Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sports Ethics: Taking Care of Business

When Rick Pitino the coach of Louisville was asked how his team will prepare for the NCAA tournament, he responded, “Nothing to see here. We’re just taking care of business.” Most great coaches would respond in the same way. Besides being the name of a great Bachman Turner Overdrive song Takin Care of Business articulates a powerful way to approach challenges and high performance.

The concept links performance and business. I think of business as a group of people committed to a common task or mission. These can range from making a great product, providing a service, or achieving a goal like winning. The metaphor creates ethical obligations upon the person who has the job to master the skills of the job. It also evokes a mindset about how to approach work. In the song self-employed musicians

And start your slaving job to get your pay
If you ever get annoyed
Look at me I'm self-employed
I love to work at nothing all day

Most of us don’t have that luxury, but sports teams and high performing professionals develop a remarkable capacity to link satisfaction to performance and even connect “fun” to high performance as in the song. (other blog) The capacity for fulfillment and fun align with high performing professionals across huge ranges of jobs. The reasons lie in a way of thinking about business

First, business involves having a job or a task. That job or task is imbedded in a project to achieve a goal. Second, having a job revolves around having a role in the goal driven process. The role covers responsibilities, obligations and skills that a person is expected to master and perform with competence and consistency day in and day out. To master a job or rule requires consistent practice, learning and discipline to maintain constant performance and improve where needed. Third, businesses mean working with others. People know they are interdependent and rely upon each other—to achieve team members learn to trust and respect each other as they work together.

Taking care of business involves a mind set and character set for individuals. Successful business and successful jobs require strong work ethic. This work ethic grows from an attitude that the worker or player or professional gradually learns. Some people may bring a natural work ethic where they throw themselves passionately into work. Others may have to be cajoled, trained, motivated or even commanded into a strong work ethic.

The work ethics has to be learned but also tempered. Just having enthusiasm and throwing oneself into work is not enough in any successful enterprise. First, a player has to temper their effort to match the endurance of the task. They often have to build up endurance and conditioning both physically and mentally. Second, the cognitive and skill dimensions matter deeply. Just contributing effort and hard work does little unless the person masters the cognitive and skill and formal dimensions of a task.

This craft knowledge unites cognitive, physical and emotional dimensions. Third, the work ethic plus cognitive dimensions require the ability to learn and adapt. Many jobs seem not change, but all the best production processes work when workers constantly contribute to improving the process even in little ways. In sports and professional life innovation is the norm as well as competition. Players and professionals must be open to learn. They need a quality of mind and character that does not lock them into only one way of doing things when the environment or conditions or opponents change. Consistency is one thing, stubborn futility another.

The simple words “take care of business” involve complex challenges to individuals. The work ethic, mastery of skills and learning need to be packaged with a particular type of commitment and endurance.

To take care of business entails a process of preparation, training, testing and learning that builds a team culture and character as well as style of learning and adapting. It narrows the focus and training for the persons to give them the space to practice, perfect and achieve despite distractions and surprises. This permits teams to keep an even keel amid stresses of different environments. Alabama football coach Nick Saban links this approach to business,

“Eliminate the clutter and all the things that are going on outside and focus on the things that you can control with how you sort of go about and take care of your business. That’s something that’s ongoing, and it can never change.”

Fine players and professionals show up for work each day. They bring it each day. Taking care of business means men and women have gained a mature and durable emotional, cognitive and physical solution to the emotional roller coasters of competition as well as the nagging costs and thrills of winning and losing. Most professional life and sports combines deep capacity to prepare and husband energy for a marathon. But this deep reservoir is not enough.

Competitive and professional life also resembles a series of sprints under intense competitive pressure. The sprint requires total commitment for a period of time, then time to recoup, renew and then give maximum effort again. Football probably resembles this most, but most sports carry this rhythm, so having a workmanlike attitude.

