Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Sport Ethics: Leave it All on the Field


It's a movie cliche but also a real life cliche, in fact, it is more than a cliche, leave it all on the field possesses a moral imperative for individuals and teams  committed to a common goal. It is not an exhortation that can be called upon often, but it does possess a power and urgency that committed athletes and professionals will respond to under strong conditions. It remains an important if ominous moral resource.

Last week the women's volleyball team at UW came from behind 0-2 and won the match 3-2. Twice they were down and facing match point in the last game, but came back. When they won most collapsed too tired to move and some too exhausted even to cry with joy. The players simply kept drawing on "more." They kept pulling up strength and skill they did not know they had. Jim McLaughlin their coach summed up the experience, “To tap out emotionally like that, people just don’t know what it takes. They were so tired, so exhausted. That’s when you grow as a player, as a person. That’s when you learn what you’ve got.”

In movies and real life, this call to dig deep comes up under dire conditions where the stakes are high and immediate. Often the leader urges this not just when stakes are high and immediate, but the end game is in sight and people are tottering, exhausted and struggling to stay focused and competent. Sometimes it is spoken of in terms of great goals or future states, but my favorite movie line emphasized the absolute importance for successful athletes and professional to be totally present to their task in the moment. At the end of Varsity Blues the quarterback Jonathon Moxon and his teammates run off their  hallowed coach Kilmer to save a teammate from taking  painkillers. Moxon gathers them around and says, "Before this game started, Kilmer said "48 minutes for the next 48 years of your life". I say "fuck that". All right? Fuck that. Let's go out there, and we play the next 24 minutes for the next 24 minutes, and we leave it all out on the field."

Leaving it all on the field makes moral sense when the stakes are high, the urgency is great and normal endurance and performance levels probably will not achieve the goal. It invokes both a strong team loyalty ethic as well as an inner dialogue for each person with him or herself. 


This is an imperative sentence as well as an evaluative position.

When an athlete plays, whether for the whole game or as a two minute substitute, leaving it all on the field demands that the person give his or her best possible performance for as long as he or she is in the game.

This aspect of sport buttresses the imperative to be present to the moment, the sport and the opponents. It means that the player exists fully in that present moment offering up every bit of cognitive, emotional and physical talent and skill they possess. The athlete will give maximum performance while they are on the field. It does not matter if it is one special teams' play or 45 minutes of an overtime basketball game.


Leaving it all on the field first involves a person’s relationships to him or herself and to his or her field. Almost always when this imperative is called out, it requires the person to recall focus, energy and skill that they have spent years working to perfect. Its importance began early with the individual's time and effort to master and practice their expertise. It plays out early and durably during practice that refines the perceptual and attention tools, builds up the body memory and the physical and emotional endurance. Without this training, preparation, pattern recognition and experience, most individuals will not be able to adjust their energy level and maintain or draw upon resilience under immense stress.

If a person or player had not devoted the time to acquire this mastery, there would be little to call upon to leave on the field.

The second dialogue involves a moment of self-evaluation where the person asks him or herself—am I giving all that I can without destroying myself?  After the fact it involves the almost impossible question—could I have given more?

The other side of this question involves did I ever quit? No one who quits or gives up in a competition ever leaves it all on the field. In fact such quitting violates the most profound promise athletes make to themselves and their teammates--to be present with their full mind, body, and skill set during the competition. This extends to drawing upon their entire self to the fullest extent. Even  when losing or down or hitting a wall, they promise to challenge oneself and one’s team members to draw deeper and leave it all on the field.

In the end the challenge to leave it all on the field reduces not to “no excuses” but to NO REGRETS.

To crawl or stumble off the field or course, we have given all--our hearts, our bodies, our minds and above all our loyalty to each other--to achieve the goals the group set. 

This is where the contagion impact of teams and the fact that people possess different reservoirs of will and emotional talent matter. It also points to why good teams and organizations need several focal points of leadership and coherence. Teams, especially in contact sports, can get beaten down. They fall behind and start to splinter. Teammates need  the contagious confidence, drive or  pull of teammates who still possess robust endurance who can exhort, model and get in the face or encourage them when they are tempted to fold. Others may be tottering, but if a peer can model full energy and call up focus and reserves, others can try to dig deep and respond with similar discipline and focus, even if they do not immediately possess it.

