan knew it in his soul, and he left the game, the absolute grand master. The greatest player of the 20th. century.

Lance Armstrong got it.  He retired the day of winning his unbelievable seventh consecutive Tour de France. Beneath this triumph lay his battle and survival against testicular cancer and founding a national movement to fight cancer, I still wear his yellow LIVESTRONG band on my wrist.

Something drew them back to Act II. Jordan returned for several desultory years. Armstrong returned and races here and there as a side show and fends off more charges of doping. Both were shadows of their former greatness; their return diminished rather than enhanced them and their accomplishments.

Interestingly two who got it were coaches and maybe the tempered wisdom of age helps. John Wooden knew he reached his apogee but also knew that he had given all he had. His love of the game and passion had banked; rather than continue to gather trophies without joy, he retired after his 10th. NCAA championship. Dean Smith at North Carolina made a similar choice when he was the winningest NCAA basketball coach and after two national championships. He retired on a 27 win season and Final Four appearance because he could not bring the same passion to the game.

The other remains an enigma but a great athlete who retired at the absolute height of his accomplishment and fame.  Sandy Koufax of the Brooklyn Dodgers stands as a towering pitcher of the mid twenieth century. One of the great pitchers of all time,  the youngest player to enter the Hall of Fame, he retired with intense arm pain and problems after winning 3 Cy Young awards and two World Series in four years. The only pitcher to record more strike outs than innings pitched, he dominated hitters. He pitched  four no hitters and one perfect game in a six year span. His last year was pitched in excrutiating pain and over his doctor's objections, and he still won 27 games and the Cy Young. He retired at the end of the World Series.

The Greek gods would understand them.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Griffey/Strasburg & the Circle of Sports

Ken Griffy Jr. retired last week. One day, as he always said he would, he did not show up for practice, but left a heartfelt note to his team and city of Seattle. The same week Stephen Strasburg exploded into the major leagues with 100 mile per hour fastballs and 14 strikeouts.

Just another week in life; just another week in sport; but the week reminded us of the rhythm of life in sport. Athletes live under a sentence that their body imposes. The human body reaches the zenith of its physical strength, quickness and coordination in early twenties. Even by then some elements like quickness are already eroding. Each player lives that sentence,  knowing their body will ultimately betray them, not on purpose, but by the simple entropy of being human.

The apogee moment of life, the moment to die for the ancient Greeks, arrives at those  glorious rich moments of pure excellence. Griffey exuded sheer joy of game. His unbridled ebuliance launched him against walls where stunning catches became normal. His true glory manifest in that  pure swing, one of the fastest cleanest swings you will ever see. Not cat quick but cheetah fast. Pure clean aggression with pinpoint accuracy and effectiveness. Watching the swing was like watching the immaculate form of the swing. As Michael Jordan discovered hitting a 2.8 inch ball travelling at 96 miles per hour as the ball dances and dives and curves is the hardest action in all sports. At the height of his power and talent  Griffey did it better than any one around him including the steroidal hunks who lumbered around bases unable to get bloated muscle structure out of the way enough to run or play outfield.

Incessant and lingering injuries marred Griffey's career after he left Seattle. Some believe they arose from the pounding he took at the concrete floor in the mausoleum of the Kingdom. He never reached the sheer numerical stature projected by his apogee years simply by his body breaking down just a little too early. But the period of his ascendency were glorious for him and the sport.

One star leaves. Another enters.

Stephen Strasburg, all 21 years of him and looking every year of it, signed a 15 million dollar contract last year on the last day of contract;, he is a Scott Boras client after all. After a mandatory stay in the minors to acclimate him and protect his pitching clock with the Nationals, he blazed into the major leagues with his debut. A true prodigy, he pitched only seven innings and struck out 14 batters.

I am not worried about the hype or his final long term trajectory. The point of the game is the circle of sports, like the circle of all our lives.

