Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Quitting versus Leaving

I discussed how the first wave of uninformed anger at Jay Cutler for "quitting" the Bears/Packers game in the NFC championship expressed athletes’ indignation at quitting. But another way to see it involves the morally correct decision to leave at the right time.

For instance, if Cutler believed that his injury compromised his ability to play in a critical way, it meant that staying in the game actually would hurt the team. The silly mantra that I would rather have X at 80 percent than Y at 100 percent means nothing because what matters is the percent missing. If a quarterback can’t plant his foot, if a point guard can’t cut if a striker can’t accelerate, then this particular injury fundamentally damages their ability to play.

Being injured like that means not only that the player cannot execute, but it also means the opponent’s task is easier. The other team can run at a wounded player, lay off a wounded player and put more players on others, or design their schemes knowing that the wounded team has fewer options. In this case, leaving is not quitting but is doing the right thing to protect the team and integrity of performance.

But leaving can involve a deeper moral assessment of one-self. A player  can realize that he or she have lost the motivation or joy in playing. More than one good player retires because they realize that they can no longer bring the level of energy and commitment needed by them to play at the highest level they are capable of.  This involves their own private brutal assessment of who they are and what they could once achieve and what now can achieve.

Athletes may come to realize that  their body has slowed or betrayed them and even if they try, they cannot bring the level of excellence they demand of themselves or their team needs. They know that 80 percent of them is not the best they can do and that the team does suffer when they play at 80 percent even if the team wants them. They also know that as an athlete he or she will struggle with a nagging sense of failure.

This moral honesty deserves to be honored because it is very very hard for athletes to leave their sport. . Many players play on past their prime and endanger themselves and hurt their teams.

The decision here means the athlete chooses to leave the game at that level. They resign from play. This decision is very different from the claim they quit.

Recently Wayne Gretzky, one of the greatest hockey players of all time, turned fifty. Gretzky left hockey, he retired from the game, and he chose to leave while he was still playing incredibly well. He quit, but not in the ugly sense of quitting on himself and his team. He chose to quit the game with dignity and out of free choice. For reasons that made strong moral sense. We would be better off if most athletes heeded his approach.
When asked today about the decision he responds, Wayne Gretzky describes it this way, "I knew I was done. I spent the last month of that season pondering"... "Is this the right decision or should I go for one more year?' Once I made the decision, I knew it was right. I knew I could still compete, but not at the level I was comfortable."..."The older you get as an athlete, the more work you have to put in off the ice during the season and off the ice during the offseason. I knew, mentally, that I didn't want to be doing that anymore." 

Not only athletes face these decisions. We all face those moments when we are tempted to quit, many of us who have gone through rehab from surgery know that, but all of us face demands in life that stretch and push us and demand sacrifices form us. All of are  tempted to quit. But we all also face moments when it is time, time to examine the fit with our life and skills and aspirations. Time to decide if our life path needs to change. We should honor these moments in our life and honor the athletes as they play out this human moment.

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