This approach also permits players to approach high stakes games with focus and intensity and not get overwrought or panicked—they keep balance. At the same time to take care of business also means players and professionals never take things for granted. They understand there are no “gimmes” and that upsets can occur. Players show up for what may feel like lesser games and still play with focus, skill and appropriate intensity.

Player’s don’t “lose it” either under stress of high stakes or temptations of low stakes. Business-like teams possess a steady keel and durability across different levels of competition and different intensities of experience and challenge. They possess the preparation, work ethic, skill and willingness to learn and adapt.

And I'll be...
Taking care of business, every day
Taking care of business, every way
I've been taking care of business, it's all mine
Taking care of business and working overtime

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sports Ethics: Create a Level Playing Field

The joy of playing and watching sports depends heavily upon real competition. Competition invokes risk of failure or success. True competition requires uncertainty. Uncertainty connects sports to real life that has no guarantees, no certainty. Competitive outcomes then depend upon effort, talent, focus, adversary's skill and luck. Leaders of sports have an obligation to keep real competition alive in sports—a level playing field

Stewards of sports such as governing bodies and commissioners must work hard to create a level playing field over time. A level playing field keeps the integrity of sports intact. Without it sports reduces to the pretend of wrestling, the corrupted outcomes of gambling or boredom. Like in life lack of a level playing field makes a sham of fairness and long term hope.

When players step onto the field, they should believe that they have a chance to compete and win. When fans commit to a team as a representative of their community and aspect of identity, they desire a chance for their team to compete and win.

A level playing field occurs over time. Each season several teams may be demonstrably better than others. When the better teams compete they will have a much higher probability to win. Players and fans want the chance to compete over time and for the best teams to change over time. Competition should breed diversity and surprise. Over time teams can organize talent, smarts, focus and intensity and become better.

Unless you are a Yankee fan, watching games where you know one team will always win is boring. Worse it takes the guts out of sport because players become tempted to go through the motions and the quality of play declines because teams stagnate when competitive pressures do not push invention.

All sports face the danger of the migration of talent and skill to money. The richest teams buy the best talent and dominate the sports year after year. This cycle of winning reinforces itself when the best players want to play for a winner rather than being stuck on perpetual losing teams.

Thinking of sports as a competitive market means that one team or group of teams morph into a monopoly or oligopoly. These competitive markets mean that certain teams are guaranteed to lose the majority of the games over time and have little chance of ever winning a championship. Freezing the competitive hierarchy ruins real competition, ruins interest in the sport and can sap the motivation of players who are doomed to play on teams that not only cannot win championships but seldom can even “make a game of it.”

Monopoly and oligopoly in sports sap quality because real competition pushes players to grow. Real competition pushes teams to innovate in training, tactics or strategy to get a competitive edge so teams invest in smarts as well as talent. All these dynamics are sapped when a monopoly or oligopoly controls competition.

In the last twenty years with the reluctant cooperation of unions and ultra-individualist owners, American professional sports have developed a series of devices to protect the possibility of level playing fields, if the teams are smart enough to use the leverage of the devices. These include:

1.   A draft system that permits the worst teams the year before to draft first in the talent pool.

2.  Salary caps in professional basketball, football and soccer. This cap limits the total expenditures by a team and requires that contracts be structured to maximize up front payments. It discourages stockpiling high priced talent because huge payouts to individuals like quarterbacks hurt the team’s ability to get strong supporting players.

3.  Baseball backed into a half ass solution that works despite itself with teams able to spend unlimited amounts but beyond a specified level teams pay very high luxury taxes that are commonly distributed.

4.  Most of the leagues now have strong minimum requirements of expenditure that ensures owners cannot simply milk teams as profit centers.

5.  Wider talent pools. This has developed by design in baseball, soccer and basketball with international scouting and signings. In football and basketballs it results from a deeper and earlier training pool where talented players are spotted and groomed from the age of 12.

6.  Expansion has diluted talent across teams where even with talent pool expansion the talent across vital positions such as pitcher or quarterback is diminished across many teams.