We are born, we stumble, grow and with luck, love, talent and effort we arrive at the blissful time when we really are "at the top of my game." All of us have that possible trajectory. All of us face failure and success and experience those rare awesome moments when it all comes together. For a great athlete like Griffey, this continued that for a decade. But the Faustian pact athletes make with their bodies caught up with him as it does with all athletes.

The athlete, like all of us, also faces the young guns. The world does not stand still. Young kids, old kids dream of being an athlete--I don't know anyone who dreams of being a college professor at the age of 10! Athletes face constant competition and instant obsolescence. Come to think of it many of us face that it this age that specializes in replacing physical skill or mental judgment with technology.

As their body betrays them slowly and incrementally, sometimes disastrously with injuries and sometimes they face a threshhold decline in their quickness or speed or endurance. One year, one month they can do it; a year later they can no longer hit a curve  or catch up to fastballs or bounce off a tackle and run again. The decay sets in at the same time younger  fanatically devoted and well trained young players push them. The youngsters admire and want to be like the players they now face. It is an honor to face a Griffey but even more of an honor to strike him out or surpass his home runs or hit the ball past him that he once would have caught.

The circle completes itself. A great player retires, quietly and without fanfare. A new player, a potential great player, erupts onto the scene. Just another week in sport, in life.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Love and Basketball: John Wooden as Coach

I don't have any more accolades to add to those being heaped upon John Wooden at his death at the age of 99. I did have the pleasure of growing up watching his teams play and having his style of play and coaching imprinted upon me as an ideal to be sought and admired. But more important for me and some students, I teach his books, especially his biography/coaching manuel They Call Me Coach.

The book always startles my students who aspire to become coaches. At first they get impatient because he really tells a love story between him and his wife Nellie from Indiana. His growth as a hard working midwestern country boy weaves through the love story and ties in his discovery and love of basketball. His earliest high school coaches taught him how to grow but also deal with failure and success.

The students wonder why they are reading about this story that seems so far away. Young basketball players have no clue about him, and very few students have heard his name. But slowly its power holds sway as he discusses various coaching and playing styles he assimilated as well as how he strove to create a balance with family, Nellie and basketball. He was lucky because his passion for Nellie matched, nourished and renewed his passion for basketball. His first lesson for my students is that love matters in life and you need to work hard to find, nurture and respect it.

After establishing that loving centers living, he discusses coaching and the cumulative impact of his championship teams. He speaks of the roots of his conditioning and defensive philosophies. He speaks at length about the need to adapt to the talent you have and how his teams evolved in light of his various teams and players especially Lew Alicinder/Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Bill Walton.

In modern America we don't normally associate coaching with love. Too many of us have memories of psycho-dads screaming and demanding as coaches or spectators. The indelible image of Vince Lombardi and win at any price and Woody Hayes attacking players at the end of his career tend to erase the deeper more lasting reality that many great coaches and Wooden excelled them all, coach from and through love.

The biography reveals the second love, love of the game. He revels in exlpaining how much he learned from others. The book is not about X's and O's, but he reveals a deep curiosity and sheer joy in discovering a complex zone defense, adapting it to his players and other teams and integrating conditioning and quickness into a philosophy of play. His stories reveal how the losses linger and at the end of each season and beginning of each he sets goals that infuse what he does. The game and its intricacies always remain with him with his fine mind mulling, thinking, inventing. The point of the game is love of the game.

But the most important love for a coach is love of his players. I don't mean love in a sort of dry agape way that thins out because it encompasses everyone; I certainly don't mean love in an erotic or homoerotic channeling towards players. No I mean an abiding care, a rock bottom emotional commitment to the player and team as individuals. This care, this emotional focus upon the person seeks the best for that person. It has a family resemblance to parenting, but without the sometimes twisted variations or self-identifying that can infuse parental love. Abdul-Jabaar said "he was preparing us for life." His players often mentioned they knew he cared for them even if they fought him, and his lessons only really sank in later. The truest test of a coach and teacher is if students return to meet with him, and his players constantly returned.

