Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sports Ethics: Playing with a Chip on the Shoulder

I was reading an interview with some USC players who talked about how they were handling the pressures of fewer scholarships and another year of probation. One player proclaimed, “we have a huge chip on our shoulders. It will motivate us.”

I have always been struck by that phrase “chip on a shoulder.” I wonder what it means in athletics as a form of identification and motivation. A lot of players carry it as a badge of honor, and coaches build cultures around a chip on a shoulder like the New York Jets. Isiah Thomas a wonderful guard here at UW talked about being drafted last in the NBA draft as "just one more chip to add to my shoulder," and talked about how he would prove everyone wrong.

The term chip on a shoulder grew up in the 18th century where workers at the London shipyards would put a wood chip on their shoulder to dare another worker to “knock their block off.” A man with a chip on his shoulder lives by challenging others and must prove again and again that they can best others. Their chipped attitude defies everyone around them as possible enemies to be knocked down.

A chip on a shoulder signals a wound, a deep wound that never heals. The person or team with a chip on their shoulder must prove themselves over and over again. Somewhere somehow they believe they did not get their due and have to prove their worth over and over.

The player or team is motivated because deep down they feel disrespected or unjustly criticized. Worse, someone else gets the credit or the spotlight the player should get. An abiding resentment drives them. It provides resilient energy to beat down others and knock their blocks off.

One of my least respected coaches Rich Rodriquez late of West Virginia, then Michigan and now at Arizona lays out this motivational structure well. " I always tell the players that no matter what happens, I always want you to come out with a chip on your shoulder and feel like you have something to prove every day and every game...I'm no different." This is not an invitation to grow as a human being or player in a way that sustains development or achievement.

Being driven by a chip on your shoulder requires effort.  It takes hard work to feel disrespected and to make enemies out of everyone you play against. It hardens the player and the team. Coaches like Rodriquez have to work to demean their players and instill a sense of wounded esteem inside them to draw out that anger and desperate need to prove oneself over and over again. This seeps inside a person and a player. Chip on shoulder guys are not easy to be around, not even on their own team. These players must even challenge their own team members and beat them down and this makes it hard to cooperate, trust or build a deep bond with each other. Such players don’t make good locker room folks and often not very good teammates because they are so driven to prove themselves even at the cost of the rest of the team. Teams driven and motivate by that are not much fun to play against but possess a brittleness and anger that flares but often folds under pressure.

The wounded self-worth that the chip scabs over never heals because the player or coach constantly irritates it to keep up intensity. The players never have a chance to grow up or achieve a deeper or better sense of themselves. The players must depend instead upon the relentless need to achieve external domination to prove their worth. Every failure hurts twice as much because it confirms the internal self-loathing, the secret fear in their heart the he or she is not really worth it.

Playing with a chip on your shoulder works for a while, but this approach never deepens internal confidence. A player never grows into their full potential because they are driven by the need to beat others, not develop their complete and highest excellence. It turns victory sour and defeat into humiliation.

Competition tempts athletes to anchor identity into external validation, not internal strength. The chip on shoulder approach intensifies this vulnerability. We all carry wounds to our self but we should not be controlled by them. Playing with a chip may contribute to a win, but not a victory.