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.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Maybe Jonathan Martin just Had Enough?

The phalanx of attack on Jonathan Martin from the NFL players and in blog sphere should not surprise anyone. The blog sphere attacks are predictable given football fans’ rabid sense of what is required to be manly and violent and solve problems with violence—that’s the game right? The players have closed ranks to defend bounties and headhunters and resist safety measures, why should this be different? I think, however, that Martin leaving is not about cowards, weakness or manhood. It represents a deeply human response to the soul degrading costs of daily acting like someone you are not just to fit in.

Imagine you’re fairly thoughtful, well educated and a superb professional. You get your first major job on the basis of your skill and intelligence. Joining the team you want to excel at your job and join into the culture. Makes sense, and most successful professionals face the dual task of professional achievement and fitting into their organization’s culture.

Imagine the culture reveals aspects you did not expect. You expect and understand most of it given the territory of, say that of an all male locker room of 23-32 year old hyper competitive and athletic males. You go along with the banter, the pushing and shoving, testing and challenging because you understand it and have done it before. You can even deal with some of the hazing. Given the dominance of African American players on the team, you might even be comfortable with the casual use of racist terms that carry sting and humor at the same time.

The point here is that you want to fit in and work hard to try to fit into the culture. I remember going into army basic training. The level of profanity and sheer brutal pushing, shoving, ribbing and insulting and testing stunned and aggravated me. 

But I went along. I used the F word endless times. I used racist and sexist language and jokes. I laughed at crude and mean jokes and pissed in the wind and watched “smokers” and yelled out sexist and ugly comments. I went along because this was my unit and my team and we could go to war together. It felt wrong and ate at me but I did it to get along.

I went along but got really tired of it especially the endless mean testing. I got really tired of it. It took hard work to endure and pretend and go along with things I hated just to be a part of the unit.

I remember in basic watching us push and test each other constantly. We threw epithets around and joked bordering on fighting. I also remember playing “painted bird” with several “weak” guys. The whole unit, me included, ganged up on them. They could not quite make the grade physically or mentally. They got teased, then pushed and shoved. Then they got persecuted until two had to leave the unit. The sergeants tolerated this picking on a scapegoat because it brought the rest of us together in our own superiority as we hounded the weak and different ones.

I believe Jonathan Martin confronted these challenges.

I think he went along with the unit’s norms to stay part of the team. I believe that he went along with the teasing and joking and testing and even meanness because some of it he was used to. But in the end he wanted to get along.

But I cannot conceive of facing this day in and day out from "his friend" Richie Incognito:

Hey, wassup, you half-nigger piece of shit. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] shit in your fucking mouth. [I'm going to] slap your fucking mouth. [I'm going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. Fuck you, you're still a rookie. I'll kill you

He did not want to be a snitch. So he played along and used some of the same language even if he did not like doing it; even if he just hated hearing the racist insults to himself and his family. The texts will show this and people will say he accepted it.

No he went along with it because he felt he had to and if he did not the gang who are gathering to protect the racist taunting of Richie Incognito would ostracize him and not cover his back on the field.

I think he just had enough.

He did want a sane and thoughtful man would do facing a cruel and mean and ugly culture.  It’s a culture where the union is more interested in protecting the persecutors than the abused. 

He had enough and he walked and he should have.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Physical Creativity & Athletic Innovation

I have always loved the Fosbury flop. It made no sense, looked absurd and yet creates an amazing physical combination of torque and lift that revolutionized the high jump. Its creator Dick Fosbury stunned the world with this ungainly approach when his self-invented style helped him win an Olympic championship. Now every major elite competitor uses it. His contribution reminds us about the unique and under-appreciated aspects of physical creativity that pervades athletics. 

As in art, sports and athletes experiment and create  new possibilities for motion. Athletes push boundaries, experiment, try out new ways of doing actions and increase our understanding of the potential of our human physical and mental range.

The Fopsbury flop illustrates one of the unique aspects of creation in sport. A player or coach/player invent a new and unique body configuration that the sports world has not seen before. This body alignment achieves a purpose within the sport—it involves pure kinesthetic innovation. When it works other players can copy and adapt and deploy the same configuration. These kinesthetic innovations are replicable and adaptable by other players. This fits with Howard Gardener’s still controversial claim that bodily intelligence exists with its own dimensions of bod awareness, integrated perceptual, physical and emotional imagination and discipline.

I will emphasize this physical creativity and innovation. I am not talking about coaches who introduce new systems like “West Coast” offenses or “Triangle” or “Motion” offenses. Nor am I talking about the endless tweaks in games and techniques on the margins, rather I am aiming for the innovations, the actions of a person and that person’s body that reconceptualizes what the human body can do and how humans can achieve goals.

