Friday, January 28, 2011

The Athletic Morality of Quitting

Is one of the worst insults one athlete can fling at another. Quitting, giving up, strikes at the core of athletic ethics. To excel, to get better, to bring out the best in one’s team requires an athlete try his or her hardest at all times. An ethic of seeking excellence and competition calls for trying harder in face of setbacks and adversity. Setbacks involve learning from them and working to correct and get better.  Even when an athlete is losing, the ethic requires the individual keep trying to honor the game, their mates and the integrity of the sport. We always commend teams that keep “playing hard” even when far behind.

Giving up and quitting are so important that opponents may seek to break a competitor’s spirit and effort.  You can tell when a team loses heart and quits on itself and the game. A team fails when it loses the motivation and will to play to its highest level of energy. Once a team does not maintain its focused attention on excellence, its own talent and skill will not help it against a determined adversary, even one with lesser talent. It is pretty clear when a coach loses a team or when the team cohesion falls apart; we can see it on the field or in practice.

The excoriation heaped on Jay Cutler for leaving the NFC championship game with an injured knee reflects moral outrage from pro players at two levels. First, it refers back to the Achilles ideal, that I have discussed, that a player should risk health and life for glory. But second, at a deeper level, it expresses moral indignation at believing, justified or not, that Cutler quit.

Why is quitting such a damning ethical indictment in sports? The commitment an athlete makes to master a sport lies at the heart of a competitive ethic of excellence. Anyone who achieves success in sports of life knows that talent matters for little unless allied with a focused work ethic and character that leads an athlete to work and practice to get better and bring that relentless work to performance.

Trying your best is no guarantee of success or achievement. As Captain Picard said to Data “sometime you can do everything right and still lose.” But an athlete can control attitude and effort. This means the athlete decides and gives the time, energy and effort to learn, master and compete.

Trying your hardest means working not just in the game but also in working out in the off-season and preparation for competition. Trying grows from mental and emotional effort and manifests in physical and skill growth. When a coach says a player is mentally tough, the coach is referring to that constellation of emotional, cognitive and executive functions that make up character. Trying and giving maximum effort involves an act of decision and will. Athletes judge themselves and others by this because it is the one area totally under the control of the athlete.

This effort and attention reveal character. Attention is the most precious of human gifts because our attention organizes our energy and skill development. Not trying will mean that an athlete of immense talent will not develop it and become less of an athlete and competitor than they could be. They may still be good because of talent, but not as good as they could be. They fail in the moral endeavor of self-development and attainment of excellence. They also fail in the cooperative endeavor of the team pushing and helping each other become better athletes and better team. To quit on oneself means quitting on one’s team.

Regardless of the truth of what happened to Cutler, the anger players expressed has less to do with Cutler and more to a defense of a code. At the core of the code lies effort and commitment that condemns quitting as a cardinal sin in sports ethics.