Friday, January 20, 2012

Sports Ethics: Show Up

 I was listening to Mike Golic on ESPN radio rail against a team that had lost a game badly that they should have won. He said, “You have to show up.” As I think about it, he hit upon a fundamental aspect of being a successful athlete, professional or human being for that matter. You have to show up.

What does it mean to show up? Well, if we think of it in terms of being an athlete on a team, much like being a professional engaged in a project with other professionals, it means a lot more than simply plunking down your physical carcass.

Show up physically is a start, but just being there physically is not enough. It is a start, but barely. We all know when we or others are just “going through the motions.” Your body is moving in space and time; it may even be performing intricate trained motions linked to achieving a goal. But the mere exercise of precision motions does not capture the requirements of high performance.

First, to show up means that the athlete must concentrate upon the physical performance making minute adjustments to adapt to the condition of his or her body and the context like wind or field or more importantly opponents. So showing up requires concentration upon the body and changing or adapting it as required.

Second, showing up means an athlete not only adapts his or her body and skilled action to the context, but he or she must be constantly learning from what is going on around them. Athletic success depends upon reading nuanced changes on the field and adapting accordingly. An athlete may have prepared and trained one way, but the other side may have made adjustments and in realtime  an athlete must embark upon a new approach when the old one is not working. This means changing tactics or even strategy—a different kind of fake, a different swing, and an altered position or set up or stance. Showing up means thinking, engaging and adapting our approach, not just being physically there. A psychologist would talk about being present with a person's entire perceptual, cognitive and emotional awareness, not just placing one's body on the field.

Third, showing up means the ability to call upon will and emotions to recover when patterns break. An athlete who shows up brings their full concentration, emotional discipline and focus as well as the full training of their body and skills. Showing up involves the ability to dig deeper. When an athlete discovers that their opponent is tougher, better prepared or trying harder than the athlete anticipated, then the athlete also digs deeper; ignores the pain; tries harder or pushes harder or exerts more force or sometimes steps back from trying to hard and flows better.

One of the most dangerous moments in athletic or professional life is when we are “surprised.” Our expectations are not met and the plans we had developed for how to deploy focus and energy fail. Too many people give up or panic when faced with such a surprise. Showing up means that the athlete in a competition not only “brings it” but also adapts as they need if the level of competition or challenge changes. He or she must recalibrate the level of energy or attention that they bring and overcome confusion or hesitation that arises when the opponents break a pattern or succeed quickly.

Not showing up has many mutations. An athlete can dog it and simply not be trying hard enough. They go through the motions but not with speed or precision. On the field, they do not bring full effort, strength or technique to bear in the competition. A person can dog it in practice and enter a competition not fully prepared, so showing up matters as much mentally and emotionally as physical. A player has got to be paying attention in the game and in practice to learn and change as needed.

Attention plus energy defines the key to professional success. If an athlete gets lazy in their perception and pattern recognition, they will fail and bring down their teammates with them.

Another variant occurs when a team expects to win. They do not take their upcoming opponent seriously. This overconfidence haunts coaches as they prepare teams. You can see it in practice that week. People do not show up for practice fully; they do not give maximum effort. Worse still an athlete or group of athletes stops taking pride in their work or they stop listening to their coaches. They do not watch tape as carefully or cut as precisely or execute as sharply. One individual can infect other members of the team and sometimes a team falls into the habit of not showing up during a week of bad practice. The results, as Golic railed against, are predictable.

The difference between showing up and not showing up often manifests itself even in one game. Last season LSU football has demonstrated a capacity to not be fully present for a first half of a game. Lots of young college teams fight though these issues; they are young and living lives as students as well as athletes. So more than a few college coaches must be not only excellent X/O guys to make adjustments at half or quarter or timeouts; but they must be able to call players and teams to themselves. To remind them that they are better than they are playing. A good college coach not only motivates but jerks teams out of lethargy He or she reminds the players that they are failing themselves and their team by not fully present to the game, their teammates or the challenge in front of them.

The far more powerful proof occurs when a new coach takes the same talent group and transforms them. Sometimes this is a placebo effect or just a change effect like when a team wins the first couple game after a mid season managerial change in baseball. We know from neural imaging studies that a focused brain looks very different from a bored or unfocused brain. The integration of judgement, memory, and perception is tighter and faster than the much spottier and less integrated status of an unfocused mind.

The change of the San Francisco 49ers under coach Jim Harbough illustrates this phenomenon. With the same talent pool that had failed and underperformed for the three years, Harbough and his coaching staff converted the team to a new way of playing. I use the word “converted” precisely. Schemes changed, personnel adapted to new jobs, but above all Jim Harbough changed the moral, emotional and cognitive belief set of the players in them. The team showed up by altering their internal moral and psychological relation to the game; now they have won the NFL West. You can see this most convincingly in their tackling. Open field tackling (we now say" tackling in space") requires immense focus and awareness. The defender must be prepared and totally present since the ball carrier can fake, juke, shimmy, cut or do a hundred other minute actions with their eyes and body. The defender must read through all this and tackle mid level and lock the person up and wrestle them down or slow them down for back up to arrive. Harbough's Stanford team and his 49ers team demonstrate superb skill at this. Showing up and being present converge in execution.

Showing up has another aspect. It permits players to amass records of excellence. Showing up every day and being present to the situation and the requirements of the game permit players to play one day at a time and to execute and learn over long arcs of time. When Cal Ripkin Jr., the great Baltimore shortstop who set of record of 2632 consecutive games, entered the hall of fame, he stated this very simply, "I know some people look at the streak as a special accomplishment he said...but I looked at it as showing up for work every day and so, as I look out on this audience I see thousands of people who did the same thing I did - teachers, policemen, mothers, fathers, business people - but didn't receive the accolades I have and so I salute all of you for showing up t work every day and making the world a better place."

Ripkin also reminded us how vital being present each day to work and our colleagues is. All we have is each day of work and achievement and people.  Fame and glory are fleeting. He  talked about teaching hitting to a 10 year old boy who asked him if he played ball and what team and what position he played for. Sic transit gloria mundi, but the moment, the present moment that demands all we have, our integrity can never be taken.

In moral psychological terms, showing up means being present. A human being is present to him or herself or a situation or another person when they align their perceptions, emotions, body and cognitions to be open and attuned to the person or situation before them. They are alert, prepared and ready to respond, anticipate and act. Their perceptions are open so that the athletes read the entire physical and emotional communication of the other person or situation. When fully present their own perceptual radar expands to take in the range of physical, special and emotional forces around them as well as attending to the patterns unfolding with their own teammates and their opponents.

If an athlete or person does not show up, they will underperform, not adapt, and fail themselves, their sport and their team.

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