Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sports Ethics: The Fragility of Athletes

Just a normal jump tangle going for a rebound in a hard fought close game. A Texas A&M player  Derrick Roland went up, lost the rebound to Washington's Quincy Pondexter. Pondexter and the game raced down the floor, but Roland came down wrong. Pondexter recounted, "I heard a loud slap, like his hand hit the floot, but that was the bone break. It's one of the nastiest things I've ever seen in my life."

I watched the game and along with the  Texas A&M bench could hear the break. Two breaks. The bone stuck out of his leg. Doctors and trainors rushed to his side. The 10,000 boisterous fans fell silent for ten minutes. Roland was rushed to Harbourview trauma center where he had major surgery. The moment silenced the crowd and reminded us all of how fragile and dangerous athletic competition can be.

This weekend the magnificent running back at South Carolina Marcus Lattimore was bursting through the line when two  Tennessee players tackled him with perfectly legal and tough hits . His body twisted and his leg twisted in inhuman ways until it flopped out in an unnatural angle. Tennessee players walked out to stand with him and honor him in his injury. Now he lies in a hospital with his season and possibly his career over. I could go on adding on the innumerable athletes in sport after sport whom have seen their game an careers snatched away by one misstep.

One fall. One slip. One tear. One break.One hit. Every athlete lives with the possibility of his or her sports life ending in a micro-second. Everything they have worked for and valued in themselves can be taken away without a moment's notice, usually by accident or chance.

This hovering fragility lies deep inside the minds of every athlete. It infuses the drive for athletic excellence and performance.

Every athlete is incredibly vulnerable to physical injury. The excellence of athletics builds upon the health of the body. All the character and commitment and mastery depend a sound body. Injuries can come from contact with another athlete or from a mistake or bad luck in execution or a mistake in practice; it lurks everywhere. One wrong cut, an ACL blows; one trip, an ankle goes; one wrong swing, a shoulder locks; one missed twist, a knee tears, a shoulder shreds. One greatness of athletic accomplishment lies in how humans can take this frail but resilient mortal coil and transform it into admirable feats of mastery and discipline. How they can overcome physical limitations and pain to achieve these goals.

This physical foundation can collapse in a mini-second. Every elite athlete has struggled through the pain and despair of injury. All athletes are aware of their own physical mortality, even as it means little to them. To a young athlete in superb shape, immortality seems more the norm than mortality, but it shadows them all.

This vulnerability can tear away the dream, path or livelihood in a second. This ever present vulnerability creates a peculiar fragility that generates a compelling  urgency to compete in game time. All  athletes live with the endless  shadow of injury and bodily expiration date hang over them. 

Most athletes ignore it; can't even acknowledge it. When they face injury, they grapple with it, rehab and overcome it. They learn to view their bodies as allies but also dimensions to be mastered, cared for and feared. If they are good they read the bodies well and carefully. But bodies can betray them. Time betrays bodies, but life, accident, one false move or awful collision and bodies can fail.

The quickness with which it can all disappear raises the intensity of the experience of play. The sheer joy of playing, the satisfaction of mastery, the cordial fun of hanging with team and friends, all reinforce and make athletics worth while. They provide motive, reward and renewal for athletes.

This extreme vulnerability infuses the games with the sense of urgency and intensity. Most athletes know that they live on borrowed time. Their own bodies and skills will break down soon enough. Their own skills will fade or be surpassed by the unrelenting competition of each new generation of younger athletes pushing them to get better and pushing to replace them. All this should remind athletes of the gift and privilege of competing.

The fragility of injury just amplifies this urgency and intensity. Few of us perform jobs whose very structure can take the job away from us. Few of us face the unrelenting competition and demands of each day or performance. Dancers and very high risk workers know the same tradeoff and intensity. Athletes who don't get this, fail to develop or flourish. Athletes who do get it can flame out or like a firefighter or dancer learns to meld performance and intensity and just "do my job."

