Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sports Ethics: Clean it Up

You hear it all the time. Losing at halftime or the end of a loss a coach will respond to the question, “what do you have to do better coach?” “We need to clean it up,” will come the answer. The answer makes a lot of sense to a coach and gives a focus for halftime discussions or practices between competitions. This approach defines a particular tactical approach to professional and athletic excellence that works in many but not all situations.

“Clean it up” carries strong assumptions about the nature of sports and professional achievement that are worth remembering. Clean it up focuses on the prior existence of form and technique.

To clean up actions refers to prior forms and techniques that players and coaches know and can practice to get a more exact fit between player intent and executions. This tactic presumes coaches and members of the team know what they should be doing. They have a plan, a schema and an approach—the problem lies not there but that players are not executing with required form and technique.  Individuals need more reflective discipline and focus in practice and finishing to clean it up.

“Clean it up” is central to a formalistic conception of professional and athletic excellence. The imperative depends upon the idea that a player and team have obligation to master the technique and form of their position and practice. It builds heavily upon a skill conception of sport that focuses upon teaching players to link perception, mind, body and emotions into the execution of complex, sometimes minuscule  expertise, and integrate them into a flowing performance.

This formalism in an almost Platonic way relies heavily upon knowledge of the proper form. The form should be able to trump conditions if executed well. It builds heavily upon the ability of individuals to use their trained and integrated memory to master multiple forms and techniques and practice them in a mindful manner until they become second nature. The intent flows as disciplined action.

Clean it up points to the profound mental and intellectual foundations of elite sport and professional achievement. Most often when a coach or player talks about cleaning it up he or she refers to either the need to eliminate sloppy play or mistakes or address holes in their technique of game.

Sloppy play and mistakes arise from an intellectual and emotional failure. Individuals know the proper form but executed it without full focus and speed. The individual failed to give full attention to the exactitude required by the technique. Their attention wandered or never focused. The sloppiness can also arise from lack of full effort; they go through the motions or fulfill the form but without speed and effort so that the opponent can anticipate and nullify the action.

Mistakes can arise from lack of attention and the player deploys the wrong technique rather than what is required. They misanalyse the requirements of the situation. Or they may act but fail to remember or fully achieve the technique. This may arise from the opponent’s own efforts to force a mistake or it may arise because the player has not practiced enough or with full attention. Or the player may be exhausted and beaten up and simply misses a signal or cannot get his or her body to act fast enough.

Beyond mistakes and sloppiness lies another type of failure—a player may have a hole in his or her game. Their knowledge or implementation may be flawed or unpracticed. The player may be young or new to the system or they may not have given full attention to film or practice. Whatever the cause, the opponents recognize this weakness and exploit it mercilessly. It may be something as simple that a player has not learned to disguise intent and telegraphs their action so that the opponent can expect and quash the action. Either way the player and team need to commit to more study and practice to rectify the predictable limitations in their technique.

At the same time cleaning it up carries a wider team implication. Teammates rely upon each other to execute well. Teammates act on the confidence that other team members will accomplish their tasks and execute at point x at time y. The entire coordinated effort of the team and the effectiveness of plans, schemes and plays unfolds with this reliance. The failure to execute not only manifests the player’s breakdown but ripples through the entire team and scheme. People get caught out of place or act as if an action occurred and it does not so teams get “blown coverages” or uncovered bases or unguarded players. Timing plays where passes are thrown to a point not a player break down. These collective breakdowns permit opponents to achieve their goals much easier and more efficiently. At worst other teammates get tentative in their own assignments and commitments because they no longer trust each other or the power of the system they execute. That mental and emotional hesitation becomes contagious and can undermine the entire team’s execution.

The demand to clean it up, however, has a basic limit. Cleaning it up is vital to elite execution, but it presumes that the scheme or system works, or would work if only properly executed. It remains a fundamentally tactical ethical position. It focuses upon precise assessment of actions but with a view to the ideal technique that should guide the action. The technique itself depends upon the larger scheme of action and the goals behind it.

Walking off a field at half time when a coach says “we have to clean things up,” the coach is giving a vote of confidence to the game plan and to the schemes. He or she is also giving a vote of confidence to the intellectual talent and discipline of players. This comment assumes the players, once they understand where they failed to execute, will adapt and execute with precision and impact.

If, however, the opponents simply outclass or outthink the team, then no amount of cleaning up the play will help. The very goals that the techniques and form support will be undermined either by the approach, the strategy or the sheer talent of the other side.

“Let’s clean it up,” drives people to focus upon the form and technique of their profession. It drives folks to practice and internalize the methods required to pursue the goals. Beyond the method lies the coordination and communication the team relies upon to ensure that each person’s execution of a clean and precise action integrates with the planned anticipation and actions of teammates.

Form without context can create beauty but not impact. So "cleaning it up" only starts the process with oneself and learning. Real cleaning it up to be impactful involves players combining and syncing their techniques and actions to present a seamless appearance. But this seamless front hides the  endless minute adaptations of technique and form to accommodate opponent's innovationsand the needs of the moment.

If a coach and team have the wrong strategy, no amount of cleaning it up will help.

As long as the strategic goal makes sense, cleaning it up makes sense. As long as players communicate and coordinate cleaning it up makes sense. If either fails, cleaning it up only means the defeat will have proper form.


  1. Great piece, Pat. Thank you. Makes me think of the occasional need to "clean up" my own acts (in particular, my parenting or my teaching). As I've watched some of the recent overtime games in the World Cup -- to say nothing of the Mariners stumbling toward the All Star break -- I also wonder if there isn't one more possible source of "sloppy play" to consider: physical or mental exhaustion. For an extreme example, see Federer at the end of some of the recent 5-set Wimbledon finals vs. Nadal or Djokovic. He's simply mentally or physically or emotionally incapable of pulling off what he knows to do and is capable of doing, because his body and body are starting to break down.

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