Wooden was not a nice coach. He makes that clear. He rode referees and players (something he truly regreted later). His coaching style demanded an immense commitment from student athletes. Essentially it demanded that individuals meld or subordinate their talent to a team concept. His most interesting stories and the ones he clearly values and relishes are discussing how players like Sidney Wicks and Bill Walton fought with him and worked with him to grow into superb players. Over some issues, it was simply "my way or the highway." Wooden also makes clear he learns from them. He demanded that players earn respect but gave them love. He may not like them but gave them love, and they knew it as a rock bottom reality to their lives.

This mutual learning never sacrifices his authority, but it grows from his love of the players. He knew them, watched them, demanded of them. His intimate knowledge of them coupled with his vision of whom they could become enabled him to match their talents to the evolving system.  Even when one would quit, he always gave them second chances because once long ago, and he never forgot, he had quit a team out of anger at perceived injustice. His own high school coach let him back and Coach Wooden believed that loving a player required room for players to redeem themselves.

I sometimes think his idea of love can only flourish at high school and college. Something about the nature of professional sports, of the contractual nature, the money, the self-protective brutality of the sport to both its players and its coaches--in most sports it is cheaper to fire a coach than a star player, makes the type of patient, demanding, forgiving love that Wooden exemplified, impossible.

Wooden's testament, as he insisted, has never been the trophies or the unexcelled record of 10 NCAA championships. It remains the quality of people his players became. Wooden did not walk in the sands of time with footsteps that blow away. He helped boys grow into men, and those men helped their own children grow into adults. Even today his books help me help others grow into coaches. Certainly that is love at its best.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Too Many Coaches; Too Much Practice--A College Wide Problem

Michigan will deserve whatever punishment the NCAA grinds out after their own self-imposed penalties, but the two issues that entangled Michigan--illegal coaches and excess practice and workout times bedevil the entire NCAA athletic structure.

Don't know if you've noticed these days but the coaches, trainers, director of operations and managers often outnumber of the players on the sideline of Division 1A college games. And football makes basketball shrinking violates.

If you go to a modern Division 1A football practices the fields are clogged with guys running around with clip boards charting players, shouting out to coaches and standing around with their arms folded looking serious. Football is permitted 9 coaches and two graduate assistants, period!!!  The limit is designed to promote competitive equity. They are the people who teach football.

But the football collects hundreds of hanger ons and many ex-players and others who want to break into coaching ranks. Support staff swells to accommodate them. Football offices bulge with directors of operations, then director of operations for offense, defense and special teams. You have student assistants to the graduate assistants  (Michigan called them quality control assistants). Many other schools stock up their strength and conditioning coaches--no limits on them--with coaching aspirants who are not trained in strength in conditioning but crowd around to be sort of almost assistant coaches.

All of them spill out onto practice fields. In the name of helping teach coaches the NCAA permits all this and writes arcane impossible distinctions about who can do what to whom. Non-coach coaches can chart plays and call out to coaches but not to players. Conditioning guys can work on explosive speed out of stances but not technical rips or pushes that would be considered football. Coaching staffs explode and bloat and somewhere in this maelstrom  the Head Coach presides. Somewhere else, usually not on the field, compliance staff worry because the NCAA has handled this mess by minutely describing what each level of proto-coach or operations person or conditioning person can do. No one can keep track of it, not the Head Coach, nor the coaches themselves and compliance almost never has the time to be there all the time and watch every violation, and the violations occur constantly.

The rules lead to esoteric distinctions where real coaches teach a player a stance (which is football) then quality or conditioning guys can teach how to explode out of the stance. The coach can teach proper footwork to the cornerback and the conditioning guy can work on the speed and quickness of response. The distinctions merge coaching and non-coaching in a manner impossible to parse. Unless you have compliance folks covering the multiple fields that modern football practice covers, the number of effective versus legal coaches balloons and competitive equity is destroyed. The rich schools all figure out different nomenclatures to hide the coaching and develop elaborate job desriptions to meld and merge the distinctions.