This explains the hunger and drive of athletes as well as the strained morality of players who seek to play through pain or hide their injuries to get to the field, to compete. For some it may be about money in the rarified pro ranks, but for the vast vast majority, intense play challenges themselves, their bodies, their skills and time. Time and injury shadow every moment saturating athletic action with potential depth and energy. This makes the game worth playing.

Athletes are humans and know they possess  limited tim. They want to draw every ounce of satisfaction from the time they have. They want to play and compete. An injury can also lead to a journey of painful recovery, rehabilitation and hopefully self discovery. When an athlete's achievement is stripped from them with injury, they are challenged to discover the depth of their humanity, not just their identity as an athlete.

Athletes live at an edge of loss and accomplishment that makes competing an embodiment of the existential moment of existence. The very exhilaration of that edge, that danger helps them endure the risk for the reward of play.

Then again, all life is vulnerable and saturated with the possibility of loss. As is often the case, sports simply etches large and clear the reality that underlies all our lives.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Pink Football - Sports and Cancer

 I was watching the Seahawks and Patriots the other day, and I know I should have been yelling about the Seahawks’ pathetic passing game, but all I could notice were pink flashes of color from the pink shoes, gloves and towels worn by many of the players. To be honest the pink did not really go with the Seahawks blue, yellow and green color schemes, but the color did its job, it etched into the spectators the importance of fighting breast cancer and all cancers. I remembered this was breast cancer awareness month. Those streaks of pink changed the game for me.

Color plays a huge role in sports culture. Many colors, like Michigan’s maize and blue or the St. Louis Cardinals’ red, grow from tradition. Color provides a uniform for teams and a unifying symbol of identity and community for fans. College and professional stadiums and field houses present restless seas of a team’s color. People signal their loyalties and commonalities as well as antipathies with their color-coded jerseys and paraphernalia. People on the street nod to a fellow supporter and may frown at someone wearingenemy colors.

Professional and college teams carry this to astounding depths. The NFL presents the epitome of a profession that demands uniformity of color in marketing and team activities. Professional and collegiate athletics color code everything from pens to socks to jocks to uniforms to stationary. Cheerleaders, bands, coaches, players and senior staff all wear mandated colors.

Walking into an operations center of a successful college of professional sports franchise you will walk on color coordinated carpets past color coordinated walls with decorations, awards and color coordinated logos lining the walls. Coaches’ and administrator’s offices will sparkle with official sanctioned logos and mascot likenesses. My favorites are the Top Pot Seahawk donuts with green and blue sprinkles you can get at the games.

Color binds together the sport’s communities and nurtures an emblematic connection. It joins players, fans and coaches together as a common army, oops, I mean community, bound together to support, celebrate and sorrow together.

 I was so used to the multi-level attention to color schemes that the incongruous pink shoes, neon pink gloves or chin straps or wagging pink towels shocked me. But then that was the point, wasn't’ it?
The color pink has become linked to an idea of femininity in modern America. A cascade of pink covered us when our daughter was born! Yet pink it not a primary color. It is watered down red—the color of blood and life. This dilute red caught some of the power of red but thinned the color into something delicate and fragile, compare a pink rose to a blood rose. Shrouding women and female babies in pink could begin the process of inculcating a particular vision of how to be a woman. This pink vision never included being an athlete or competing in sports. So the paradoxical connection of pink and sports carries even more power.

Yet female athletes have coopted pink and turned it not into a camp color, but a vibrant sign of celebrating feminine possibility. Their pinks tend to be brash and neon and pop out rather than fade into a gauzy background.

Young women and the women’s movement have elevated pink to a symbol to unite all people to remember the victims of breast cancer and to promise to engage the fight against it. Breast cancer had grown into a silent epidemic. The silence manifests a tendency of American medicine to be blind to certain diseases of women and the poor. Now worldwide breast cancer alliances fight cancer using pink as their rallying point to raise awareness, raise money and raise common allies across gender lines.

The marketing genius of aligning pink with sport not only defies the past, but it channels the color into a new vision. This pink expands the realm where women can succeed as well as highlighting a once hidden disease, a disease so hidden many women were not aware of its danger nor how to search for and act upon it. Now groups and events from races for the cure to pink biker groups celebrate the color and cause.

