Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sports Ethics: Focus on What you can Control—Yourself

Marcus Smart, an Oklahoma State All American was just suspended for three days after hitting fan who yelled an expletive at him in a game. His suspension will hurt his team badly and highlights an ever-present challenge in athletics and life--individuals have to focus upon what they can control-themselves. When they move beyond it like Marcus, they damage themselves and their team. Smart gets it in acknowledge his harm to his teammates and fans and does not duck the issue, “It’s something I’ll have to learn from, a lesson I’ll have to learn from. The consequences that are coming with it — I’m taking full responsibility. No fingers pointing — this is all upon me.”

Every competition produces a stream of stress, mistakes, accidents, and intentional and unintentional impacts, bad referee calls. The chaotic complexity of competition creates bad luck, good luck, and unanticipated and pathological consequences for even perfectly executed perfect execution. These endless challenges pound on the psychological integrity of athletes and professionals and make self-conscious self-mastery the ethical foundation of achievement.

Every young and old athlete has heard it from coaches and players a thousand times—focus on what you can control—yourself.

The moral bedlam of competition can lead athletes and professionals to become confused, angry, frustrated even lost. The confusion of competition can invite explosions and erratic behavior and deformed judgment all of which hurt the person and the person’s team. Good and successful professionals drive themselves to master skills and execute under pressure. This success depends upon developing self-mastery to control oneself. Good athletes and professionals cultivate a zone of control that integrates emotions, perception, mind, attitudes, body and intent.

Every successful athletes and professional faces this constant exhortation—control what you can control—yourself. It is the foundation upon which all other skills and the ability to succeed under stress and competition depend. It is also one of the hardest lessons for people to master; it also anchors personal responsibility of the athlete and professional.

The zone of control depends upon the athlete’s ability to master internal psychological control. Persons can educate their emotions. They can train themselves what to be angry about and what to ignore. They can channel intruding emotions into other actions or offset erupting emotions with prepared and integrated programs of integrated memory, emotions, perceptions and intention that enable them to counter program anger or frustration. Losing it is not preordained but a failure of internal self-mastery.

This means developing a form of full-bodied wisdom that lead the ancient Greeks to value sports so highly. One’s emotions become a form of pattern recognition that instantaneously recognize the rightness or wrongness of actions. They provide internal armor against loss of control and weakness of will by supporting disciplined intentional action under conditions that the emotional augments perception sees as appropriate. This pattern recognition embodies not just the knowledge of trained athletes and professionals but also the amalgamation of emotion and cognition.

This form of embodied wisdom and training takes time and effort. It requires constant self-effort by the young athlete encouraged by coaches and fellow teammates. Players working with coaches and fellow players can educate their emotions and train themselves about what to be angry about and how to channel that anger rather than either get angry over things they cannot control or let the anger control them and drive them to irrational or hurtful actions.

This self-mastery remains the key to building physical and emotional resilience in action. This resilience enables players to face failure and bad luck and intentional goading but rebound and continue forward. 

The emphasis upon controlling what you can control can focus inward--players cultivate their own deep values. A player can grow into a deeper commitment to their team and to winning and enduring rather than expressing their own individuality or paying back an slight. Self-control involves growing into an awareness of deep and abiding values and buttressing these values with the emotional coding to sustain them under stress.

Losing it is one of the great enemies of performance for any athlete or professional.

Young athletes often explode in frustration. It often is directed at themselves for failing to achieve their ideal outcome. But too often, especially with young male athletes, they explode at and blame referees, rancorous fans or opponents who showed them up, got in a hit or succeeded. They aim their anger and vexation to blame anyone but themselves.

Their past anger and acting out primes referees and other players to expect the worse. Players do not get the benefit of the doubt and will get called for fouls even if they did not commit them. Other teams target such players and goad them. They take cheap shots and talk trash and push and shove trying to goad the player into “losing it.” If the goading pulls a player of his or her game, this degrades his or her performance but also hurts the entire team.

This loss of control usually reflects a failure to take responsibility or remember the obligation to the team. The individual blames a failure on someone else. This often occurs in games when a foul is called and the player takes off on the referee. They yell and scream and get so caught up in blaming the referee that again their attention diffuses and they cannot collect themselves to be present and focused to what is going on. They play distracted and opponents take advantage of their distraction and lingering anger to provoke more distraction and anger. The same might occur when they are fouled or believe an opponent has fouled them or attempted to hurt them. 

Opponents take advantage of individuals who do not have self-mastery. A goaded player will get angry and yell and jaw and may even attempt to physically contact the opponent, which would simply elicit a foul against them. How many times have players who were hit gotten called for a foul for their retaliation while the initial “foul” is missed?

Losing control becomes a habit. People default to established patterns that reinforce future action. The longer an individual allows themselves to get angry and lose focus and act out, the more this becomes imbedded as a default action—they start to react that way out of habit and it takes conscious reflection and practice to break the habit. That habit can be exploited by opponents and distrusted by teammates and allies. Individuals excuse themselves as just being me or expressing myself or see it as an isolated incident when the reality grows into habitual responses that undermine their attention, discipline and expertise.

