Friday, August 23, 2013

Sport Ethics: "Be Smooth"

I watched a amazing double play last night and marveled at how seamless and flowing the entire coordinated action was. The integrated flowing precision of the play while adapting on the fly reminded me of how important being efficient and flowing can be to sports achievement. When he spoke to the media for the first time in six months, the Seattle Seahawks powerful half-back Marshawn Lynch was asked how he felt. The man known for "beast mode" running over people, simply responded, "smooth," capturing a powerful insight into how strength matters little unless allies with form and efficiency.

In an ESPN Magazine article Aaron Rodgers described the result of his endless repetitions in his off seasons as well as how he has grown over the last five years. He reiterated that what he achieved was to be smooth. Smooth captures an interesting and vital concept when thinking about athletic and professional accomplishment. I would like to explore its nature and importance.

Smooth is the anti-thesis of turbulent and chaotic. Hitching, jerking, choking, hesitating and waste stand opposite of smooth. Smooth actions maximize outcome for energy expended. Smooth operations epitomize efficient energy deployment, a smooth action simply does not waste motion or energy so it maximizes quickness and execution consistency. Being smooth represents integrity of action and judgment expressed as expertise.

Smooth encompasses two domains: physical and mental. First, extra or needless motion slows down action and exposes players to greater disruption. The more complex and less integrated the motion, the less smooth and the greater the probability things will go wrong. Smooth physical action minimizes inconsistencies in performance and requires the least energy because no extraneous motion occurs. Smooth action permits the body to bring maximum energy to bear upon the movement and because it is smooth, it increases the consistency of action and results. 

Second, smooth actions flow from integrated decisions that adjust to the situation and deploy technique in face of unpredictability. These decisions proceed without hesitation or second-guessing because the person represents the pattern emerging in the situation and responds cognitively. This minimizes openings that  opponents can disrupt. As actions grow into a single, fluid motion, they minimize what can go wrong and minimize the profile to be attacked by an opponent.

Rodgers talked about the micro-adjustments he made over the years such as footwork, arm angle, release point. Each evolved, but more importantly, over time these changes coordinated with each other and then integrated. He learned to release faster and more accurately under attack. This hard earned smoothness minimizes friction which  maximizes  predictability in his suite of skills and confidence to employ them. Repetition, continuous learning and adjustment resulted in coherent dependability.

If you watch a beginning athlete or a beginning anything, she or he moves very cautiously. Often they master one skill at a time in sequence. They then try to connect them together. Their actions hesitate, jerk and seldom link together well  or the same way each time. Each action becomes an adventure with little reliability or confidence.

Athletes and professionals master small aspects and then mesh them together. Tennis and volleyball players practice tosses thousands of time before a consistent serve emerges. Then they work on swing, angles and release points. Most important they learn to translate lower body strength into explosive energy. I could break down any athletic or professional skill suite this way. To achieve smooth integration of a skill suite involves committed discipline and practice.

SMOOTH requires integration of skills and synchronization with context to achieve. It requires endless practice and refinement. Social psychologists talk about the idea of flow that I have often mentioned. In flow, an athlete has prepared so that the kinesthetic, intellectual and perceptual dimensions of suite of actions flow together. Actions possess a rhythm and resonance where the athlete precisely repeats what works and can slow down the world as they act.

Each motion and skill involves thousands of micro-skills and adjustments. These must be mastered and blended into a master action suite. This action must then coordinate with fellow teammates or adjust to conditions. Think of a rower in eights. The angle of repose changes as the wind or place in race changes. The angle of one’s wrist, shoulders, elbows and back and legs must all be monitored, coordinated and then adjusted on the fly. From a distance it looks beautiful and powerful, but each sweep, like each Aaron Rodgers' throw or Albert Pujols' swing requires incessant monitoring, adjusting and fusion of perception, power and form.

