Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Health Costs of Modern Coaching

I watched Gary Kubiak have a stroke on the sidelines of a Houston Texans Game. Two months later he was fired. I watched Eric Wedge of the Mariners have a stroke while talking to the media; three months later he quit. I followed how John Fox of the Denver Broncos had a heart scare and then had to have heart surgery only to hurry back to the sidelines. I followed the ebb and flow of Urban Meyer as he came apart emotionally and physically while winning three national championships at Florida and took a sabbatical from the game. I could go on and talk about the strokes Dan McCarney had at North Texas State or the stroke of the great Rugby coach Eddie Jones in Japan. This covers less than a year. These examples highlight the hidden and insidious health costs of modern coaching.

Modern professional and college coaches are noted for high visibility and huge salaries. In college, the football coaches are always the highest paid public officials in a state. The visibility and money make coaches celebrities and targets. They are also blamed for everything and face relentless scrutiny that follows their wives and children. The scrutiny of rabid and irrational team obsessed fans only touches on the unremitting demands of owners frantic to win and chaffing to control or in college of boosters and athletic directors who serve as surrogate owners.

The medical costs of relentless pressure and stress are well known. Modulated and controlled stress can energize and motivate high performance. Unending stress, however, degrades cognitive performance through the mediated impact of cortisol and adrenaline on the centers of planning and judgment. It extracts high costs on the cardio-vascular systems that make bodies vulnerable to illness. Dealing with this stress can lead to dangerous habits of drinking, compulsive actions such as exercising or tape watching as well as overeating. Another standard technique is to “release” the frustration by acting out anger and stress with displays of aggression and abuse towards athletes or opponents. These habits are designed to alleviate stress but only contribute to health deterioration.

All this barely touches the emotional costs that high level coaching extracts. Recently ESPN printed a week in the life of John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens. The life calendar makes clear the 24/7 sleep deprived life of any high achieving modern coach. At college recruiting, fundraising and booster appeasement pile on the already insane schedule. Harbaugh sleeps over in the office to be more efficient and avoid waking his wife and children. Marrying a coach is a lot like marrying a doctor or military officer, even though the stakes are a lot less in real life. Coaches have no private life and face endless attrition trying to keep marriages and children intact.

All these hidden costs usually remain hidden even from the coach since coaches, male and female, live an uber-mensch life of ignoring the costs and coaching through the pain. They model for their players the unswerving and destructive devotion to work that obliterates private life and compromises mental and physical health.

The strokes and heart problems just reveal the tip of the iceberg of the physical and psychological costs of coaching. The very patterns necessary to live with this stress in a sane way are hardest to implement given the cycle of stress and blame and competitive perfectionism that drives them.

Coaches constantly preach to players to learn how to “let go” and have “amnesia” for their losses and failures. This capacity to move on and stay present remains critical for any player to continue in the game. Good coaches model this by showing up for work the next day after a defeat ready to let go, learn and prepare for the next game. Often however, the coach has spent all night and morning studying tape and obsessively breaking down plays or patterns to be ready.

Players internalize this taking care of business approach as much as they internalize an abusive out of control coach who takes out frustration and anger at themselves for losses on their players and pretends it is motivation. Even as coaches try to live this approach and model it, they still grapple with unrealistic expectations, demanding and irrational owners or boosters—no differences often—which have no true loyalty except to winning. No one gets any credit for past victories. Most college coaches are fired with winning records.

Every coach knows that all the praise, all the raises, all the extensions mean nothing. Every coach is expendable; no team has loyalty to coaches, unless they win, but even then a scandal will end them. This utter lack of loyalty and job insecurity coupled with the knowledge that all the praise, hype and sucking up are hollow wears down the integrity and honesty of coaches.

The coaches now reciprocate. With rare exceptions no coaches stay for long time. The “shelf life’ of a coach has decreased, and none are given serious time of five to seven years to build a true program. Almost no one will stay at one place. Many resumes will resemble nomadic lives. Coaches move constantly for money, prestige, loss of confidence or just wearing out a welcome.  Even after being fired, the coaching fraternity will reabsorb them as coordinators or coaches at lower level programs. Often they will get a second chance, sometimes third chances.

