Monday, October 7, 2013

The Wisdom of Athlete Cliches

In one of my favorite sport movies Bull Durham, Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, “the million dollar arm with a five cent brain,” asks his grizzled mentor, Crash Davis, to “teach” me more stuff. Crash sits him down on their rickety bus and says, "it’s time to talk about clichés." He begins with “I am just happy to be here.”

How many times have you listened to the same words or variations from athletes as they answer the same hackneyed question for the umpteenth time? Consider that a midlevel major league player would be asked similar questions by multiple reporters over 900 times a year.

Athlete speak seems to involve what Washington, D.C. would call a “non-answer answer.” It sounds like an answer but has absolutely zero content. Now these answers evolve for reasons. First, no athlete wants to call out or publically insult teammates or members of the other team. Athletes have to play every day with each other. Real problems are hashed out in private. Second, no athlete wants to give the other team motivation for a game or insight into a team’s problems. In pro sports, athletes will move across several teams and no player wants to alienate or insult someone who may be a teammate next week or next year.

What do we want them to say? “W botched the double play because he played out of position or X missed the ball because he was not only not playing to the scout or Y misread the trajectory and broke wrong?” He could no more say that Z was out too late with his mistress and not as fully focused as he could be. Come on guys! The need to protect team cohesion and relations, as well as the endless sameness of the questions and situations abrade the answers and wear away all the externals. The clichés gleam like polished rocks eroded and buffed by hot air and weather of media storms.

I believe, however, that athlete speak also contains some strong and consistent wisdom that athletes and coaches do believe and that are worth listening to. At the end of a recent come from behind over time victory, the Seahawks young and very smart quarterback Russell Wilson described the mood in the locker room at the half time after the Seawhawks had been soundly trounced for 30 minutes. Wilson feels not only smart but genuine and is too young to have built up the smooth deflective armor of words and poise that many veterans adopt to protect themselves. Here is what he said:

"The mood in the locker room was unbelievable," he insisted. "We knew that if we could just hang in there, if we could just play one play at a time, stay in the moment...and we did throughout the entire second half."

Now the reality is that most cliches began as and in fact still reflect deep truths. They become cliches by repetition and trained ignoring. Wilson in fact described exactly what the battered but not beaten Seahawks did.

Athletes and trained professionals have worked hard to practice reflectively and train their emotions and cognitive responses. They respond under great pressure with quick decisions that reflect perception of what the situation requires, coordination with fellow players and execution based upon powerful and trained pattern recognition and cognitive and emotionally united instincts. Often the cliches refer to these practices lying below the surface of actions. 

For instance, it is absolutely critical to "play one play at a time." The most dangerous thing an athlete can do is carry the emotional dredges of the past mistakes or success into the next play. This distracts from full attention and can code the execution either with too little or too much optimism. Emotions impact all performance and it is critical to let them go each play. One step at a time matters as a way to live and overcome adversity and stay on track when a person is ahead. The Seahawks, their coaches and their execution focused upon each play without giving up or pressing too hard.

High level performance requires being totally present to each moment. Elite athletic competition requires supreme pattern recognition from players and coaches. Being in the moment means players put aside emotional and physical and external distractions to bring their entire and multi-dimensional attention to bear at each moment of the competition. This can lead to interceptions, stopped plays or break aways or simply superb execution that wins a critical third down on a stalled drive. High performance achievement requires this ability to be entirely present to oneself, call upon one's skills and be present and connected to team mates and the opposition. This being present, playing one play at a time and persevering lay the emotional and psychological foundation of situational awareness that sets timely interceptions, blocks, sacks or brilliant runs.

Finally the Seahawks just kept at it with consistency. They endured mistakes and successes. Did not matter, but they kept present, focused upon execution of each play and gradually built up momentum and scored and chipped away.

Wilson in his thoughtful and balanced way described what many athletes have said thousands fo times and been ignored, but he spoke the truth and told exactly what happened at an attention based focused level.

Athletic wisdom may sound like cliches but it embodies serous wisdom and a way of being in harsh competition.

So professional athletes and most visible elite athletes draw upon a standard repertoire of answer across all sports. Consider:

  • We just take it one day at a time.
  • I do my best and the good Lord willing, I will get better.
  • We just have to go out and try our best each day.
  • He’s a competitor and never gives up, so he came through.
  • We all have days like this  (could be good or bad).
  • The other guys picked me up.
  • I want to compliment the other team; they played a great game.
  • I couldn’t t have done it without the rest of the team.
  • Just go to let it go. Tomorrow is another game.
  • Guys are not focused. We have to be focused out there.
  • We need to work on that in practice.
  • We’re in a groove, on a wave, in the flow and will ride it.
  • Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. That’s the game.

Each of the phrases divulges a real truth about sport. The fundamental rule of all sport must be to take it one day, one episode, one moment at a time. Sport involve constant failures. If a player lets a dropped pass stay with them or a strikeout or missed jump shot, then the memory and upset from the failure will poison and undermine their next pass, next shot or next strike. Elite athletes must have no memory from one moment to another.

Elite athletes like any of us who seek to strive and succeed, need to remember Kipling’s injunction in IF: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster 
And treat those two imposters just the same.”

The mental and emotional discipline of being focused on each moment, each pitch, each movement of the person you guard, each set and pattern before you defines the attention of a fine athlete. Athletes must be totally present and aware and attuned; they must bring their best attention and effort on each play because at the elite level small mistakes or miscues lead to immense and brutal consequences. So competitors never give up and achievers remain focused.

In competition if athletes let their emotions get the best of them,they lose focus. If they let the other team get into their heads or let their own emotional anger at the other team influence them, it can subtly lower performance or lead to overcompensation. It opens them and their team to being angered or thrown off their concentration by the other team.

Staying focused but also staying connected to their team remain essential. Team members may not like each other but have to trust to commit to their own expertise and place. If a player tries to do too much because they don’t’ trust their team, a player will get out of place and upset a formation or play. A player will leave openings and overcompensate and the other team will adjust and exploit it. So trusting and relying on their teammates and acknowledging them is critical, just as critical as respecting and acknowledging the other team when the opponents play well. That respect and acknowledgement can trump simmering anger or resentment that the other team may seek and exploit.

All of us and all athletes have those moments, those wonderful transcendent moments when we are in the flow. The moment when we are living at our highest potential and our skills and practice and training come together. It can feel like an epiphany, but when we have them, like Crash Davis says you have to “respect the streak” and we have to respect our performance and ourselves.

So we all have days like this and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but you carry on, you show up and you do your job. And every athlete does know in his or her heart of heart that Crash is right, “I am just happy to be here.” That is life, not just sport. Trite, but true.

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