Dave  Cameron discusses this in terms of kinetic chain or transfer and the importance of efficient and effective energy impact maximization. This involves mindful practice, refinement and adjustment. Talking about a baseball swing he points that that actions look smooth because there is a proper transfer of energy as it flows through a chain. The energy flow is close to seamless from one step to another. Any movement that siphons energy away from the kinetic energy in the chain of action will diminish the energy output of the bat or action. Put simply this swing analogy applies to all professional actions:

Swing energy = Total energy - Energy lost to excess movement and bad timing.

Even more simply:
Smooth is good; herky-jerky is bad.
When you listen to scorers, they will sometimes complain of a “hitch” that subverts their shot. Other times they might talk about how they had to hurry a shot, and to hurry means they could not synchronize in adjusting and executing. The hitch or jerk induced or self-inflicted subverts smooth. It upsets reliability, induces tweaking and over-thinking and can undermine confidence. Opponents will try to hurry or disturb rhythm or fluid motion to throw off the skill and the mind of athletes.

Being smooth in executions means that practice and experience reinforce each other. Mindful repetition enhances the integration and etches the neural pathways that support habitual and instant action as well as refined decision making under pressure. Experience builds psychological, physical and memory capital for a person. It builds a mental toughness flowing from “I have seen this before, so my body and mind do not panic.” Internalized experience supports smooth action because athletes don’t panic or choke in face of surprise or opposition; like good professional they adapt and call upon extra energy and focus to stabilize emotions and perceptions that permit focus upon actions. Every pick and roll or double play embodies unique aspects but great teamwork makes it all look smooth.

Smoothness reveals “thought-less” expertise. The repetition and adjustments from game to game and season to season mean athletes and professionals constantly must learn. The learning results in refined skill and adjustment. Athletes improve  proficiency as well as decision-making. The learning manifests as reliable performance under stress. 

People compliment actions by calling it a  “smooth operation.” They seem to mean something went off without a hitch, notice that word again. They often refer to the actions relative to a plan, like a litigation strategy or football play. However, we seldom really mean an operation that went off exactly according to plan. The old truism “no plan survives contact with reality” carries real weight.

We need to distinguish between an operation going exactly according to plan and one that achieves its outcomes. In reality, the plan condenses to a direction or momentum, but not an exact rendition of what unfolds. Outcome based “smooth” means well trained and experienced athletes and professionals improvise, adapt and achieve outcomes within the plan’s goals. It looks smooth because their actions seem fluid and continuous with the goal even as they must perceive, process information and make new decisions constantly and seamlessly.

A smooth operation achieved its goals by executing but also adapting in countless micro decisions to small and unexpected obstacles or surprises. The individuals and team worked together kept their cool and achieved the outcomes with practiced efficiency. In smooth success, small things matter and the hours of practice to orchestrate internally and externally come together.

Good athletes, good teams, good professionals make it look easy, make it look smooth, but it never is.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Reform Fallout Creates Window for Keeping NCAA Intact with New Division

Significant organizational change usually requires powerful urgency, emerging coalitions and a window of opportunity to move against resistance to change. The last three years of uneven reform efforts by the NCAA built the reform coalition, but its failures fashioned the sense of urgency and window to change NCAA governance with a new division.

The Window of Opportunity

The paradox driving a new Division in the NCAA lies in how the reform failures created the necessary strategic window to mobilize everyone to achieve the long needed action. None of this could have happened without the NCAA Presidents efforts to reform academics, enforcement and rules of the last four years. The uneven pace and above all the Division 1 membership overrides of critical reforms finally exposed the inability of the class riven Division 1 to change it.

Remember the Presidents working with NCAA President Emmert had to go around the NCAA governance structure to pass most of the reforms. They knew real reforms would be stymied by the vetoes and pace of the Confederated NCAA. The Presidents worked through study groups and their Executive Committee that represented each conference.  In short periods of time they passed a set of strong academic, student welfare and enforcement reforms. Some of the best academic reforms and the new structure of coaching accountability along with systematized enforcement penalties go into place in August 2013.