The insecurity and insincerity simply aggravate the health issues by providing no safe haven and no secure center for coaches. Sane coaches develop some sort of life and anchors beyond coaching; otherwise the costs of stress will exact its toll.

Some get ill. They collapse in public or private as the stroke and heart examples demonstrate. Many end up with chronic back or intestinal problems—common outcomes of endless stress.

More than a few implode under the pressure. Coaches explode on the sideline or practice. They scream and choke their players. They heave balls at them. More than a few meet untimely career ends when they blow up; others like Bobby Knight were treated as “characters” and people shrugged off their abuse and insanity as just “Knight being Knight.” Others end up drinking too much and getting in trouble even though they are often shadowed by team minders or protected by watchful and friendly police.

More than a few coaches are devoutly religious, for good reason. Only the knowledge of acceptance and love outside of the “game” can carry people forward. A relation to God exists outside of relations to wins and losses, despite what some fans believe. Relations to God or good friends or family perdure and provide purpose, love and acceptance that are not false or contingent on winning. Sports like life exposes mistakes and constantly tempts people to take themselves more seriously than they should. Sports pressure cookers incite mean or abusive slips and behavior. A close religious relationship provides a place to seek forgiveness, redemption and growth that boosters, owners and fans can never provide.

The cost of being a coach lies inside. The costs eat coaches alive without fans noticing. The panoply of glory, celebrity and money surround coaches. Beneath the glitter lies the human truth, “sic transit Gloria mundi.” More to the point “what have you done for me recently"? No coach escapes the falseness, insecurity, mad expectations, greed or true and false glory of this world.

The sane and healthy ones develop spiritual and personal strategies to give them perspective on the “game” they play.

Sometimes they have to lose health or personal lives to learn the real worth of worth of wins/losses compared to family, friends, love and integrity. Urban Meyer describes how it can be a "daily" challenge to keep the balance with family life and coaching. Coaches who survive and then thrive all develop the moral capacity to "take it seriously but hold it gently" and to let go and move on without breaking themselves.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Watching Coaches Coming and Going

I watched Steve Sarkesian leave the University of Washington and Mack Brown resign from Texas and marveled at how many different ways the life of a college coach can be nasty brutish and often short. Late autumn so many college and professional football coaches lose their jobs that the media makes an industry of it. Whole  web sites are devoted to “hot seat” coaches. People can get Vegas odds on who will be fired and when. Most coaches are fired outright after one or several bad seasons. Many are fired after three season for not winning enough even with winning records. On December 30 the NFL fired five coaches, one after one year. Normally this would be absurd but it was a really bad decision and better to act fast.

Welcome to holiday time in the NFL. Sarkesian and Brown are outliers in this world of college coaching carnage, but their stories tell us a lot about the world of modern coaching.

Steve Sarkesian fled Washington for his hometown and the much higher profile job of football coach at USC. One of his best friends Lane Kiffin had been summarily fired from that job two months earlier. Despite swirling rumors, USC AD Pat Hayden had targeted Sarkesian early and bided his time. Sarkesian represents an outlier as one of the very few elite coaches who get hired from one good school to another; most move from coordinator at a good school to head or work their way up through mid majors to top schools. Sarkesian himself had jumped from offensive coordinator at USC to Washington.

He left under a cloud. He lied about being interviewed; no one really believed he would leave and he professed undying love for Washington until the day he left. But beneath it all he grown tired of being hectored about whether he would ever win more than seven games in a season, as he put it “I’m kind of sick of the question.” He chafed at the academic and recruiting limits of Washington. He took the USC job suddenly. He gathered the team he had recruited around him one last time and in ten short minutes said good-bye to “stone cold silence.” He walked away and was whisked to Los Angeles to be introduced as USC coach with his parents beaming in the front row.

To be honest a lot of us are not sure we are ready to leave until someone approaches us. A coach or professional might be flourishing but every job has its edges. The sudden interest, the satisfaction of being wooed and in Sarkesian's case the lure of going home can catch you off guard. People can sincerely believe they plan to say at their job and the process of being wooed can change their minds. I think we owe them the benefit of the doubt most times.