Linking pink to athletics works because professional and college sports embody youth, physicality and health. These athletes personify the strength, risk-taking and immortality only the young and healthy can exhibit. Many of us watch them and admire and celebrate them as well as root for our teams. Inserting pink to remind us of cancer carries a special potency given the audience who seeks out sports.

Linking pink with sports turns stereotypes inside out. Yesterday I saw pink boxing gloves in the window of a store both pointing to boxing as a realm women have entered but also reminding people to take breast cancer and all cancer seriously.  The UW pink basketball uniforms are actually quite cool. The athletes enjoy wearing them not just as a symbolic statement but because they look good in pink.

I attended a UW volleyball game last weekend that celebrated breast cancer awareness month and got the full immersive power of this alignment. Both teams wore pink warm ups. Coaches wore pink shirts with the mandatory purple W logo. Ushers wore pink. Student athletes in the student athlete section wore robust pink T-shirts with big W on them. The cheerleaders, of course, sported pink pompoms. The crowd cheered the messages on cancer awareness flashing on the huge scoreboard. All the breast cancer survivors and later all cancer survivors as well as those connected to cancer victims and survivors stood to be recognized. All the visceral power of sport, community and pink came together to recognize the threat and celebrate the struggle.

The NFL players provide another type of jolt. Here are some of the strongest toughest and most macho symbols of American culture. Yet the NFL gave permission to individuals to violate the league’s obsession with uniformity and wear pink during this month to show solidarity with the cause and with women. Just seeing these robust men wear pink, proudly and clearly, and proclaim their support with a pink chinstrap or shoe or towel sends a message of support to the 40 million people watching the games. But more deeply, it demonstrates that archetypical athletic males can connect to pink and not fear it or the women it symbolizes. I may be blowing in the wind here, but I believe these symbolic actions matter over time to erode the boundaries of gender identity that football can sometimes seem to enshrine more than any other sport.

Pink uniforms, pompoms, cleats, chin straps, gloves, warm ups appropriate and expand the possibilities of the feminine; but it also awakens, reminds and unites us all that we share a common enemy in breast cancer and all cancers. 

Pink football: bring it on. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Professional versus College Coaching

This last weekend I watched teams coached by Nick Saban, Mike Riley and Steve Spurrier. All the teams played with abandon, skill and precision. Yet I was also struck by the fact that all the coaches, like Pete Carroll who made his reputation at USC but has returned to the professional ranks,  had one thing in common. All had barely OK professional football coaching careers, but flourished at the college level.

Their experience and many others like them lead me to reflect on the divergence between the worlds of college and professional coaching and the interesting migration from one to the other. Rick Pitino and John Calipari  epitomize the college basketball version of failed professionals returning to become superlative college coaches, but I will focus on football. The the core the professionals coach players but the college coaches educate and teach young men.

The journey from pros to college is treacherous and many fail in their first try, witness the failure of Charlie Weis at Notre Dame or Bill  Callahan at Nebraska. The move from controlling the talent and dealing with the maturity level of professionals can compare badly to endless recruiting and the need to maintain the level of motivation required for 19 year olds. It can  be unnerving and even feel demeaning.

The move in either direction can be treacherous as almost any coach who has coached at both levels will tell you. Professional coaches assume an ultra elite level of skills and paid commitment as well as 12 month development by players. They also possesses an ability to move people in and out quickly. On the other hand, most professional players have a profound awareness that they can be traded at any moment, and  ultimately they must protect their individual value which lies in individual skill and achievement on the market, not the team. They will think of their career as much as their team.

To be honest, coaching college is not for everyone. Many ex pro coaches hate having to woo and identify with 18 year olds. Worse, coaches must now show up for games of 14 and 15 year olds. Grown adults must work with grasping coteries, middle men and relatives who can surround elite players. 