7.  Slotting salaries exist for first round draftees along with limited control periods. This minimizes the risk of teams to invest in untested rookies and increases money available for veterans. The rookies who succeed get their payoff when they reach end of control period and become free agents.

8.  Unlimited free agency permits players to gain serious salary increases at the height of their talent.
a.   More importantly from a level playing field, it means that teams can rebuild relatively fast if they have drafted well and have spot needs that free agents can address. Teams relying solely on free agency to build “the best team money can buy” have not fared so well. It turns out that the skill production of players becomes very unpredictable in late twenties and early thirties, so many free agency hires turn out to be economic mistakes.

9.  The leagues created larger playoffs and strategically used “wild card” teams to make the stakes of winning last longer and go deeper into the standings. This means a much higher percentage of teams are competitive for playoff status longer into the season. This has helped minimize the number of meaningless games.

Dave Cameron brilliantly analyzes baseball's competitive resurgence in these terms but adds several points.  “Institute testing for PEDS, lessoning the ability of high-revenue teams to buy inflated late-career production. Shepard in analytics that allow poorer teams to level the market for players values.” He concludes that this has transformed cultures of teams and fans who now believe they can compete and win creating a “virtuous cycle” of interest and achievement. 

He makes underappreciated points about PED limiting stockpiling of talent and the ability of “intelligence” to offset money.

These combined approaches have lead to a remarkable renaissance of competitive parity across leagues. While the balance is unstable, the proof lies in the interesting confluence that salaries are rising, most teams are making a profit or increasing in market valuation and multiple teams are winning championships while competitive surprises can and regularly do occur.

To stand up to legal scrutiny these restraints on trade in the interest of both profits and quality of competition require strong unions and commissioners. This means the settlements are voluntary contracts that the law can tolerate. Owners alone would conspire against players, illegally collude on salary but also permit the strong and rich to dominate and create permanent inequalities such as baseball.

To create a level playing field takes constant vigilance and work. Competition in limited domains can naturally devolve to dominance by wealth and inequality. Owners, on their own, would prefer this. It takes strong leaders such as commissioners to negotiate order on  the chaotic and individualistic owners as well as strong unions willing to protect the game to ensure economic rewards. Level playing field takes rules that permit long redistribution of talent and enable innovation and intelligence to be rewarded.

The commissioners have to work to  convince owners and players that protecting the quality of competition and game created a better “media product” as well as more fan interest. This permitted the leaders to align self-interest with game quality.

A level playing field invites players to compete with intensity and to devote effort to getting better because they have a chance to win and excel. A level playing field reinforces fan’s loyalty to their “home” teams by adding the thrill of enjoying winning and collectively partaking in the satisfaction of a team that ‘represents’ them. They can feel satisfaction in being connected to the excellence and achievement of the athletes as well as the delirium of for one brief second winning.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Rutger's Coaching Abuse--Assume Athletes are Students

The tape of how Mike Rice treated Rutger’s basketball players speaks for itself. It chronicles months of a coach who “motivated” athletes through physical grabbing, pushing, throwing balls at unprotected heads and genitals while hurling endless curses and anti-women and anti-gay slurs. Only after the tapes reached the public thanks did the President and Athletic Director fire Reid. Now the Rutger’s athletic director and the senior Vice President who prevented Reid’s firing are gone. The media has covered many angles of what is horribly wrong here; I want to focus upon one.

Let’s assume athletes are students and coaches are teachers.

This is the fundamental moral claim of college athletics. If athletics belongs in the university, then it's teaching should align with the mission of helping students grow as persons and acquire high order cognitive and character attributes.

Rice’s actions represent profound moral failure and do not belong in the university dedicated to teaching students to learn and master themselves and knowledge.

Most college coaches I know choose college over professional ball because they see themselves as teachers. They love the game, they love helping young men and women grow into adults. The best are appalled at what they saw. Jim Boeheim in 35th year coaching it best, “Honestly I couldn’t watch it anymore.” Boeheim had the courage to admit the relentless pressure on coaches can drive them to behaviors, “I get verbal, I’m on players. I don’t like to curse. I do curse sometimes.”