Washington players felt betrayed hurt and lost. Sarkesian had a magnetic personality. He had trained professional players and many had come to be with him; not be at UW. More than a few were angry. The seniors, however, understood. As one said, “It’s a business and he has to make a living.” Washington boosters were falling out of love with Sarkesian and had grown impatient and mean spirited about the three 7-5 seasons. They publically grumbled and wondered if he was merely a “good” not a “great” coach.

All boosters are the same, however, they love you till they hate you. They woo you, pay you and kiss you off without a thought. Boosters are always looking for someone new to fall in love with and save them from the depression that afflicts them when their teams lose. Sarkesian was finally seeing that.

I like and respect Steve Sarkesian. He rebuilt a ruined Washington program from the charred ruins of an 0-12 season. He did it with a fair degree of class and a pretty solid commitment to academics. He showed up in classrooms where student athletes were taking classes. He hounded students to perform in the classroom and worked closely with the academic support services. He recruited carefully and the vast majority of his recruits came in prepared or at least motivated to succeed in the classroom. He graduated his students. He was a great and tireless face for the program and helped lead the charge to rebuilt Husky Stadium for 240 million dollars and created a deep talent pool for the team.  We all “barked for Sark.”

His teams played with passion but not much discipline, much like his mentor’s Pete Carroll’s USC and Seahawk teams, leading the country in stupid penalties. He rolled the dice and some of us loved it and others hated it. He had a riverboat gambler in him that lost some games and won some games. But it all played out in 7-5 seasons. To many the team seem to have plateaued and could not solve its discipline issues. The boosters forget the games they won and should have lost and never forgive the games his gambles lost.

Sarkesian went home—I don’t blame him. He grew up a couple LA miles from USC. Attended at a baseball scholarship. Coached there nine years. His parents attended his press conference. The Washington folks feel betrayed and angry. A few, however, are relieved believing that Sarkesian was growing too enamored of himself and perhaps doomed to perpetual 7-5 records. The USC boosters laid out a lukewarm welcome for Sarkesian. He is stepping into a more brutal TV and booster scrutiny market. Lots of USC fans never liked his play calling under Carroll and wanted a pro coach.

Sark’s move reminds me of all those Catholic coaches who have an exception in their buyout contracts for Notre Dame. When Brian Kelly betrayed, sorry, left Cincinnati after four glorious and fun filled years right before a bowl game; he left for his dream job even though his players felt betrayed and hurt. Ditto for Sarkesian. Coaches are human, except for Bill Belichick, and many long to go home.

More than a few coaches wonder out load if they have a certain “shelf” life after which it all goes sour, even if they win perpetually. Even winning coaches face that end of the line feeling. Sarkesian represented the rare side of a coach moving on and up for money and fame.

Most modern coaches live short and brutal lives as head coaches. As one columnist put it in the SEC a coach is either “on the hot seat or receiving a contract extension.” 

The end of Mack Brown’s illustrious career at Texas reveals the other side in all its sordid craziness. Brown had rebuilt Texas into a national contender. He had brought a championship to Texas and gone to 15 bowl games The last four seasons had been a struggle with getting beyond the dreaded 8-win mark that bedeviled Sarkesian. Booster dissatisfaction boiled over.

Being Texas, the rich entitled boosters simply ignored the structure of governance and accountability. An ex-regent and full time booster, Tom Hicks, the same one who ran the Texas Rangers into the ground and gave Alex Rodriquez 25 million dollars per year for life, went rogue and decided Texas should get Nick Saban from Alabama. Saban was not noted for loyalty having abandoned Michigan State, Louisiana State and Miami at various times. But Hicks leaked to the press that Texas was approaching Saban.

It did not matter to Hicks and his allies on the board of regents that Brown had served with dignity and given the university years of high profile and successful service. It did not matter that Saban was pursuing his third national consecutive championship. It did not matter that he was out-running his President. This is Texas and the super rich do what they want.

Hicks and his allies made Brown’s position all but untenable. He outflanked Brown’s ally the UT President and played proxy for UT’s new athletic director. It took two months of unseemly public humiliation of Brown and distractions for Saban, but Hicks and his regent allies got rid of Brown who resigned quietly and became a special assistant to his long time ally the President.

