Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sports Ethics: Have Fun!


Several weeks ago the University of Washington football team struggled with a three game losing streak. A season that commenced with great promise teetered on the verge of collapse. The players held a players only meeting, a rare and important event for any team. After the meeting, several players announced that the team had reached a remarkable conclusion. The players needed to “have more fun.”

I believe this is a vital insight into how players should carry themselves in sport competition. Remember that in English we are quite honest about sports; we “play” sports. Many modern sports emerged not from practice for warfare but exciting and challenging activities that pushed the athletes and provided deep satisfaction in accomplishment and winning. You can see this with your pets playing or better yet when you coach or watch kids’ games, before the AAU and Select coaches get to them.

I remember coaching T-Ball for my six-year old kids. We’d set the ball on the T and someone would whack it with her bat and the ball would skitter towards second base.  Seven kids would run to the ball laughing and shouting. Of course no one remained on first to catch the ball. We had to remind the hitter to run to first base, and the kids would flutter around second jostling for the ball. Someone would emerge from the six-year old scrum with the ball, but of course she had no one to throw it to at first. All the parents laughed, and as coach I swallowed my irritation and could only smile as all the practice we had gone through disappeared in the thrill of actual play. Now that was fun! That is sport. The joy, thrill and enjoyment of moving, learning, acting together grounds the fun of sport.

I don’t think the football team meant fun as in funny where people tell jokes or do hilarious and silly things that make us laugh. Laughter is an aspect of fun, but it narrows the concept to a particular aspect of fun. In the origins of the word this refers to fun as a form of hoax or silliness but the other fun suggests looseness and enjoyment.

I believe the football team meant, “we need to play loose; we need to play with abandon and experience the ferocious joy that lead them into the sport to begin with.” To have fun empowers athletes to commit and act upon their trained experience and fully perform without holding back, second-guessing or hesitating. Having fun reinforces and supports all the habits of mind and body that players develop. Neurologically when a person is unconsciously engrossed in an activity that engages and satisfies them, their brain lights up in a very different way than when they are worried or hesitating or thinking about what they are supposed to do.

The counterpoint would be the reminder that so many coaches and players will tell you that the NFL means the “No Fun League,” just ask Bill Belichick.

When a player is NOT having fun; they are playing tight. The tightness degrades cognate and physical efficiency and subverts trained habits. They may be thinking too hard about what they are doing; this act of thinking slows them down and complicates reactions. These nanosecond gaps give a competitor a significant advantage in challenging that player. An athlete might be trying to remember the correct response or the options that they have. Either way, it wastes time and reaction giving opponents significant advantages. Worse, when a player plays tight and worries and think it undercuts speed and confuses pattern recognition.

Often the thinking revolves around judging and assessing oneself. The slightest mistake or the concern over making a mistake leads to hesitation or misguided attempts to change on the fly undercutting efficiency of response even more.
Another variation will be when a player is constantly looking over their shoulder to the coach. They feel judged and evaluated, which they are, but they become so fixated upon what the coach might be thinking that they sacrifice their own training and reactions and lose speed and performance efficiency. Even when they may be learning to internalize a coach’s schemes or learn better ways to perform, this transition takes time, hurts performance and slows them down.

When a player is not having fun; they play worried. They hesitate; a hitch develops in their swing or throw or hit. Too much second-guessing spins out into tinkering in the middle of a game and what might become a singular failure turns into a self-reinforced slump. This attitude gets contagious as others pick it up or adjust because they cannot trust the slumping player, then they get out of sync or they have to think because the pattern training falters because the other play is not performing.

Psychologists speak of the moments of flow when a person literally lives the skill. They lose track of time but their mind, body, and emotions converge upon execution of what they are doing. This moment exists for all of us in any endeavor. When an athlete enters “a zone,” we mean they are experiencing flow.

Achieving flow and high performance especially under conditions of stress and competitive counters is allied with having fun. Fun links high performance, neurological efficiency and speed and efficiency of pattern recognition and action. Fun buttresses playing loose, trusting preparation and training and the satisfaction that derives from a job well done.

When the Seattle Marines turned around their awful 2012 season, Kyle Seager their young third baseman talked about a basic truth of performance, "We're loose....any time you're not stressing and not tight, you are going to play the best you can." 

The Washington players were right; having fun matters to perform well and reach your highest potential.

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