Many coaches prefer the chess board approach of the pros where everyone is a free agent and all the players are fungible, completely replaceable. It makes developing the talent level much easier. Any contract can be terminated, at some economic cost, but no coach is stuck with kids for four years or has to worry about the care and feeding of adolescents let alone the need to make sure they have enough to eat or get to class on time. More importantly no coach has invested years in wooing and helping the kid from pre-high school nor have the coaches talked and worked with the kids parents and guardians. Professional coaches often don't need or want an personal investment in the quality and growth of the players--college coaches must make that investment to attract and retain their players.

But the sheer truth is college coaching is alot more fun than pro coaching. There is a reason coaches call the NFL  the "no fun league." Professional football players, for good reason, are all free agents. Football players represent the issue in its purest form.  Players play a violent harsh games with no institutional compassion or loyalty. Their contracts are not guaranteed so they need to protect themselves to maximize what will only be a short hard career. This puts serious limits on what coaches can do with them and how much influence coaches have. Very little real teaching goes on in the NFL. The players may pick up certain techniques and adapt to systems, but they do not over invest in one particular system since they may be playing across the ball on another team the next year, and the half life of professional coaches covers nano-years. Very little reason exists for players to buy into a system or feel an abiding loyalty to a team or tradition or fans and certainly none exists to change or grow as a person unless it increases their endorsement value.

If the players know this, the coaches are worse. Bill Belichick epitomizes the coach who treats all players as interchangeable parts to play until they break or fail and discard or replace them as needed. Let's be clear, all coaches must "cast a cold eye on life, on death," as Yeats would have it. Every leader needs a clear hard eye to judge and evaluate and decide upon performance, but professional Coaches seldom have the luxery to care and infuse their coaching with care. The demands to win, to perform before a relentless and fickle public and owners do not give them the luxery to care about or to educate players.

The coaches who return from the pros to college often feel relief and liberation rather than failure and exile. If you talk to coaches who have coached in both leagues, most recognize the immense satisfaction in being a teacher with a profound and lasting impact upon the life of a young person. Eighteen year olds have their limits, but they possess possibilities. A coach can still change a life; they "can save" and "rescue" kids. 

Coaches and teams can impart  lessons of discipline, internal judgment and teamwork. Good college coaching  builds moral and social equity in the young men. You won't hear pro coaches referring to their players as "kids," But college kids can grow into young men under a coach's tuteledge.  For many of their charges the coaches serve as surrogate fathers, powerful role models. The coaches and the academic staff hound kids to get educations despite themselves. Watching a disorganized and angry 17 year  old grow into a fine player and competent and sometimes fine human being buttresses the lives of many college coaches, especially the ones who are not at the glamor jobs or the army of assistants who migrate from team to team teaching the sport they love and helping kids they enjoy being with. Few professional experiences can match the exuberance and emotional commitment of college players. The vast majority of college players know this is the end of their playing career and they give it their all.

I do not want to romanticize college football coaching. Nor do I want to pretend it exists independent of its own world of pressures to win and boosters who seldom worry about the welfare of moral growth or education of the young men. To boosters and athletic directors,  the players are fungible. But college incentives push coaches to invest more time and energy in the developmental aspects of players. Coaches not only get to the know the players and parents when they are younger, but they have them for four years--they cannot just cut them at well. Most good schools and coaches put strict limits upon dismissing a player just for competence issues.

Interestingly in college because coaches are stuck with their kids for four years (I know a few schools permit coaches to run off the players they believe are not good enough, but surprising numbers of coaches for moral as well as self-interested reasons live with "my mistakes). If a student-athletes gives their all, commit to the program and compete with honor, then most coaches and most schools will not run them off. This stuckness means coaches  have to work with what they have. They have to teach harder and work harder to connect with players and help players really develop their potential.

College coaches can't go buy free agents or trade players who don't live up to their potential. College coaches have the opportunity and the constraint to work with young men to grow in skill, commitment and learn as they must master complex schemes and master judgment under stress.right. They experience the satisfaction of being a real teacher or educator that transcends just coaching.