When coaches leave, either fired, resigned or hired away, another effect occurs—the salary extension domino effect occurs. This is one of the major drivers of the continuing escalation of salaries. Every winning coach is a possible target for an open slot. Every move involves higher salaries for coaches and programs desperate to win and gain visibility. So when high profile jobs open, everyone is a possible target.

When Sarkesian left, two top contenders for UW, Gary Pinkel at Missouri and Jim Mora at UCLA got immediate raises and extensions. When Brown resigned, Saban signed an extension at Alabama; Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M and Guz Malzahn at Auburn got raises and extensions. Jimbo Fisher at Florida State has a raise and extension sitting on his desk.

These factors illustrate and drive the sky-high salaries. All the teams need wins to get visibility and wins; all teams need good coaches determine the quality of programs. The money, the reputation, the drives lead to these autumn bacchanals of money and movement.

Coaches fall like autumn leaves; mini-industries exist following the falls and make it a game to follow in the media. In the NFL they even call it "black Monday" the day after the last game when everyone gets fired. Most coaches are fired and leave quietly. Sarkesian and Mack provide different views, more outliers, but still with the same results. Boosters, greed, unreal expectations, media demands and even the desire to go home all mix together into the tense, relentless, short lives of college football coaches.

Three nights after Sark left I was walking to a volleyball game and there on the new UW stadium were the words, “Welcome to the Peterson Era.”

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Sport Ethics: Leave it All on the Field

It's a movie cliche but also a real life cliche, in fact, it is more than a cliche, leave it all on the field possesses a moral imperative for individuals and teams  committed to a common goal. It is not an exhortation that can be called upon often, but it does possess a power and urgency that committed athletes and professionals will respond to under strong conditions. It remains an important if ominous moral resource.

Last week the women's volleyball team at UW came from behind 0-2 and won the match 3-2. Twice they were down and facing match point in the last game, but came back. When they won most collapsed too tired to move and some too exhausted even to cry with joy. The players simply kept drawing on "more." They kept pulling up strength and skill they did not know they had. Jim McLaughlin their coach summed up the experience, “To tap out emotionally like that, people just don’t know what it takes. They were so tired, so exhausted. That’s when you grow as a player, as a person. That’s when you learn what you’ve got.”

In movies and real life, this call to dig deep comes up under dire conditions where the stakes are high and immediate. Often the leader urges this not just when stakes are high and immediate, but the end game is in sight and people are tottering, exhausted and struggling to stay focused and competent. Sometimes it is spoken of in terms of great goals or future states, but my favorite movie line emphasized the absolute importance for successful athletes and professional to be totally present to their task in the moment. At the end of Varsity Blues the quarterback Jonathon Moxon and his teammates run off their  hallowed coach Kilmer to save a teammate from taking  painkillers. Moxon gathers them around and says, "Before this game started, Kilmer said "48 minutes for the next 48 years of your life". I say "fuck that". All right? Fuck that. Let's go out there, and we play the next 24 minutes for the next 24 minutes, and we leave it all out on the field."

Leaving it all on the field makes moral sense when the stakes are high, the urgency is great and normal endurance and performance levels probably will not achieve the goal. It invokes both a strong team loyalty ethic as well as an inner dialogue for each person with him or herself. 

This is an imperative sentence as well as an evaluative position.

When an athlete plays, whether for the whole game or as a two minute substitute, leaving it all on the field demands that the person give his or her best possible performance for as long as he or she is in the game.

This aspect of sport buttresses the imperative to be present to the moment, the sport and the opponents. It means that the player exists fully in that present moment offering up every bit of cognitive, emotional and physical talent and skill they possess. The athlete will give maximum performance while they are on the field. It does not matter if it is one special teams' play or 45 minutes of an overtime basketball game.

Leaving it all on the field first involves a person’s relationships to him or herself and to his or her field. Almost always when this imperative is called out, it requires the person to recall focus, energy and skill that they have spent years working to perfect. Its importance began early with the individual's time and effort to master and practice their expertise. It plays out early and durably during practice that refines the perceptual and attention tools, builds up the body memory and the physical and emotional endurance. Without this training, preparation, pattern recognition and experience, most individuals will not be able to adjust their energy level and maintain or draw upon resilience under immense stress.