Time and again, if the reforms cost money, the membership of Division 1 rose up and slapped down the changes. This finally revealed the class riven structural inability of the present Division 1 group to do simple justice to student athletes and reform the rulebook.

Keeping the NCAA Intact

This failed effort carved out the window to do what many have known needed to be done for the last ten years—launch a new NCAA division. Leaving the media pundits and SEC aside, most schools never favored seceding from the NCAA but wanted to create a new Division based on wealth and football status. The wealth inequalities had become too great and undermined efforts to simplify rules or get student athletes just stipends. This emerging focus, finally articulated by the super Conference Commissioners, focuses on keeping  the NCAA intact and nestling the super conferences in a different division. It represents a great success for the Presidents and Presidential control. Unlike  athletic directors and media pundits, the Presidents understand the academic dimensions of college sports and preferred to keep the NCAA and Presidential control intact.

The NCAA remains a voluntary professional membership organization with a weak presidential structure divided into three plus divisions each of which sets its own rules. The confederated structure vests power in the vote of the membership. The committees are designed with equal distribution of divisions to ensure that the common rules take into account all the diverse needs of widely diverse schools with different regions, academic and social missions as well as wealth.

Confederated structures are cumbersome and slow;

they are designed that way to elicit consensus and attend to everyone’s concerns. Masticated mush often comes out after four years of effort. But it does keep a strong focus upon student athletes and welfare across all the divisions and does a pretty good job of governing sports and running tournaments. It also does not mean that the same rules apply on all fronts to Division 1 or 3.

Keeping the NCAA intact matters. None of the Presidents and conferences wanted to rebuild the infrastructure or eliminate other sports. The organization does:

  •  a great job of running tournaments; 
  • a good job of managing rules of the game and adapting changes; 
  • a relatively good job of distributing tournament money equitably and encouraging academic integrity; 
  • a relatively good job of setting academic standards, attending to racial disparities and diversity issues; 
  • an OK job of trying to manage the admissions and qualification processes as well as keeping up with the endless corruptions of the process; 
  • a decent job of managing the complex international issues and Olympic and national competition issues involved in college athletics; 
  • it does a really good job of day-to-day consulting and staying on top the endless array of NCAA rules and violations that keep endless consulting and conference calls between schools and NCAA on the vast majority of enforcement issues. Enforcement will always be a problem for any self-governing membership organization.

The NCAA awards championships in the following sports:

No one has done enforcement well. Historically the NCAA ended up with enforcement because Conferences failed miserably at self-enforcement. Conferences handed it over to the NCAA because they could not successfully make and enforce their own rules without tearing themselves apart over conflict of interest and internecine battles. College athletics is too small a professional world and conferences way too small to achieve self-enforcement model without inherent conflict of interest. At the same time, serious enforcement in a confederated model will always take time and care especially without subpoena powers and when people have an incentive to lie. Whatever the rhetoric, the conferences don’t want and can’t do enforcement.

The new enforcement reforms clarify violation levels and expected punishments for rules violations makes huge progress. Most importantly it should limit discretion for most violations and make penalties more consistent and reliable.  Nothing will eliminate the need for careful, slow and slogging investigations and judgments on major messes. 

The NCAA has and will struggle, as do all self-governing organizations, to create a strong and independent and timely enforcement structure. These challenges will never go away and admit no easy solutions. It is important to remember that without subpoena power and facing incentives to lie, NCAA enforcement will take time and require accountability. The NCAA must get a more professionalized enforcement structure. But no self-governing professional association ever gets it right and will always be adapting and changing over time.