Pro coaches seldom get to experience the joy and satisfaction of watching young men blossom or the pain of watching them implode and fail. College coaches have more responsibility for the humans in their charge; because of that they also have more fun.

Friday, October 19, 2012

For Love of the Game: The Costner Baseball Movie Trilogy

Just a quick celebration. In 1999 the Tigers beat the Yankees in this fine movie, yesterday they swept them for real in the ACLS!!!

Kevin Costner has made three fine baseball movies. The movies create an accidental but powerful arc covering baseball’s myths and narratives. The trilogy also reinforces a basic truth about the power and limits of sport as a way of life. The collective movies are not only enjoyable—especially Field of Dreams and Bull Durham—but they create a counter-narrative about the personal lived reality of a professional athlete. The movies’ dissection of how a professional athlete’s love of sport threatens their capacity for intimate connection and humanity.

For Love of the Game joins an aging pitching star Billy Chapel in the autumn of his career. The aging vet has just learned that his team, the Detroit Tigers, will be sold, and part of the deal includes his being traded to San Francisco. Billy does not satisfy a cost/benefit analysis for the new owners. Billy has spent his entire career and earned his fame and fortune in Detroit. The night before Billy also learn that his estranged girlfriend Jane Aubrey played by Kelly Preston will not reconcile. Recalling an earlier point she made, “You're perfect. You, and the ball, and the diamond, you're this perfectly beautiful thing…You don't need me.”

The next morning dejected and hung over Chapel heads for the ballpark to pitch and must decide about the trade before the game is over. The movie braids his nine innings with his troubled relationship with Jane. The movie unfolds one inning at a time playing in a raucous and hostile Yankee Stadium building to an improbably perfect game opportunity as the scuffed and awkward story of Billy’s adult personal life plaits between innings.