If a person or player had not devoted the time to acquire this mastery, there would be little to call upon to leave on the field.

The second dialogue involves a moment of self-evaluation where the person asks him or herself—am I giving all that I can without destroying myself?  After the fact it involves the almost impossible question—could I have given more?

The other side of this question involves did I ever quit? No one who quits or gives up in a competition ever leaves it all on the field. In fact such quitting violates the most profound promise athletes make to themselves and their teammates--to be present with their full mind, body, and skill set during the competition. This extends to drawing upon their entire self to the fullest extent. Even  when losing or down or hitting a wall, they promise to challenge oneself and one’s team members to draw deeper and leave it all on the field.

In the end the challenge to leave it all on the field reduces not to “no excuses” but to NO REGRETS.

To crawl or stumble off the field or course, we have given all--our hearts, our bodies, our minds and above all our loyalty to each other--to achieve the goals the group set. 

This is where the contagion impact of teams and the fact that people possess different reservoirs of will and emotional talent matter. It also points to why good teams and organizations need several focal points of leadership and coherence. Teams, especially in contact sports, can get beaten down. They fall behind and start to splinter. Teammates need  the contagious confidence, drive or  pull of teammates who still possess robust endurance who can exhort, model and get in the face or encourage them when they are tempted to fold. Others may be tottering, but if a peer can model full energy and call up focus and reserves, others can try to dig deep and respond with similar discipline and focus, even if they do not immediately possess it.

Now the duration of the game and one’s performance will affect what this means. Most sports are not marathons but lumpy with moments of relative downtime followed by moments of intense and full effort required. The net sports and reset sports like volleyball, tennis or football exemplify this. But in that sprint mode, the athlete gives every once of attentive energy and skill they possess. This mastery lies in calibrating how much an athlete can give on each play while still possessing the reserves to continue to call forth that level of energy and attention.

Exerting maximum effort takes a special kind of discipline because it involves immense physical and emotional exertion on the part of the athlete. This calling forth and the electro-chemical aspects of it can negate the cognitive aspects of pattern recognition and execution required. Too unbalanced and emotional/physical burst of strength and endurance can draw down needed nutrients and vital attention from the brain and memory. Athletes need this reservoir to give form and effectiveness to strength when it is needed. Cognitive effort can be as depleting as physical effort during intense competition, and cognitive modeling and steely focus can be as important as physical endurance and courage.

Every athlete and every coach playing to leave it all on the field needs to regulate this balance given the length of the game. If done well by the end of regulation elite athletes will literally be exhausted mentally and physically. This accounts for the anti-climatic nature of so many overtime games where the players have so little left, and it takes amazing discipline and untapped reserves. Players are literally consuming their own muscle and mind to stay focused and effective in overtime situations. 

The length of season and number of games impacts a players and team’s ability to utilize this approach. In a football season or college Olympic sport season such as soccer, volleyball or lacrosse, the small number of games gives greater scope to the leave it all on the field since players have more time to recover between game or game sets.

At the opposite end of football season where every game is a “big game," baseball and to a lesser extent basketball—especially in its professional manifestation—have so many games, that no player can leave it all on the field each game and have the time to recover or renew. Baseball provides many opportunities within the game itself to renew physically and emotionally even as it requires relentless and intense attention and spurts of focused force and physical effort.

During games or seasons players “hit the wall.” Individuals reach a state of being where he or she believes they cannot draw upon any more skill, emotion, physical stamina or capacity. Literally they are stuck. At times they may “grind it out” to get through these periods, or they may “coast” or just get “benched.”

At certain points athletes may be so ground down or exhausted that all they possess is automatic pilot. They can barely think a coherent thought; their body screams, aches and burns; they find it hard to hear or process yelling coaches or fellow players. But the elite players continue on the field. 

