Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Sports Ethics: Grind it Out

We all have bad days. I mean really bad days, you know, the ones where nothing goes right. Our normal smooth skills just do not seem to work; our reactions feel sluggish and the simplest actions we have done by rote for years take concentration and thought. It feels like forgetting how to ride a bike while careening down a hill.

Athletes have a term that all of us can draw upon—grind it out.

Athletes grind it out when their reliable skill sets flounder. Grinding it is the antithesis of being in the zone and requires a different kind of mental focus and discipline. Grinding it out draws upon experience and will power. Young athletes and professionals who are used to winning and performing at the highest level tend to freeze or panic when their reliable expertise set fails. Learning to grind it out requires learning how to keep calm and disciplined when facing adversity and really bad days.

It happens on those days when we are not at our best; we don’t have our A-game, heck we don’t even have our B—game. In life or sport, these are the days when we come to work and our reactions feel slow. We do not read the situation or the other people quickly or comfortably. We feel sluggish. Our dependable skills falter. When we deploy a skill, we execute it awkwardly or not well at all. These moments always arise, but when they happen in competition the player is exposed to the opponents who will jump on the struggling athlete and exploit their weakness.

On bad days a player loses flow or smooth efficiency on their skills. This can happen to doctors, lawyers, teachers, brick layers, carpenters. Our craft or profession does not matter, we all have really bad days.

A struggling baseball pitcher illustrates it clearly. The pitcher may lose their best pitch or maybe two pitchers. The pitch loses something, speed, movement, accuracy, maybe all threes. Batters know this and wait out the pitcher to sit on their troubles. The pitcher then loses close calls because the umpire will not give them the benefit on close calls. The pitcher then self consciously starts to aim the pitch and it best worse. Then they get frustrated by the bad pitches and bad calls and lose focus or turn on themselves in self-recrimination.

A good pitcher has to draw deep on his or her  experience and remember they can get through this. Don’t get angry at oneself or at one’s pitches. On the mound and with the catcher, the pitcher has to re-remember basic mechanics. Go through the motions and concentrate harder to get the pitch over. It takes conscious mental effort to recall and consciously pull up what is normally unconscious and flowing. You see it most in the pitcher because they are all alone out there and facing combat with each pitch and the slightest mistake the leads to hit. You can watch them struggle and overcome anger and doubt. But the pitcher like any of us cannot get in the habit of self-consciously aiming, it guarantees failure. So the pitcher has to balance just doing it, failing, letting go and then doing it again until some approximation of professional execution occurs.  Like a good professional, they simply concentrate on one pitch at a time and getting it done.

Good professionals and craftsman know how to grind it out.

When we grind we are must rely upon will and knowledge. Individuals re-envision in their minds the complex skills and mind-set called for and call them up. They have to force the right angles, the right words, the right attitude toward the fore. As important when we are struggling, panic and paralysis and giving up all tempt us and we have to hold them at bay. At the same if a person starts to overthink, their actions can stagger and lose smooth efficiency. 

The metaphor tells us a lot. Gears grind when they are slightly misaligned. The parts don’t integrate well or smoothly. Grinding increases friction and slows down reaction time. Each action takes more work and harder focus to get it right or offset the misalignment. The scraping surfaces not only increase friction and inefficiency, they produce unpredictability as actions stagger and lurch. The task at hand devolves into a grind, drudgery where any fun or joy leaks from the work. In another take on grinding, a person needs to grind in play and practice to recover the edge of their skill and focus.

Grinding takes away the fun and the smooth naturalness of flow. We have to work at everything, and I mean work hard. We have to recall and will what comes naturally on a good day. We have to force our mind to work and our perception to focus and remember the skills that seem to have abandoned us.

Like the struggling pitcher, athletes look at other pitches, other skills. They compensate and find replacements actions. They find other ways to stay contribute in the game and help the team. A team member passes better or a scorer steps up their defense or passing. They rely on other members to cover for their limits and use the team rather than fight themselves. They rely on teammates to support and encourage them as well as position better or play better defense or offense. Nothing brings out our interdependency then having to grind it out.

People and athletes who know how to grind it out never accept “it’s just one of those days.” It may not be fun. Everything comes hard. Your best skills abandon you. Nothing comes easy. Everything takes more effort and outcomes feel random.

Good athletes and professionals grind it out.