The movie moves slowly. It possesses neither the self-conscious mythologizing of Field of Dreams not the iconoclasm or humor of Bull Durham. Its stately progression led some reviewers to find it boring, and it remains the least favorite of the trilogy. I believe it is undervalued and feels true to baseball and the themes of the first two movies.
The first them unfolds touching  on the the harsh reality and discipline of an aging athlete, an aging star  facing mortality. In one conceit Costner starts each pitch with a mental imperative “clear the mechanism." When he does this the jeering Yankee fans (is there any other kind?), the scoreboard, even his own teammates recede, and he channels his presence and skill. The moment captures the experience athletes or any high achieving professional recount when they arrive at “flow.” Their practice, focus and situational awareness allow them to deploy their skills where the conscious and unconscious blend into a smooth inner consistency and quality. When it fails him in the movie, we know that he has reached his own limits.
The second theme unfolds in the awkward, tenuous and sometimes touching relationship between Billy and a cautious and burned single mother Jane Aubrey and her daughter Jena Malone as Heather. They meet when Billy saves her from a flat tire and ends up taking her to a baseball game against her will.
She points out, “I need a regular guy, not the guy in the Old Spice commercial.” Missing her irony and metaphor completely, Billy reminds her he was in the Right Guard commercial. Jane usually feels like a fish out of water being with a star athlete of a game she knows nothing about among wives and groupies she shares little with. Yet Costner and she stumble into a kind of intimacy and mutual joy. Costner passes the test so many men fail when they meet single moms. He actually enjoys the “family” feeling and likes being a clumsy, almost, sometimes dad.
Chapel grows to enjoy their world together. But both sides remain so wounded and protected that they agree to a “man’s deal” where they can see other people. Of course Jane does not see anyone else, but Costner reminding us of the man-child (a grown up Nuke LaLoosh from Bull Durham?) lurking in so many athletes sleeps with his masseuse. “What about the deal!” he asks when Jane surprises him only to be be shocked by seeing a scrambling nubile half dressed masseuse.
Jane wants more from the relationships, more than Billy has given to anything except baseball. When she asks him “have you ever had your heart broken?” “Yeah, he replies, “when we lost the pennant in ‘87.” She comes to believe he can never commit to love because he is perfect with his ball and game. Perfect on the perfect baseball diamond so enshrined in Field of Dreams. Billy resembles many athletes and high performing professionals. They feel so in command and at home in their professional world that this lures them into a belief in its own moral and emotional self-sufficiency.
The movie’s turning point occurs when Billy badly cuts his hand and is told by doctors and the team he is finished. His entire career is in jeopardy. He dreads the loss purpose and withdraws from the relationship to focus obsessively on rehabilitation.
Jane realizes that his identity and love lie with the game, not with her. Losing the game shatters his sense of worth and willingness to love. The love of the game undermines his love of her.
His terror at the loss lies not just in its threat to his self-worth but it reminds him that a professional athlete remains a depreciating asset and no more despite the headlines and hero worship. As long as his skill returns a reasonable benefit for its cost, he will be retained. Bull Durham and Love of the Game, however, make clear, every player lives pursued by younger, hotter and better players seeking to take his place. Every athlete is replaceable.
Billy’s friend and mentor, the old owner of the Tigers, sees the trade to the Giants as a chance to leave with dignity. Billy can retire before the trade occurs at the end of the game. The owner does not want Billy traded and devalued into a painful eclipse that so many fading stars experience. At the end Billy takes the owners advice after reflecting on his life and writes on a baseball that he is leaving "for love of the game."
The three movies unite in their insistence upon the priority of humanity to the allure of sport.
At the end of Field of Dreams, Moonbeam Graham achieves his dream of playing with the greatest players of his time. He loves and glories in it, but when a little girl’s life is threatened by choking on a hot dog, he steps back across the line to rejoin his life as a country doctor. He saves the girl and looks back at his moment with the players with satisfaction but not regret. In Bull Durham Crash Davis plays out his minor league career and sets the minor league home run record. He ends his playing career to begin as a coach. But he returns to Annie where two shopworn but authentic people try to create a life together.
Billy Chapel pitches a perfect game to cap his career. Jane has seen it while waiting for a delayed flight at the airport. He beats the New York Yankees. The game makes clear as all “perfect” games do how critical his teammates are to the achievement. He achieves the pinnacle and at this moment retires.For an ancient Greek this would be the moment to die, at the perfect peak, the moment from which his career can only be downhill. But alone at night, alone at night in his luxurious hotel suite, he cries. He meets Jane at the airport before she leaves and reveals the key truth any professional athlete faces when they sacrifice their personal life for their professional life,
I believe that if you give something your all it doesn't matter if you win or lose, as long as you've risked everything put everything out there…I did it my entire life. I did it with the game. But I never did it with you, I never gave you that….well last night should've been the biggest night of my life, and it wasn't. It wasn't because you weren't there.
Baseball, achievement, sport, profession, even perfection in all its cold beauty cannot maintain intimacy, connection or purpose. The magnificence of achievement and a perfect moment linger but a second. For Love of the Game completes the theme of Field of Dreams and Bull Durham. Sports can be a great and hard profession, even a way of life, but in the end, athletics will not complete a person’s humanity.
The trilogy insists that sports, even baseball, remains a game, just a game. While sport, like all professions, tempts people to confuse it with life, life involves more and wise people learn this.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Beauty & Violence: The Lure of Football

Football is far and away the most watched American spectator activity. It anchors  large domains of American culture especially for males and proves to be the only reliable way to get males 25-45 to watch television.  Midway through the college football season, my Washington Huskies have lost 14 players for the season, four of their five offensive linemen are out for the count. My fantasy football league is decimated. One of the most important pieces of news each week is how many players are out for the next game--injuries and violence permeate the game and are factored into the very press releases each week.

With this daunting remind of the violence and controlled force that permeate the game, I want to remember why watching football can be more than a celebration of violence and domination. A melding of force and beauty flows through the game that offers a unique and intoxicating American sensibility.