Class Divisions Paralyze Present Division 1

The real issue lies not in tension among divisions but the rift within Division 1. Here football super conference schools benefit from the modern media contracts, even though most still lose money. The five power conferences uneasily coexist with two other groups. The other football schools, usually lumped as mid-majors, do not have great media contracts and will never get them. They hemorrhage money. Even bleeding money, these schools desperately cling to football for reasons of prestige and visibility. They hope to sneak one representative into the major bowls or go to a minor a bowl where they will lose more money. The third Division 1 group encompasses the basketball only schools that fight to be in Division 1 to get access to the NCAA tournament.

Bob Bowlsby, the Commissioner of Big 12 and superb athletic director at Stanford and Iowa, pointed out that the NCAA had made it too easy to get into Division 1. Schools that can barely afford it clamor for the prestige and the NCAA tournaments and bowl access. This increase in size of Division 1 results in a fundamental rift between the super conference football schools—the BCS—and the rest. This rift is directly responsible for the incomplete reforms.

The mid major football schools and most basketball only schools oppose reforms and innovations that would cost more money. Reform efforts to mandate summer school and transition programs for at risk athletes were voted down because of cost consideration but glossed as academic freedom. One of the straws that broke the camel’s back lay in the override vote on class lines Division 1 that voted down the simple justice of providing cost of attendance stipends to college athletes. People pretended it was about  academic freedom issues and complaints about not having worked out all the glitches with Pell Grants, it really resulted in straight up class warfare where the have-nots and barely haves resist all student welfare and many academic reforms that would cost money and increase their perpetual deficits. The obsession with limiting cost and equalizing the playing field paralyze real reform for student welfare or rule simplification.

The second logic of this class split plays out in an obsession with rules designed to equalize the playing field. The excess of NCAA rules grows from two sources. First, many seek to avoid the grotesque special treatments that coaches pushed to recruit student athletes such as private jet rides, lavish gifts, clubbing, girls or banquets that undermined a legitimate and ongoing attempt to emphasize the student, not just the athlete. These will remain and as schools deregulate, they will return.

The other driver to proliferate minutiae rules comes from a fixation by less well off schools to minimize the advantages in recruiting student athletes by the richer schools. These can range from limits on meal expenditures, to limits on travel or to rein in boosters—remember in the fifties boosters just paid for students tuition and board on their own—to limits upon the amount of paper and size of books. Even attempts to deregulate communication with high school athletes failed here. The arcane and minute rules about level playing fields resulted from salutary desire to minimize arms race costs, but mainly to protect some chance to compete for student athletes by less rich schools.

This lead to the endless proliferation of rules; some make sense such as limits on gifts or booster access; some are just crazy such as communication limits. The reality is that great student athletes go to the top programs to win and compete. They follow the best coaches and the best chances to compete at highest level, get media exposure and win championships and in some cases prepare to become professional athletes. No amount of minutia tying up phone call limits will change these realities.  Yet this attempt to tie down the giants, as results in endless rules, more cost and fails as Gulliver’s Lilliputians learned.

Creating a new division will not solve all these issues. There will exist the cleavage between the superrich—Ohio State and Texas—the rich Michigan, North Carolina, USC—and the not really rich, Mississippi State, Washington State. But all the schools will have a reasonable chance to compete given the lifeline of TV football contracts.

New Division and Presidential Control

Keeping it in the NCAA also keeps the Presidents in charge. In the last two years, athletic directors using media contacts have waged a covert campaign to paint Presidents as too far away and out of it. Sometimes this is the case, but Presidents are actually responsible for educational institutions and keeping an educational component alive in sports; athletic directors only do so if driven by Presidents. The Presidents will keep control, hire and fire athletic directors, and attempt to keep an academic component in the world of athletics. Student athletes enter as students and the greatest long-term obligation of schools is to educate the 90,000 who graduate each year and do not become professional athletes not just focus about the 450 possible professionals the media cares about.

I want to make one point clear. The college presidents drive reforms, not the athletic directors. No major academic reforms and no major reform movements ever came from athletic directors. It is not they are bad guys, most are honorable and hard working, but they labor under intense short terms pressures to make money and create winners. They are not hired as educators and their incentives undermine that mission. Even when committed to student welfare and education, any reform that adds to complexity, requires more investment and means more accountability will be questioned. For some the academic component feels like a bother.