I also don’t want to talk about the unique singular achievements of physical genius that might reside in a extraordinary athlete or artist such as a dancer like Nijinsky. Too often these moves reside alone, singular and almost curious in their linkage to one person’s sole genius or moment in time. I also don’t want to talk about evolution of techniques and styles that go with “bigger, faster, stronger” athletes pushing boundaries of technique and adaptation.

Sometimes these moves might involve adaptation or discovery of possibilities in new technologies such as the rise of a two handed backhand—an absolutely unique and stunning technique tied to new racket design. Tennis style and innovation, for instance, has much less to do with kinesthetic innovation than adaptations to the technology of rackets such as today's fascination with top spin brought on by new stringing technologies. Bigger baseball mits might change how some fielders adapt. The world of golf has to be tightly regulated because it has been so susceptible to shaft, head and ball technologies that change the range and accuracy and focus of the game. 

I think you see the plethora of physical creation and innovation in games with the fewest technological intermediaries such as basketball and soccer. Gymnastics highlights the same dynamic more in the floor routines than in the more disciplined and constrained work. I once would have said that about swimming until shark skin laminar flow transformed the sport and forces strong regulation of its suites.

This physical and kinesthetic innovation is noticeable in established sports and gets proof of concept by its ability to spread through the system and have other athletes adopt it, practice it, customize it and extend it.

This creation does not come from nowhere. Elite athletes practice, prepare and refine skill. They study the style and technique of other athletes. Elite athletes push their bodies and test nutrition and exercise and conditioning. Good athletes  think about their sport, and often alone in the gym or field, they practice new “moves” or silly moves or just play and enjoy it; they may just stumble upon an new way to achieve a physical goal just by playing.

I think that American basketball of all the established sports generates more physical creativity and innovation than all the other major American sports combined. Partially this arises from the continuous upwelling from the “play” of the street where a culture of glory and one upsmanship pushes young athletes to experiment and demand more of their body. Latin American soccer generates similar impressive innovations in soccer styles. Young athletes aggressively seek to go where no one has gone before.

A couple examples suffice. Think of something as simple as the the one hand jump shot which in the nineteen fifties made an entire way of playing basketball obsolete inside three years. More recently, think of how the invention of the  crossover dribble freed up infinite possibilities of driving, It not only freed players but revolutionized offenses. These simple feel like the norm now, but at birth these creative, unique inventions lead to new ways of configuring a body against the norms. The cross over had been emerging and then Allen Iverson perfected its possibilities which spread to the entire game.

Julius Irving inaugurated a new way of seeing the airborne possibilities of a driver as well as how to perform around the basket. His style and innovative moves opened a huge range of angles and scoring unknown before. Michael Jordan would carry these experiments in flight, angle, body control and hang time to unimaginable heights that are now integrated into the life of every AAU players. 

This is what I mean about replicable. What Erving and Jordan accomplished did not remain just unique to them. Once their play changed the imaginations and possibilities for other players, their style permeated the game and two generations of players after them. Just as all the high jumpers use variants of the Fosbury Flop, today every player deploys the dribbles, jump shots and drive variations innovated by other players.  

In these cases, the players invented new body configurations. This was not an adaptation to new possibilities of a technology such as occurs in tennis or golf, it involves new ways to imagine and carry the human body in space achieving the goal of a sport.

Here I am most interested in innovations—creative reconfigurations of the body’s possibilities—that work. Fosbury won a gold medal and went on to a successful career. The jump shot proved far superior in release, range and adaptability than the two handed set. The cross over freed players and transformed offense possibilities. 

In baseball I can think of the head first slide as one questionable innovation. Not a lot occurs in most of baseball given its tight constraints. Pitchers, however, are glorious backyard inventors. They are always experimenting with hand grips and angles and speeds. Think of the first submarine pitcher, cutter or my favorite for baseball creativity, the glorious and improbably knuckleball.

The natural extension of bodily intelligence and creativity expresses itself through the invention of new sports. Again many experiments occur, most never get off the play ground, some become fads, but some grow and capture imaginations and talent and ultimately sponsors. The emergence of modern X sports and to my own mind snowboarding demonstrates this world of discovering bodily potential. 

Each meet literally introduces new convolutions and configurations as the sport invents itself and people push themselves and their boards to their limits before our eyes. Parcours, like basketball, grew from the street keeps expanding with little rime or reason. The world now sees it pilfered by movie sequences that adapt its techniques to create chase scenes and moves that no human could have imagined two decades ago.