Common academic wisdom faults American violence and worship of militarism as the main cause for football obsession. Histories point out that football's first defenders touted it as a way to train men for war. After World War I whose static and reset battle fields startling resembled football, the defense of football as a way to build character and instill military virtues in men became even more strident and self aware. In the fifties and sixties the academic narrative insists that football became the symbolic and active response to a creeping "momyism" that was undermining the masculinity of American males. It also perpetuated the bipolar view of the endless cold war with Russia. The commentaries around football reeked with cold-war images that merely extended football's natural tendency to promote itself as a surrogate or preparation for war, take your pick.

This all may be somewhat true, and it is certainly entertaining to read left wing diatribes and textbooks. If you can ignore the jargon, however, there  might be more here than covert militarism and sexism. I believe there are more things at stake in watching football and for those who do watch the game, it goes beyond just enjoying team victory, violence and domination.

Lynn Swann is my number one evidence. My sister reminded me that he exemplifies the power and beauty of the sport. Watching him run, weave and catch a ball against opposition reminds me of ballet, a violent, armored ballet. If you think of the Greek ideal of athlete as one who contests and masters skills and deploys them in competition, Swann demonstrates how the mind, character and skill weave together into moments of sheer ferocious beauty amid violence.

Evan after intense tackles, Swann held onto the ball. How a player holds and protects the football itself involves practice, effort and unrelenting focus and technique. At the very moment of triumph, the catch, the other team tries to not just tackle but knock the ball out and take the triumph away. Holding on after the catch can demonstrate courage, focus, strength and technique as well as the catch.

Swann was a fierce competitor who helped lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to three super bowl wins. He played against defenses designed to stop him. Here is another dimension of football. It is a reset sport, which is why it really is not like real war at all. It stops the play, lets everyone go back to the huddle, plan and then execute again. This reset permits strong and smart coaches to watch for tendencies and call plays and try to outthink and outanticipate the other team. The whole game resembles a complex match of move, countermove and counter counter moves.

The other dimension that Swann epitomize is that football is not just about brute force or violence. Within the matrix of physical strength and swirling violence of player on player, individuals possess skill and speed and pattern recognition that permits them to excel amid the organized but chaotic violence of the field. Football is a field of combat, in no other team sport do players violentaly assualt each other so directly and consistently.

In football the strongest and most violent do not always win. Technique, misdirection, pattern recogniztion, speed can all compensate for and usually win over sheer brute physical force. What can be fascinating is how the other team is trying to aggressively disrupt your technique and formations, so that players must exhibit focused attention and physical courage to keep the form from disintegrating under the physical assault of other players. This is where Swann's catches surrounded by chaos capture the tantalizing power of football.

I still remember when Swann appeared on Mr. Rogers and demonstrated to my six year old how a great football player danced ballet and used the focus and beauty of ballet to augment his own technique and achievement. Swann also showed off his uniform and helmet but reminded the children that beneath lay a commitment to form and technique.

At its best the game demonstrates how force can be melded with technique governed by thought in competition against other trained and thinking opponents. The substructure may be controlled violence, but the superstructure can embody form, beauty and mind.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Sports Ethics: Keep Your Edge

“I lost my edge.” Athletes and professionals mutter this when they struggle with their skills and when they begin to feel their skills eroding or when they feel competitors starting to surpass them.  I think the idea of keeping our edge generates powerful ethical and psychological insights about what how high achieving individuals live. What does it mean to play at the edge?

Think of edges in two ways. First, edges can be sharp, dull or somewhere in between. Generally dull edges do not function efficiently; cutting or acting takes more effort and is less responsive.

Second, edges function like boundaries. Athletes and people confront several ways of being at the edge. They grapple with the edge of their own talent, training, character or focus. Individuals also face the edge of the skills and training required to succeed in their endeavor whether sports or any professional capability. Individuals live at the edge where they rub against other competitors.  Finally individuals risk falling off the edge of their emotional, moral or professional lives.