Here all the practice, preparation, neural memory development, endless repetition with oneself and others prove their worth. Men and women play on, not as zombies, but as trained, exhausted professionals for whom skill carries only one aspect of their professionalism. The capacity to attend when exhausted, to focus when diffused, to act when confused, all emerge from the trained mind and memory of professional mastery.

This manifests itself in exhausted doctors in emergency rooms, FEMA workers and emergency workers in under duress working, not as zombies, but as trained ingrained professional expertise.

Carried to its unending extreme, this approach has a dark side. It can lead people to drive themselves into injury or psychological and emotional damage. It can lead to mistakes when people have gone beyond the ability of internalized pattern recognition and professional memory to carry on. A person can hurt themselves or their team by trying to leave it all on the field and in fact reaching the point where they no longer recognize they have nothing more to leave. Players in such condition or on automatic pilot given their exhaustion are more susceptible to fakes or errors.

Long seasons, long games slowly eat away at performance and erode emotional reserves, wear and tear physical skill and talent and can lead to sloppiness and wandering focus. Some games just will not seem as important and the sheer grind of a season wears down all three components required by elite athletic performance.

Ultimately no person can play this way every day. The sports and professions with downtime permit renewal and recovery. But the long sports with endless seasons or endless emergencies engender a different rhythm of performance and resilience. They can sap the reserves of players and teams.

But in the end, when necessary  elite athletes and professional possess the capacity in themselves and together with the team to "leave it all on the field."

Monday, November 25, 2013

Sport Ethics: Let the Game Come to You

How many coaches have counseled anxious and pressing players, “let the game come to you.” It’s hard advice, even odd advice in a world of sports and professions where aggression and taking control are the preferred strategies. "Getting there first" or "controlling the tempo fly" in the face of this disciplined approach. Yet this sage advice matters profoundly for successful athletic and professional endeavor. Let the game come to you, however, takes strong virtue and character to learn the skills and insight needed to achieve it.

Notice the advice begins with the notion of a “game.” A game presumes a goal; participants know what they want to achieve and do so in a competitive environment. Usually the athletes and professionals work with a team to achieve the end result. An athlete plays imbedded in a game with goals and competition.

That competition means opponents are working to get to the goal first and win. It means that opponents will defend against the team or player. Opponents seek to impose their will or throw the team and players “off their game.” The game unfolds as a competition with plans and plays and counter plays as well as adaptations on the fly.

In competition ebb and flows occur as teams get the upper hand or open a lead. Momentum can switch. Teams can get behind or get ahead; either momentum can pose a danger or opportunity. But imbedded in the flow and texture of the game, each player has a role and has to perform. Individual competitors have strengths and limitations, and he or she will try to maximize the strength and hide or minimize the cost of limitations. Good opponents will go after their limitations and try to nullify their strengths.

This competitive dynamic sets the stage for “let the game come to you.” Inside each game opponents are seeking mismatches where their strength comes up against another's weakness. Opponents may do this by schemes or designs to get a player to commit prematurely or play a known weakness. It may be trying to get into a player’s head and get the athlete to panic or force issues exposing a weakness, an action without full focus or actions that leave holes in the team's scheme.

Good opponents are always seeking to push athletes or professionals to force actions—to take actions that have lower probability of success or play out of a player's or teams’ strength. 

When players force actions, the opponents succeed in undermining a player and team’s performance. They have maneuvered an individual into taking a lower probability high risk action.

Here is where letting the game come to you matters. It unfolds as a form of mindful patience. 

Inside the game athletes compete but also watch and scan the game to see patterns unfold. They scan for openings or possible mismatches. Successful professionals look and anticipate possibilities. They are looking to set up actions down the road, not immediately before them. The example would be a pass that leads to a pass that leads to an assist. Good players and teams wait and display patience as well as commitment. They look for timing or openings and then explode into the opening provided by the flow or rhythm of the competition or game. They seek an emerging pattern that permits their strength to explode against an exposed vulnerability.

Often a team not only runs a play, but must pick the right play that fits the moment or responds to an offense or defense or tendency of the opponents. All this depends upon situational awareness and pattern recognition over the course of a game.