The problem is the collision between the desperate desire of so many to enter coaching ranks and the small number of  legal positions. The aspirants take on operational or coordination role, but push hard to get on the field and mime coaching responsibilities. If you read the description of the guilty Michigan parties they are filled with endless verbiage about coordination, communication, overseeing minute details, watching and splicing tapes, recording etc. The rich programs collect these psuedo-coaches because they can make things easier and, in theory, free coaches up for more direct one on one work or to spend time on planing and coaching. The rich schools lard the field increasing the number  the probability of violations.

The NCAA has dithered with this for years. Right now a new set of definitions are wending their way through the process. They are being cut to death by a thousand deaths from ADs and coaches and special interest groups who argue that it helps people become coaches and also helps coaches who are now burdened with huge public appearance and fund raising obligations. The key, quite frankly, is simple. Draw clear clean lines--it can be done no matter what the special interests claim--just don't let the operations, quality control and strength and conditioning guys on the field. Just draw the damn line.

The practices would be better organized, more efficient, easier to police and actually comport with the spirit and intent of the rule where teams are supposed to have a limit on coaches to protect competitive equity. Right now the rich pile on and the rules are a mockery and the poor strive to keep up, invent new positions but can't catch up. Draw the line around practice--legal coaches and trainers, that's it. That would be too simple and it would actually solve the problem. So the NCAA won't do it.

The other problem that infected Michigan pervades all big time college athletics in all sports. The average student athlete spends 35-41 hours a week on conditioning, workouts, tape and sport related activity even in the off season. The NCAA has strong regulations that students can only have a very limited contact with coaches during off season. Yet players play ball, run drills themselves and work on tape on their own. Most importantly, they work on strength and conditioning. Again there are limits on official time, but to lift on your off time is allowed and it is dangerous to lift and condition without having trained professionals around. So players work out under supervision far beyond the permitted time.

It's called Involuntary voluntaries. The coach does not require it, but the coach hints strongly or sets goals--increase weight, quickness, jumping ability, speed, shot efficiency--the goal does not matter. The coach makes clear, and this is their right, it is good outcome based leadership--that to be their best, to stand a chance to play, the student athlete needs to reach these standards.

No direct or overt punishment will be applied, and coaches are not allowed to even watch informal practices and strength and conditioning staff are not allowed to report on voluntary work; but everyone knows what everyone is doing. it is a game of mirrors. The result is that athletes compete and work full time in the off seasons. Michigan went too far in how it "organized" and "oversaw" these practices and conditioning, but point is that players exceed limits on their own time because if they don't they will be beat out by others who do.

The dilemma is clear. Any coach given a choice between more practice time and less and more coaches and fewer, will choose more coaches and more practice time. The Universities hire and fire coaches on the basis of winning and losing. The Universities created this winner take all world and the coaches respond.

Any player given a choice between starting and not starting will want to play. The players face a prisoner's dilemma. If none of the players did involuntary voluntaries, then it would be fine. But once just one player works harder and does an extra ten hours on voluntary conditioning or scrimmaging, then he or she gets an advantage. The coaches will find out about their exceptional "work ethic." It only takes one who wants to excel or start and everyone else who wants to play and excel joins in. This is about elite athletes who generally love their sport and want to grow and excel and play. Even with complex legislations designed to minimize direct contact with coaches, players spend that 30-45 hours a week anyway. 

No legislation will solve the real problem of student athletes spending 40 hours a week on sport in off season. The elite athletes will do the extra time because they are elite athletes. The NCAA could prohibit them from using school facilities, and the athletes would find private trainers or go off site. It does not matter. Coaches can urge student athletes to spend more time on studies or get a real life, but when time comes to pick players, the coaches will go with those who worked out and got better--the coach must win.

The coach's need to win and the athletes desire to excel create an alchemy that infuses all college sports.