When a person plays at the edge of their talent and energy, they marshal internal energy and attention. This internal organizing helps them function with maximum effort and efficiency. People at their edge push their skill and attention and energy. They see each achievement as a new boundary, a new edge to perform that they hone as an edge, but one that they struggle to surpass. Individuals perform flat out and they are always pushing themselves to get better at what they are doing. This level of acting can exhaust people quicker, but being at the edge keeps athletes and people more alert and functioning at high levels. Facing a competitor playing at their edge forces contenders to push themselves harder. Self-aware individuals know the risks they take by treading at their boundaries, but risk it to succeed and win.

A person cannot drive to the borderlands of their sport unless they thrust to the edge of their talent and effort. At the edge, the best athletes and minds develop new strategies, new skills, new training approaches to exploit the possibilities of the game and persons. Facing the best, taking risks, trying new ways or mastering old ways, constantly adapting to the other side’s moves and training, all involve living at the edge.

I am not talking about being “edgy” for the sake of being cool or hip or being “edgy” for the sake of style of calling attention to oneself. To keep your edge in performance, involves internal discipline, self-awareness, situational attention and risk taking.Being at the edge takes harsh honesty about one's own potential and effort.  It means the courage to fail and the resilience to get back up and try again. Competing at the edge entails remembering that no one in your field is standing still and you don’t get better by being comfortable.

Unfortunately falling of the edge can wreck a moment or a person or an execution. Playing at the edge is not the same as playing out of control, but it can easily evolve into out of control. Losing control like honing a blade so that it becomes too sharp but thinned and brittle, 

Keeping an edge requires self-knowledge. People who risk the edge need to know their limits but always be pushing slightly beyond them. Edges can loom as precipices that tempt folks to fall off. On the other hand, once a person achieves an edge and masters it, the edge becomes solid ground for them. They live and act, and soon enough the edge dulls. They take it for granted and live that way too often. Pushing to the edge or sharpening skills, requires endless recalibration of skill sets and character and what one can do. It means not only being self-aware of strengths but motivated intention to push them as well as compensating for weakness.

In a critical way playing at the edge can alert athletes when they need to pull back. People use the metaphor to climb a mountain to capture the drive and ability needed to play at the edge in any area. But mountain climbing is dangerous and people fail, start-over and fall off edges. Sometimes individuals discover edges we could once transverse are blocked or no longer within our skill set. This does not mean quit, but it involves self-assessing, changing focus, developing new or undervalued skills and character to keep playing and competing.
Falling off an edge can lead us to get back up and try again but it can also warn us to change paths and proficiencies.

At the same time keeping your edge can mean always looking for an edge on your opponents. This drives innovation and work ethics. But, left unchecked by integrity and strong rule enforcement can lead persons to cheat. It may mean using PEDs or figuring out ways to live at the boundary of the rules or push them until caught. The dynamic of the edge cuts both ways and takes integrity and strong support from peers and leaders to stay on the edge and not fall off.

Being at the edge creates its problems. Keeping the edge should not be confused with being “on edge.” We’ve all been there, some of us more than most.  You know the moment when a person is so tightly wound up that they startle or jump. They tighten up under stress or anticipation. The tightening narrows perception, cuts speed and reaction and dilutes situational awareness. People on edge overreact and often react to the wrong stimulus, it makes them vulnerable to fakes and tactical misdirection as well as undercutting fluid and smooth relations with their fellow teammates. It makes it harder to listen because a person on edge internally constricts their focus and filters out important information.

Managing and leading professionals who live at the edge requires a different approach then just managing those who are good or even very good, but living within their comfort zones. Managing egos, keeping team together and just refining skills around the edges makes good sense. But this leadership style does not lead to maximum performance but it will minimize errors and that can count for a lot during long haul seasons or professional actions. Eric Wedge the present manager of the Seattle Mariners sums it up in a very existential way. “You’ve got to play every day like it’s your last.” This creates a moral and psychological edge that needs to be managed and watched.

Life and performance at the edge is critical to highest achievement and professional growth. But edges cut both ways and can erode a player and force them over the boundary if the individual and their managers do not manage the moral and psychological balance needed to live at the edge.

Growth and achievement lie at the edge of potential and challenge.