Now the duration of the game and one’s performance will affect what this means. Most sports are not marathons but lumpy with moments of relative downtime followed by moments of intense and full effort required. The net sports and reset sports like volleyball, tennis or football exemplify this. But in that sprint mode, the athlete gives every once of attentive energy and skill they possess. This mastery lies in calibrating how much an athlete can give on each play while still possessing the reserves to continue to call forth that level of energy and attention.

Exerting maximum effort takes a special kind of discipline because it involves immense physical and emotional exertion on the part of the athlete. This calling forth and the electro-chemical aspects of it can negate the cognitive aspects of pattern recognition and execution required. Too unbalanced and emotional/physical burst of strength and endurance can draw down needed nutrients and vital attention from the brain and memory. Athletes need this reservoir to give form and effectiveness to strength when it is needed. Cognitive effort can be as depleting as physical effort during intense competition, and cognitive modeling and steely focus can be as important as physical endurance and courage.

Every athlete and every coach playing to leave it all on the field needs to regulate this balance given the length of the game. If done well by the end of regulation elite athletes will literally be exhausted mentally and physically. This accounts for the anti-climatic nature of so many overtime games where the players have so little left, and it takes amazing discipline and untapped reserves. Players are literally consuming their own muscle and mind to stay focused and effective in overtime situations. 

The length of season and number of games impacts a players and team’s ability to utilize this approach. In a football season or college Olympic sport season such as soccer, volleyball or lacrosse, the small number of games gives greater scope to the leave it all on the field since players have more time to recover between game or game sets.

At the opposite end of football season where every game is a “big game," baseball and to a lesser extent basketball—especially in its professional manifestation—have so many games, that no player can leave it all on the field each game and have the time to recover or renew. Baseball provides many opportunities within the game itself to renew physically and emotionally even as it requires relentless and intense attention and spurts of focused force and physical effort.

During games or seasons players “hit the wall.” Individuals reach a state of being where he or she believes they cannot draw upon any more skill, emotion, physical stamina or capacity. Literally they are stuck. At times they may “grind it out” to get through these periods, or they may “coast” or just get “benched.”

At certain points athletes may be so ground down or exhausted that all they possess is automatic pilot. They can barely think a coherent thought; their body screams, aches and burns; they find it hard to hear or process yelling coaches or fellow players. But the elite players continue on the field. 

Here all the practice, preparation, neural memory development, endless repetition with oneself and others prove their worth. Men and women play on, not as zombies, but as trained, exhausted professionals for whom skill carries only one aspect of their professionalism. The capacity to attend when exhausted, to focus when diffused, to act when confused, all emerge from the trained mind and memory of professional mastery.

This manifests itself in exhausted doctors in emergency rooms, FEMA workers and emergency workers in under duress working, not as zombies, but as trained ingrained professional expertise.

Carried to its unending extreme, this approach has a dark side. It can lead people to drive themselves into injury or psychological and emotional damage. It can lead to mistakes when people have gone beyond the ability of internalized pattern recognition and professional memory to carry on. A person can hurt themselves or their team by trying to leave it all on the field and in fact reaching the point where they no longer recognize they have nothing more to leave. Players in such condition or on automatic pilot given their exhaustion are more susceptible to fakes or errors.

Long seasons, long games slowly eat away at performance and erode emotional reserves, wear and tear physical skill and talent and can lead to sloppiness and wandering focus. Some games just will not seem as important and the sheer grind of a season wears down all three components required by elite athletic performance.

Ultimately no person can play this way every day. The sports and professions with downtime permit renewal and recovery. But the long sports with endless seasons or endless emergencies engender a different rhythm of performance and resilience. They can sap the reserves of players and teams.

But in the end, when necessary  elite athletes and professional possess the capacity in themselves and together with the team to "leave it all on the field."




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