At the elite level teams have scouted each other. They know each other and every player’s tendencies and probabilities and areas of weakness and strength. They know players who tend to overcommit and who react too slowly.They know who shades off on defense or loses attention over time. Often players will disguise their true intent to get teams or players to commit too early. That premature commitment, then opens up a mismatch or window of opportunity to move aggressively and erupt into the actions.

We can see this dynamic any day by watching a pitcher and batter. The batter has to wait upon the right pitch and then pounce on it. Sometimes they have to foul off balls. The pitcher plays the same game seeking to entice the batter to swing at a pitch out of their zone or commit to a disguised pitch. In football quarterbacks need to let the play unfold and count on the system to throw to the space rather than the player. In tennis or volleyball a long volley plays out until someone sees one misstep and can hit the ball right beyond the reach or to the player that forces a bad shot that can then be put away. Every interaction creates this dynamic. If players try to hard, they press and fail in execution.

Good athletes need to be patient, but not passive. Athletes need to be alert but resolute. 

When a play opens up, they strike; this can happen at any moment. This approach encourages players to both keep their emotional tenacity but also be energy efficient so they are not wasting physical or emotional energy they need to husband over the course of a game and season.

The opposite of letting the game come to you is to force it. This happens with batters swing at bad pitches. It happens when frustrated pitchers throw a pitch into a batter's zone. People get anxious and worked up. Especially when behind or when things feel static, they might “press” and push beyond their skill zones. This means they take actions where they have lower probabilities of success. Watching quarterbacks try to force passes into coverage that get intercepted demonstrates this as well as an over swing hitter or a basketball player who keeps driving to the basket when the shots or seams are not there.

Forcing it means an athlete takes an action that given their skill and the opponent, the action has a much higher probability of failure given their skill set and conditions of the competition. Every good opponent wants to incite players to force it.

Forcing actions not only lower probability of success for the player, but it can dissolve the intricate structure of team defense or offense. If one member on defense breaks coverage to shade and help another, it leaves open layers that others can exploit.

Forcing leads teammates to compensate and move from their domain and assigned roles. This offset cascades into breakdowns and openings for the opponents. In a different vein, when players free lance and force it such as forcing passes in football, soccer or basketball or breaking to score when no reasonable probability exists, these actions undermine everyone’s trust in everyone else. 

These free lancing actions subvert the system and confidence in the plays people have practiced and committed to. This lack of trust leads to overcompensation. People end up out of place and don't trust the coverage or system. They may give up in anger on the one forcing it. Teams hesitate or get angry at each other. The entire rhythm of the team can break down by a player forcing the game. It can also break the player’s skill when they over throw or over swing, or over kick. This upsets the accuracy and consistency of their execution.

Elite professionals including athletes develop the capacity to be calm and see and recognize patterns in unfolding play even when it looks chaotic.

They understand how the plan works and execute it; they invite and elicit trust from teammates who can rely upon them. They also understand that mistakes or slumps occur and that they and everyone can get anxious and overcommit and over anticipate and literally try to hard in a way. This trying too hard  destroys the rhythm and prepared consciousness they bring to expert judgment under conditions of stress and uncertainty.

Preparation—patience—perception reinforce each other in letting the game come to you Notice this is not about “waiting” for the game which is passive.

Let is a subjunctive verb with an active scanning component to it. But it becomes one of the dangers of such as approach that the "let" can sink into wait and take the edge off an aggressive player.

As is often the case, the success of this approach requires character and self-discipline. Athletes like any good professional acquires trained integrated perception and skill that can be unleashed at the proper moment. Letting the game come to you means an athlete or professional plays smart and maximizes their skill and energy to act when the options of success are highest.

In his book Eleven Rings  Phil Jackson describes one of the differences between coaching basketball superstars Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan as centering upon how Jordan would let the game come to him. Bryant would shoot and shoot and push, even when he was not on or the defense had him. This could lead  to losses as well as wins. Jordan possessed a deeper confidence in himself but in the flow of the game knowing that chances would open up for higher probability actions. Both are superb players, maybe the finest of their generation, but one never lead to collapsed teams, the other did.

Letting the game come to you, like the capacity to let go, and carry on, depend upon a refined and trained virtue and skill that good athletes and good professionals live by.