Here lies the crux for me. Phyisical intelligence, like all types, offers the possibility of invention, creation, growth and imagination. Our sports, our lives and our horizons broaden thanks to them.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Miami Heat & the Importance of Glory for Athletes

I watched the Miami Heat received their well deserved rings for their second NBA championship and one night later watched the sheer joy and pandemonium of players and fans as the Red Sox won the world series. Both scenes reminded me how powerful and important winning glory remains for athletes at all levels and their fans. 

I am not crazy enough to argue that money does not matter, but the more than a few  Red Sox signed for a chance to get "the ring." The entire Miami Heat success is built upon the much maligned decision of three players to forgo more money in order to put together a team that could win championships and win glory for them (the money was not bad either). This is a slightly modified repeat of an earlier piece I wrote defending the decision of the Heat players to come together not just for money or self-interest but for the specific chance to win fame and glory.

When an ancient Greek won a sporting event, he was crowned with a laurel wreath. Not given gold, silver or trophies but crowned, like royalty, with a wreath that symbolized life. Nike,  the goddess of victory, stood holding the wreath as an invitation to athletes to excel and prevail.

The Greeks figured this one out, athletes seek glory. For Greeks glory represented a pinnacle. Glory mean recognition and memorialization against the annihilation of death. Athletes enjoy the sheer joy of pushing their body to its limits; they enjoy the mastery of craft; they enjoy competing against the best; they enjoy winning. In the end as in the beginning of sports, athletes seek glory. This accounts  for why LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh joined each other in Miami.

They want to win it all--to be the acknowledged champions. The Win, the Ring, the championship brings glory like no other win. The win brings not just internal satisfaction but glory--the fleeting recognition of your worth and value. In ancient cultures heroes struggled to achieve in order to  be remembered in song and memory. Death closed the door on life, but stories remained.

Memory and glory go together. Glory means people recognize you for a moment as the best, but they also remember your achievement. They sing your praise just as the ancients wished.

Modern athletes garner glory and recognition like no one else in society.  Successful and superb athletes much like ancient gladiators are idolized and possess celebrity. Others make money on them through media and endorsements and their own lives can generate wealth; but the fame grounds it all.

Many executives, workers and artsans achieve wonderful things but are seldom recognized or achieve glory. No one would say the president of Exxon or Nucor lives in glory. But great elite athletes earn glory.

Several years ago after a huge amount of fire and smoke and endless speculations   LeBron James' left Cleveland for Miami. Despite accusations and curses about his "disloyalty." His decision reflected could be seen as revealing the core at the heart of many great athletes, the question for glory. LeBron gave his home team seven fine years; Cleveland basked in  his reflected glory. He lived in Akron for heaven's sake and invested in charity. But Cleveland management proved it would never build a winning team; LeBron would never win true glory--the renown of triumph; of being acknowledged not as the best player but as the conqueror, the player who lead his team to a championship.

Athletes lead very very short lives  The average professional career lasts 3-5 years and many find themselves retired at age 24 unprepared and untrained for the next 50 years of life. They can lose their career in a micro-second. This decision by all three basketball players to come together in Miami was not just about money. They all have ample money. More importantly LeBron and Bush chose to make less money in order to have a real chance to the laurel wreath. They wanted the Ring.

The three took much abuse from the national media about their goals. Many mocked them when they started out slowly and took a year to meld. Many others even thought it was somehow unfair and unAmerican for them to take less money to help build a championship. It somehow felt unAmerican. Yet amid the struggle and jostling as they had to meld talent and egos and the adaptable defenses of other teams, the three stuck to their goal. Even as a younger generation challenged them and the weakness of the team in the center was revealed, they adapted and their great General Manager Pat Riley brought in support players like Ray Allen who were willing to take less money for a  chance to win the glory.

The olive and laurel wreaths the Greeks bestowed soon withered. The memory, however, remmained engraved in stone. All  too soon, another Olympiad, another game, another season beckoned and challenged. No athlete and no team can handle the endless flow of talent and challenge for long especially as age saps their talent from the inside.

But the wreaths symbolized the glory of NIKE of victory. Victory and championship and being the best, the very very unchallenged best for that one brief moment. The creation of a story, a myth and a memory. The wreath also reminded the  athlete and us of glory's transience.We should celebrate the Heat for their ambition and achievement.

Grab the glory, enjoy it, hope to be remembered for the moment of supreme achievement.

James, Wade, and  Bosh chose to seek the glory, not just the money. Good for them.