The paradox of the present moment of change lies in how the window of opportunity grew from both the successes—academic standards, graduation rates and higher penalties for lower graduation rates—and failures that manifest the intractable intransigence of the Division 1 have-nots. This window exposes the present form of Division 1 as a failed government approach. It needs to be reconfigured with a new division to transcend the class resistance to academic and simple justice reforms. If the NCAA membership as a whole does not respond to the legitimate concerns of the power conferences and the Presidents, it will fail as an institution.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Will Athletes Finally Reject Code of Silence?

Major League Baseball’s suspension of 12 players for using performance enhancing drugs reminds us again that a Code of Silence among athletes protect and abets illegal and unfair drug usage. Players in clubhouses generally knew who cheats; but everyone keeps silent.

 Fellow athletes know that using performance-enhancing drugs is illegal; they know users put the rest of them at a disadvantage in competition; they know using stops other younger players from playing; they know these enhanced players denigrate the game’s integrity. They know it is wrong, but they remain silent. Their silence undermines integrity as they collaborate in the cheating and scandals.
Until this Code of Silence dies, this cheating and unfair advantage will continue.

Let’s be honest. In the search for advantage in a brutal and competitive landscape, some players will cheat. This happens in any profession in a competitive world with real stakes. Every profession, sports included, has to self-regulate to limit the cheating and advantages that accrue to the cheaters.

The two ways to discourage cheating involve:

1)   Change the risk/reward calculation of the person tempted to cheat. The equation balances the probability of getting caught and the projected severity of the punishment against the gain in production, salary and longevity. 

2)   Change the culture of support or silence among teammates and fellow professional. If this culture is a “no snitch culture, athletes will not report and tolerate the use of performance enhancing technologies. When fellow professionals do not speak up, this makes hiding it easier and tilts the risk/reward calculus towards using.

Any sport seeking to discourage performance-enhancing technologies must have a rigorous, comprehensive and up to date testing system. To be accepted it requires due process to protect athlete rights, and serious and consistent penalties that players will accept as fair. This is a hard and requires evolving techniques to deal with the stealth and technologies of the cheaters. Strong programs need the support of professionals, in this case, athletes, to ensure wide compliance, a culture that supports it and avoids litigation.

This is where so many sports failed. The hostility between athletes and owners or regulating bodies generates a we versus them approach. Teammates band together against the “other.” This we/they intensifies the natural dynamic of any team to band together to support each other. The protective bonding grows from athletes’ desire to protect each other’s private life from the prying and reckless inquiries of the media.

This hostility is deepened in union policy and a history of owners who have colluded against players in baseball. The hostility of unions to strong drug testing programs reflected this distrust and the players’ legitimate fear that owners would misuse the testing to target them. Only in the last seven years have unions and management comes together to agree on stronger protocols, confidentiality protections and appeal processes. Both sides recognized that the credibility of the game itself had come under attack. But the Code remained intact and almost all the discovery of cheaters occurred with testing or investigations, none involved peers reporting users.

Leaving aside the travesty of modern cycling and the bankruptcy of sprints with its Ben Johnson’s and Marian Jones, no major sport has been so afflicted by performance-enhancing technologies as baseball. An entire era and all the accomplishments of that time are contaminated by wide use. This usage was common knowledge among other players, but everyone remained silent and collaborated in the era’s dishonesty; everyone but the reviled Jose Conseco. As Curt Schilling pointed out his accusations turned out to be accurate.

This Code of Silence can nullify strong testing programs. The testing programs need players to reject the Code. The Code of Silence among professionals reflects shared values and keeping each other’s back. It reflects everyone’s awareness that no one is pure and that the media will tear careers apart on the slightest excuse. It may even reflect an awareness that players feel they are benefitting from having the cheaters on their team at the moment or the fear that at some point in the future a player might want to use PEDs to augment their own declining career.