Boeheim also highlights an almost universal response among coaches. The Rutgers' coach did not need this demeaning and degrading style. “The tragedy is his team would have played exactly the same, or better, if he hadn’t done any of that…If he never threw a ball, never touched anybody, his team would have played, I think, better, in my experience.”

My point is not that this is a bad way to get winning team. Even if his team was winning, his style of coaching did not belong on a university campus, period.

Let’s assume practice is a classroom, coaches are teachers and athletes are students.

A good class and teacher have goals and a lesson plan. Good coaches have practices planned and know what their goals are for each practice just as good teachers.

If athletic practices had a syllabus, the class goals would read something like this.

1.   Understand the basics of the game and the team plays.
2.  Develop one’s talent and perfect skills that enable a person to achieve at the highest level he or she can.
3.  Understand how to scout, read and successfully play against an opponent.
4.  Develop the physical and mental endurance to play at a high level in intense competitions.
5.  To develop the emotional capacity and self-discipline to be team oriented, stay focused amid chaotic competition and efforts to disrupt concentration.
6.  Develop the cognitive skills to recognize patterns make decisions and act upon trained perception and knowledge.

The coach’s athletic class aims to help the student develop physical, emotional and cognitive skills that empower the student to achieve at their highest possible level.

The student should develop a strong sense of oneself as a confident, high achieving, team oriented individual capable of assessing, adapting and acting under fast moving conditions of competition.

Many modern university classes make no pretense to train pattern recognition, decision-making or impact character. A subset of modern university classes does pursue these goals. Modern science labs teach students to practice and contribute to doing science. Professional schools often create high pressured environments to replicate the stress students might face on the job. Old style law classes employed a tyrannical and fear driven style humiliating and attacking students to prepare them for the rigors of trials. The singular world of performance training requires students such as singers, actors, musicians or artists to confront super tough teachers. Students face endless and sometimes intimidating critiques.

Many classes and teachers use fear as an aspect of motivating students. Despite endless studies that strength based positive reinforcement works better, most teachers mix fear into their classes. The simple reality of grades mixes fear of failure into classes. Harsh and demanding teachers can intimidate students. Sometimes the fear can work well and help challenge students to do more than they dreamed they could. 

Every university will have crazy, ditsy and abusive teachers. I have dealt with all kinds. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they cross lines where they abuse and hurt their students. Sometimes in the name of demanding excellence they move over into a bizarre form of domination and abuse. When teachers cross these lines they need to be disciplined or terminated.

In teaching and coaching process matters as much as the outcome. Students learn to internalize how they are taught, not just the outcomes. Every teacher presents a role model for how to pursue a profession, how to relate to other people and how to exercise knowledge and performance.

Physical and emotional abuse, endless screaming of obscenities and homophobic slurs fundamentally fail as college teaching. No university should want their students demeaned and taught to see themselves as body parts, stereotypes. No university should permit their students to have their heads or genitals battered by basketballs. Even basic training does not permit such treatment.

Two things hit me about this. Most coaches at some point in practice yell, scream and are quite capable of creative insults and profane curses. It really struck me how many of Rice's players saw this behavior as not unusual—I don’t even want to talk about what this tells us about the type of coaching that goes on at high school and AAU teams. Second, any of us who have experienced different styles of coaching or teaching know that you can teach different ways and be more affirming and strength based. We know that a lot of this stuff rubs off your back after a while, it becomes noise not signal. Now this has a real downside because it means that people can become so inured to abuse that they accept it and internalize the demeaned identity and just get on with life.   

Good teaching and coaching means teachers simulate some of the stress and anxiety of such competition and speed. This can be done in many ways and has family resemblance to techniques used in professional schools. When this crosses a line to moral and physical abuse; when it makes a student less of a person, the college should stop it whether in athletic practice or a classroom.