When a player loses self-control, she or he loses focus and s judgment. Their actions disrupt the scheme of their team, often draws penalties from referees. Angry and frustrated individuals try to do too much, free lance or seek revenge for a perceived slight.

The loss of control and focus can be contagious and infect other teammates. Fellow players are familiar with a player’s lack of responsibility and self-control. Referees are primed to look for them and penalize them. A player’s inability to stay focused and keep self-control throws off the fine tuned trust and reliance of the team. If fellow teammates expect someone to lose it, they will alter their behavior and undermine schemes because they do not trust the responsibility and maturity of a teammate.

Some players even internalize their own lack of self-control as a badge of honor. They prime themselves and become familiar with their own expected responses; sometimes making their own “explosiveness” a decoration rather than a sign of the selfish immaturity and selfishness. These actions reflect a form of egocentrism and ultra-individualism—individualism without responsibility.

The domain of self-control involves a person’s mind, perception, attitudes, emotions and body. Professional and sport excellence begins and ends with internal self-awareness and mastery. An individual must come to the moment of realization that “losing it” losing control, getting angry or blaming it on everybody else undermines effective performance and focus. This is the Archimedean point of sports ethics—the obligation to accept responsibility and control oneself. The individual learns to “let go” and get on with the game and their mission.

At the same time it requires the player to learn that they can educate their own emotions. The capacity to endure pain, the capacity to endure practice and loss and bounce back all require educating emotions to support intent and obligation to others. Players and professionals learn that emotions mark obligation but can be woven into sustained effort, endurance and resistance to mistakes and baiting. It takes emotional discipline and almost counter emotional constructs to deal with rancorous audiences, baiting players and mistakes or bad calls by referees.

The upside means that players can keep their focus upon the situational awareness around them. They do not get distracted and their focus and concentration do not stay anchored on the play before or anger at a referee or trying to make up for an unseen foul by the player earlier in the game. All of these diffuse concentration from being present to the situation before them. It distracts judgment and leads to slower decisions or decisions informed by ego driven needs rather than the requirements of the team and the play unfolding.  

The other upside means that a player then develops a reputation of self-control and focus. This reputation not only anchors performance by other team members but referees defer more to their actions—they can get the benefit of the doubt when they do slip because this is not the expected norm.

Players who internalize their ethics of self-control and focus upon what they can control—their own values, emotions, trained memories, trained perceptions and intent—model responsibility for themselves. It becomes self-reinforcing in life.

The player no longer externalizes their anger and frustration, but turns inward not in a destructive way but instructive way. He or she learns. This stance primes other teammates and models for other teammates how to go about their business. This control and learning drives them to get better. Individuals stop blaming others during the game and after the let go and focus upon getting better, improving their own self mastery, their own perception and pattern recognition through tape and their own technique through practice. Self-master leads to self-improvement and learning.
Remembering, “I can only control myself” depends upon self-aware responsibility. Like its opposite, it can be trained as a virtue and habit of response and action. This means retraining emotions to simply pause when the explosive adrenalin and cortisol unleash in the system.

This capacity to pause and conjure up counter emotions to offset the anger are critical to balance in the game At the same time the capacity to maintain a center of calm to understand that “I am losing it” and respond by reasserting control. This involves cognitive awareness and self-discipline to reign in anger but also pulling up alternative 
emotional/physical internal model to guide behavior. This alternative model resides in memory and practice and can become a practice and internalized response. The slow and steady extension of self-mastery to controlling emotions under stress permits individuals to intentionally channel self-expression rather than assume every action and emotions possesses legitimacy.

This habit of self-mastery helps professional address another reality of life--aging. In athletics the body reaches a peak in mid twenties to early thirties at the latest. As it ages capacity declines in certain areas and younger players with greater innate capacity enter as competitors. Players who understand what they can control adapt to their own physical changes. They do not give up, but develop technique to compensate or knowledge such as greater study of tendencies or even develop new approaches such as a pitcher developing new pitchers or strong armed quarterback learning to be more precise in midrange and short passes. 

Team cultures and coach modeling build up the social capital that supports young and old players achieving and sustaining self-mastery under stress and facing stress. Team leaders reinforce an ethic of keeping calm. Team members share a supportive ethics of not giving opponents an edge by handing them easy fouls or unfocused action. Teammates rush to each other to calm down and defuse anger and conflicts before they flare.
 Coaches model this and team leaders practice it. Too many coaches scream and yell and lose it on the sidelines and then wonder why their players play out of control and get unnecessary fouls. Show me an out of control coach on the sideline and I’ll show you an undisciplined team.

At the end of playoff game a Seahawk player put it best. Their opponents had spent a lot of time “taking cheap shots” to throw the players off. He got it right, “they tried to get me out of my zone, but we stayed in the zone.”