Monday, January 7, 2013

Sports Ethics: Finish It

Last year I watched both the Seattle Seahawks and the Washington Huskies take strong leads into fourth quarter of their football games. The games felt" in the bag" so  I could switch channels. In both games, however, the teams lost the games in the final minutes. I listened to the Husky coaches and players repeat the mantra “we have to finish.” Commenting on the Seahawks game Leon Washington who had a fantastic kickoff return for a touchdown stated, “finish, finish, finish. That’s what we have to do, that’s what the coaches had reminded us.” After the Seahawks came from behind to win their first road playoff game in 25+ years, Redskins half back Alfred Morris reminded everyone, "it's not how you start, it's how you finish."

The words sound so simple—finish it. The concept is fundamental to the ethics of high achievement in life and sports, and its execution very hard.

It sounds so easy but really demands more than any of us think. Any writer trying to finish a manuscript; any lawyer trying to finish a case; any salesman trying to finish a sale; they all understand the discipline of finishing. The context does not matter, the concept of finishing it highlights how results overshadow effort or excellence.

Finishing as an Accomplishment:           Finish it hints at how just finishing the game can be an achievement. I think this can be true in both a good and bad sense. If a team reaches a moment where they are only playing to finish the game, period, and they are going through the motions and just want it over; that team has failed in its purpose and betrayed itself and its integrity. Playing to finish in this way insults sports integrity.

On the other hand, playing to finish can involve a team or person that might be outmatched, but the athletes play on with intensity, focus and at their highest skill. They do not give up; they may lose but they finish the game, even a loss, with heads held high. They kept in the game and finishing this way even though outgunned involves a form of honor.

In life we often face these challenges that tempt us to quit. In an iconic example any runner knows he or she can quit at any step, at any time. Their legs hurt, their breath shudders out, their body screams quit and their mind mutters that this is stupid. An individual runner can finish their first marathon or even their first mile or in my case their first block and feel great pride at the accomplishment of finishing the race and above all of not quitting. To finish in these terms of not giving up, keeping up intensity and focus and finishing despite pain and obstacles bring honor and a true sense of accomplishment. The reality and metaphor of a "finish line' solidifies  the power and importance of getting across the line, of finishing what we started. It implies a level of responsibility and self-discipline that accompanies finishing what we start. 

Sometimes just finishing, period, displays integrity and moxie and should be recognized. An injured player who plays to the finish elicits the same admiration. There is a reason coaches and trainers and friends all urge us to "finish strong" at that moment when we most want to quit. 

Finishing as Focus at the End:      When Leon Washington repeats the mantra “finish,” he means something different that deserves attention. He describes a team that does not manifest the intensity, mental focus and physical prowess at the end of a game in a way that allows them to hold a win. The expression refers in a good way to teams that “finish off” teams they should beat. But more often it indicts teams or athletes that that lose games they should win or to teams that are ahead and cannot finish. The once winning team loses at the end of the game and lets the other team back in because they do not play at their highest level at the end of the competition.

Competition means human beings opposed to us will be trying, thinking, training and developing new ideas to surprise us or win over us. It never ends. During games opponents adapt and if they do not lose heart, they strive to come back and change to gain a victory. Athletics exposes this archetypical core that rivalry in life or sport never stands still. 

To focus upon the finish reminds athletes and professionals that they are always on the clock. The game is never over until is is over or at least until the fat lady sings. Until the court closes, the surgery ends, the time clock runs out, a person must be present, focused, skilled and attuned to what is going on around them.

Athletes can lose in a number of ways. Sometimes adversaries just erupt and blow a team out of the water fast. Athletes finds themselves so far down so fast, they literally go into shock and underperform and stumble forward just playing out the clock. Sometimes, the game seesaws back and forth, and every play counts. Every player knows they are locked in a tight hard contest and must be fully engaged; people who play or witness such games know either team could have won. People remember such great competitions.  But sometimes a team is winning, and the other team claws back from being down and snatches the victory away. The athletes fail to finish it.

Finishing as a Mind Set:     Every game or series has built in attrition. To finish involves not just a point or play or even a game, but a rhythm where a team can start off winning and then faces the opponent's come back. Sometimes mental and physical attrition can distract or wear down intensity and focus. A team might relax when it gets ahead. Finishing involves a mind set and discipline. A team that knows how to finish does not relent but keeps its attention and resilience intact when runs and surprises occurs. It involves a form of focused emotional discipline coupled with the suppleness to bounce back when stress erupts.

Good finishers exploit their advantages and keep pressing to the end. But a failed finisher lets the opponent just “hang around.” An opponent keeps competing and gains confidence and energy rather than give up. The winning team cannot “put them away.” The other team stays within striking distance.  The failed finisher  should finish them off but does not have the energy, intensity or skill to up their performance and “pull away” or “put the game out of reach."

Sports contest have a winner. They end with a victor, and that requires someone must finish the game. High performers, athletes and professionals have the ability to envision the end and to let that vision discipline their training and attention before and during the competition. Life throws curves and just having the capacity to envision the end game and focus upon it is not enough. Getting ahead, facing a run from the other side, making mistakes all can tumble quickly into downward spirals and games get out of hand quickly.  A finisher must have the resilience to adapt and bounce back within the course of a completion to address these surprises and keep focused amid the ebb and flow of a competition.

The language of finishing can migrate into predatory language. To “finish someone off” resembles the language of hunting to kill. I had a student who left her sport because her coaches demanded that she display a “killer instinct.” She possessed superb skills and court sense as well as a balanced presence during the game, and won regularly. But her coaches wanted some type of zeal or emotional delight in beating the other person. They believed this emotional motivation to destroy the opponent would permit her to heighten her game and move in for the kill. I am not sure the structure of being a finisher requires having a killer-instinct. Too many coaches who see competition as war fall into that trap, but most good soldiers never do. They master discipline, focus and tempered ability to draw on emotional reserves when required. The involves the capacity to step up a person’s game. Here the person  unites skill, effort and judgement under stress  in order to finish off the competitor.

Focussing on finish it creates an imperative to stay present and focused upon the task at hand.  The ethics implied by finish reminds us that we cannot take anything for granted, and we can never rest on our laurels. Even when things are smooth sailing, things can go wrong. It requires a situational awareness of when to press an advantage and above all when not to let down one’s intensity that permits the other side get back into the game.

Finishers compete to the end; they cross the finish line with strength and attention intact. They compete fully with effort, attention and physical effort. Know the finish line and pressing forward involves responsibility plus resilience to hold on against the temptations of attrition, quitting or letting the other team steal a game. 

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