In many ways, however, modern professional sports do not have teams in the traditional sense. Teams turnover occurs every three to four years. Players are regularly cut, traded or sent to the minor leagues. During the course of a year, a baseball team can have a thirty percent turn over. The Code of Silence has its most power on teams, but has been embraced by the entire profession as players move so often now. This extension to the entire league makes even less moral sense because once you are on another team, the player you know who cheats will hurt you by his enhanced performance.

This Code possesses great moral weight as a “no snitch” rule among players. However, it strikes poses serious moral threats to the game itself and to players’ own integrity and career chances. Use of performance-enhancing technologies violates the integrity of the game, violates the integrity of the players who remain silent and collaborate in its use. The Code permits use and this hurts the silent players by shielding athletes who as opponents will have a decided advantage over honest players who do not use.

The Code’s power is impressive because players hurt their self-interest and violate their own commitment to the game’s integrity by remaining silence. The no snitch rule, us against them, and having each other’s back all push athletes to remain silent or “live and let live.” The problem here is that this is not live and let live.

Letting live means letting users prey on other players, including you. It harms all honest players. It also harms the future of the league because scouts cannot accurately assess talent if minor leaguers are using performance enhancers.

Silence and protecting performance enhancing users denies younger players a chance to get into games. It also keeps younger players who deserve a chance in the minors when enhanced athletes stay in the major leagues by virtue of enhanced performance. Silence indulges users. This behavior is wrong and hurts people. It is not live and let live.

Finally enhanced athletes as teammates and friends because they must lie all the time. PED users lie to fans and carve out performance records that are lies. But they also lie to themselves. We know from psychology that anyone who tells him or she a narrative long enough can come to believe it to be true. Self-deceivers lose their identity and live a lie given how much time they spend lying to themselves. Marion Jones, Ben Johnson, Alex Rodriquez, Mark MacGwire all could probably pass lie detector test because they had convinced themselves of the truth of their charade.

I hope that the cracks in the code are widening with the last round of exposures. The deceit of Ryan Braun is especially important. Braun is a widely liked and marketed star. He had publically apologized and swore to fans, teammates and owners that he was not enhancing his performance. He swore to athletes who regarded themselves as his friend and protector like Aaron Rodgers the quarterback of the Packers who claimed he would bet one year of his salary on Braun being clean.

Players, coaches and owners feel betrayed at a very personal level by Braun’s actions. The lies of 12 other players compounds and ripples across the major leagues. The deceit required poisons team cohesion and friendships. It also taints the achievement of every honest star that might fight the perception he or she is using.

If the Code is broken it can occur in three ways:

  1. Some players will whistle blow quietly but effectively. One of the issues that has hurt all investigations is the militant silence of the players towards other players on these issues. This needs to end.
  2. Players need to shun and shame the abusers and enhancers. This will take effort in the locker rooms and in union meetings and in discussions. Peer pressure can discourage would be users and at least ensure that past users can’t just pretend it never happened and return to normal. Peer pressure and force can be as powerful as occasional whistle blowing.
  3. The most powerful change in player attitude can play out with strong union support for permitting contracts to be broken and renegotiated with abusers. The union could also negotiate two strike rules against athletes who get caught a second time; this avoids the false positive issues. Both these approaches will take real constraints upon the owners who players fear will use drug issues to abort bad or foolish long-term contracts. But a change in player attitudes can play out with changed and harsher penalties in the contracts.      

Up to this point fellow athletes have sacrificed their own integrity and their own career prospects by abiding by a Code of Silence to protect cheaters and enhancers. This silence helps keep young players on the bench and in the minor. It disadvantages every player who must play against the performance enhancers. It makes the game a joke to those who love it and play it. It is time for players to reject the code and whistle blow, ostracize the users and push to change the penalties.