Sunday, December 18, 2016

True, Unmitigated Conflict

Pondering once more how competing in organized athletics can develop important traits, I have been reading a great deal of opinion pieces about students' search for "safe spaces" on college campuses. Recently, there has been un uptick in student voices clamoring to tell administrators that they need additional protection against both macro- and micro-agressions, those actions or words issued by others (sometimes unknowingly) that denigrate, stereotype, dismiss, or silence another.

When considering the experience of these students (or any others who have been the target of behaviors ranging from thoughtless to the heartless and beyond), I was struck by the clarity of athletic competition as one of the few spaces left where direct conflict, albeit controlled by a set of standard rules and norms, remains intact. There is no doubt when you walk into the gym of your opponent that their goal is to defeat your team, that their fans will root against you regardless of your skill or talents, and that there will be a winner and a loser at the end. It's kind of refreshing, isn't it?

No one who participates will complain that the other side was aggressive and doing everything in its power to come out on top. In fact, the effort to win fully engages the team and the individual participants who prepare for the competition with the primary focus of winning. The focus is not on how we can be protected from the other team's aggression. It's about how we can strategically plan and prepare to overcome any advantage they may have, to maximize our advantage, and in some cases, just figure out how to work harder than them.

Is this a mindset that current college students (student-athletes and non-student-athletes) need to adopt when confronted by aggressions on campus? Well, it depends.

As with most of my analogies, this one is far from perfect. For one, there is no clear and agreed-upon set of rules governing most behavior on campus. Of course, there are rules about behavior. Student codes of conduct and college policies usually outline what specific behaviors are unacceptable. But there is this entire subset of behaviors that never fall under any specific category of a violation of college policy. And, in case no one noticed, we don't have referees in striped shirts running around campus blowing whistles and stopping anyone who engages in bad behavior. So essentially, campus life could be described as a free-for-all game. An unrefereed event with conflicting rules, hundreds of teams, and no scoreboard in sight. So how in the world can we expect our students to embrace the conflict and feel like the outcome of that conflict is fair? How can we help them understand that even if they don't "win" the conflict that there is inherent worth in the process of disagreeing?

Coaches learn to teach their teams that even when they lose, there is a lesson to be learned. "We need to be prepared better next time, we underestimated our opponent, we simply underperformed." When coaches do that well, they create a "growth" environment where their players learn that there is actual value in learning if they learn something from - or grow because of - that loss. They don't evaluate performance solely on whether they won or lost but whether they became a better team as a result.

I think organized sport does this really well. And I wish it could be replicated in other settings where we are educating young people and working with them to become better, more skilled, strategic, empathetic -- you name the skill or trait. The beauty of sport is that you really can't wallow in loss because you usually have another contest coming up; you need to get back on the horse and figure out how you will be different - better - next time you compete.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Endurance as a Transferable Skill

Is it just a hunch or is it in fact true that the virtues learned through participation in sport can translate into other areas of our lives? I started thinking about this again recently when I was listening to a podcast in which two of the hosts were contemplating whether a long-distance runner might somehow possess more "endurance" when it comes to suffering through torture at the hands of his captor. It's an extreme example no doubt - maybe not the best one for this argument as I imagine that someone who endures torture without completely breaking down has traits and habits of mind that can't be chalked up to the ability to run miles and miles - but the taxation of staying the course physically and mentally when both your body and mind beg you to stop is like any other learned skill. Some are naturally better at it than others, but anyone who practices at it can get better. And enduring pain, boredom, grief, or any other uncomfortable state of being is part of being human. So there are many opportunities to flex the skills of endurance.

Something endurance athletes learn is that the pain is a temporary condition. They know it's finite and they usually believe that once it's over, there is great reward. Or at least, there is the relief of having stopped doing something incredibly difficult. So, tapping into that memory of what it's like to grit your teeth and carry on because you know you'll come out on the other side, seems to be something that endurance athletes can access when facing challenges outside the athletic arena.

Another element of the endurance mindset that can translate is the ability to silence the thoughts that say "stop." Endurance athletes learn when the "stop" message is a true survival signal and when it's a false message, delivered by an instinct not unlike the one that makes some dogs cover their food bowl to protect it from other dogs even when they are the only dog in the house and will get fed like clockwork twice a day. Some deep-seeded instinct that long ago preserved life but is now just an amusing behavioral relic. I believe that endurance athletes learn to identify those signals as fakes. They learn to ignore them and develop that habit quickly, the habit of discarding the negative thought and moving on.

Finally, the lessons of endurance normally teach that there is benefit from the pain. Whether the benefit is getting faster or being able to go longer, weight control, stress relief, or the satisfaction of accomplishing a difficult feat, the endurance mind knows that the pain is both temporary AND constructive. There is a tangible and positive effect from doing it.

So will that same virtue emerge in the work setting when the challenge is a difficult project or managing a personal conflict? It may. But perhaps it's more likely to translate when the endurance athlete cognitively connects the skill to the work setting. When the mind says "If I can (fill in the blank - run a  marathon, swim 2 miles in open water, etc.) I can deal with this difficult co-worker" then the connection has been made.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Rewards for Good Behavior

I've been shamed into posting again on this blog which is a good thing. I'd gotten lazy (or distracted or busy) but the excuses aside, it has been just over a year since I last posted.

I've been thinking about the concept of a person being rewarded for being virtuous. In today's culture, we emphasize positive feedback, incentives, and rewards to those who are simply doing the right thing. We have been told this is necessary to build self-esteem in children and to motivate our players (and workers). We call people heroes for calling 911 when they spot a fire;  we're shocked when an elite runner allows the leader to finish the race ahead of him when the leader mistakenly thought he had already reached the finish line.

