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.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A "Good" Team

Here's a small story about a high school soccer team and its accumulation of red cards. This is not a headline grabber when our media outlets are focused more on the sensational - Virginia lacrosse player, Yeardley Love's murder - for instance. But I'm not ready to tackle the weighty moral, judicial, psychological, and social issues that this homicide has raised. I think we all need a little time before we can begin any sort of rational analysis of that tragedy.

So anyway, this is a story out of a high school in Iowa where the boys soccer team is banned from post-season play because they received too many red cards during the season. While the article doesn't go in to great depth, it appears as if the coach and athletic director are not battling this decision. In an unusual acceptance of the importance of behavioral guidelines, the coach states that he is disappointed in his young team. No one is arguing that the league rule is unfair. The coach does make a statement that his team does not want to be known as the the kind of team that gets five cards. That kind of statement, which is repeated in many forms by individuals and teams who firmly state that they're "not that kind of player/team", is a fascinating one. Its premise is that there ARE players and team that are "that kind of player/team." Is that argument at all based in a belief that life is simpler than it really seems? Do we deep down believe that there are "bad" people and "good" people? That when we stray from the rules or make missteps, we desperately need others to know that we're not "bad" people - just "good" people who broke a rule? This inner conflict for those who have strayed is, in some ways, a useful reaction. It is a manifestation of the tension between how we think others are seeing us and how we want them to see us in a moral context. It's a compulsion that can force us to re-examine our ethical standards if we use it as a catalyst to look inward and self-reflect.

So here's hoping that this is the learning season for these boys from Iowa. I would be heartened to see an example of individual and group development that results in fewer red cards and a reputation as being a "good" team next year. But if that happens, it probably won't make the news. I'm content to hope.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Case For Competition

I often go back to Alfie Kohn's 1986 book No Contest: The Case Against Competition to test my beliefs about the value of competitive sport. I don't agree with everything Kohn says (shocking, I know) and I think it's not completely appropriate to group athletic competition in with other types of competition. I DO believe that the competitive playing field can, when regulated by thoughtful and ethical people, be an environment that truly supports positive moral development in young athletes (and even some older ones).

But Kohn forces us to look at some assumptions that have been made throughout history, particularly the "sports builds character" mantra that is accepted by some without any critical examination of what that means. Kohn cites a 1971 article by Bruce Ogilvie and Thomas Tutko that was published in Psychology Today entitled "Sport: If You Want to Build Character, Try Something Else." Ogilvie and Tutko discussed in that article a personality profile of 15,000 athletes that showed that they demonstrated a "low interest in receiving support and concern from others, low need to take care for others, and low need for affiliation." They also concluded that those personality traits "seem(ed) necessary to achieve victory over others." Now I haven't read the original article and am not familiar with the Ogilivie/Tutko study but certainly we should always question the demographics of the sample group (particularly gender), what type of sport the subjects played, not to mention all of the other questions one should ask about research such as this before blindly accepting the results. And, of course, the study is now almost 40 years old.

That study aside, this kind of research begs the questions of WHY these personality traits are demonstrated. Unless we buy into the theory that personality is completely established at conception and that character traits are immutable, we have to look at the environments that may help perpetuate these traits. The influence that coaches, teammates, parents, and others have over the competitive environment is significant. So how can we just accept that it is the "competitive environment" is simply detrimental to the moral development of young athletes? Doesn't that completely dismiss the impact of those people around the athletes who manage the competitive experience for them?

Even on the college level, where some would argue that an individual student-athlete's moral foundation has already been set, I see student-athletes all the time who are competing fairly, with respect for their opponents, themselves, and teammates, and often see them as a reflection of their coach. Now do I have proof that they compete that way because the coach has influenced them to conduct themselves that way? Or is it because the college coach tends to recruit student-athletes that already reflect his or her own ethical characteristics? As is often the case, a little of both.

When I was coaching, we had a long-standing rivalry with another team in our conference that to me, epitomized how high level competition could be healthy. For reasons that I am not sure of, our games were almost always nail-biters, both teams played with high intensity, but when the game was over, the shaking of hands was always genuine and on the bus or in the locker room after the game, my players would invariably say things like: "I love playing that team because it's always a clean game," "Their players have great sportsmanship," or "that team plays hard but they're never cocky." Not surprisingly, I also had a good, respectful relationship with that team's coach and my players saw that. What got my team fired up and ready to play was not this unbridled hatred toward the other team. It was the expectation of a good game and that my players would have to compete at their highest level to win the game. And I have no doubt that my players played just as hard against them as any other team. I think when athletes have that kind of experience, they walk away with a model of competition as it should be. And I think that happens a lot. It's just not as newsworthy as the incidents where teams or fans are brawling with each other.

Competition itself - like a super power - can be used for good or evil. Kohn makes some compelling arguments about how competition in its rawest form, can negatively impact relationships and hinder growth on a number of levels. But is competition bad simply because it is competition? Or is it only dangerous when it goes unchecked?