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.


  1. Amazing article, again.


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