I'm not opposed to rewards for virtuous action outright. They all have their place, particularly when used judiciously and in the right context. Good coaches know this. I don't know of any college basketball player who wants to get a big "hooray" and a gold star every time she makes a layup in practice. But what about rewarding behavior that is simply "the right thing to do" as opposed to the behavior that helps win a game?

In many respects I think media reaction to stories such where athletes assist competitors to their own disadvantage (for good reasons, not because they are "throwing" the contest) need to balance out the almost savage beatings that our athletes get when they commit crimes, violate rules, or act in a wildly unsportsmanlike manner. Why shouldn't we seek to create heroes when so many of our stars become vilified for straying outside the lines of acceptable behavior?

Athletes are very tuned into reward for correct action. It happens often and instantaneously in many sports where, if you perform the skills correctly, good things will happen. If you perform them enough times correctly and are surrounded by teammates who do the same (assuming you are playing a team sport), you'll probably win a lot of games, maybe even a championship.

So when an athlete does something right but doesn't win or get noticed because of it what will she learn? What will she gain? How do we help athletes believe that taking a virtuous action, regardless of whether it is noticed or results in recognition, is reward in itself? The idea that virtue is its own reward seems to have lost some of its luster these days.

Some would claim that rewarding someone for "doing the right thing" both cheapens the act and renders that person too reliant on personal gain. But can you teach someone to be gratified for doing the right thing by not recognizing them or ignoring what they have done? That seems to make no sense either.  I have no answer other than excessive reward feels like we have given up on people being good for its own sake - that we have to reward them with something external - otherwise they may never perform any self-sacrificing act. And we know this is not true. Athletes are virtuous every day without anyone noticing. And some just go on being virtuous throughout their lives without the trophy to show for it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Call It When You See It

John Adams who, according to this story in Athletic Management is the NCAA's Officiating Coordinator has made a strong statement in hopes of convincing his colleagues to start enforcing the rules and start blowing the whistle on players and coaches who display unsportsmanlike behavior.

He talks about seeing a trend of letting minor infractions go which always seem to morph into bigger problems down the road. Like many phenomena, unsportsmanlike behavior always seems to escalate in the absence of challenge. We rely on referees to avoid the downfall of the general public which has become slowly, albeit increasingly, immune to more and more acts of incivility and disrespectful behavior. From the comfort of our couches, we watch games and occasionally murmur to ourselves "hmm...that was kind of rude" or "he didn't really need to point his finger and pull out his uniform at his chest like that." If our referees become like us, we are in trouble. It's the easier path to swallow the whistle but we know the slope is slippery. You let one call go, then another, then before you know it you have a player pulling out a sharpie from his sock and signing a ball in the middle of a game.

The Guardian recently reported on a study of Israeli judges that indicated that judges were more lenient early in the day or after they took a lunch break. Maybe we need make sure our referees head on to the court sleep and food-deprived. We might have crankier referees but maybe they'd be more inclined to call a tight game.

It would be interesting to see the changes in patterns of foul-calling over the years. Have referees become more lax only in calling unsportsmanlike behavior? Or are they calling the game more loosely all the way around? And, if Mr. Adams is correct, what exactly is influencing them to NOT enforce unsportsmanlike behavior?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Ortiz's Existential Hell

Back in late May, The Boston Globe ran a story on David Ortiz, who had started the season poorly for the Red Sox. Ortiz, it seemed, was not "himself" lately. The article explored what, for some athletes -- mostly professional -- is a truly complex relationship between themselves and the media, fans, and teammates. Blocking out negative thoughts, whether generated in your own head or suggested by a caller on sports-talk radio, is a valuable skill for professional athletes. But for Ortiz, he just couldn't take it any more. Apparently, Ortiz was locked in an existential hell, surrounded by his critics. They were in his head, their comments eating at his normally jovial demeanor until he became quiet, morose, bitter, and withdrawn.

Ortiz's rationale for his reaction is worth exploring. There is some blame of his tormenters. Their constant criticism of him is, according to Ortiz in this article by Amalie Benjamin, why he "...came to be, going from being an angel to being [a jerk]. It wasn't because of me. It was because people change you." Isn't Ortiz articulating a commonly held thought about the nature of being a professional athlete (or entertainers, or politician, etc.); that what you are is constructed by how you are perceived? Those perceptions are manifest in money - whether people will pay to see you do your thing -- or by votes -- whether people will re-elect you. But your entire professional existence can be, in no small part, defined by others. It's not enough to go merrily along believing that everything is fine because you are doing your best. Professional athletes are acutely aware that criticism from the media and fans can sometimes be a harbinger of a tanking career. It's upsetting not only because it hurts to be criticized, but because it might mean a loss of your livelihood.

What is interesting is Ortiz's willingness to reflect a base, some would say less mature, response to his critics when he looks at his own behavior. The "I'm being a jerk because you made me be this way" excuse. Not unlike the reason one sibling gives for hitting the other: "He started it!" It is hard to know, after reading the article, whether to feel sorry for Ortiz and to join him in being hurt by insensitive critics who sometimes forget they're talking about a human being, or whether to tell him to buck up, ignore the insults, and refuse to let others control his behavior. I don't know the context real well because I don't live in Boston, I'm not a Red Sox fan, and don't know the complexities of Ortiz's history in the city. But if Boston fans are like others, some will side with Ortiz, some will think he's whining, some will scratch their heads and even wonder why anyone is paying attention to how a multi-million dollar player "feels" when someone says something unkind to him.

The critics are along for the rest of Ortiz's professional ride. He can either let them chatter in his ear as he drives down the highway, banish them to the back seat, or lock them in the trunk. They may feel like a GPS that he can never unplug. So maybe the best he can do is change the setting to a language he doesn't understand and tune them out.