Saturday, February 4, 2012

Sports Ethics: The Problem with "It is What It Is."

I hear it is what it is all the time from my students and children. It ends discussions and often ends effort to change something or revisit a screw-up or mistake (depending upon how nice you want to be). The phrase has migrated into business use and even sports now. Coaches will shrug after a loss or commenting on a bad bad call, “it is what it is.” I think coaches and players are trying to be profound as are business leaders when they use it.  In 2004 it was voted the cliche of the year.  I am struck by the phrase can be so problematic in sport life.

If you think about it, “it is what it is” sounds remarkably fatalistic. The expression reeks of giving up and accepting a condition that somehow cannot be changed. Giving up and accepting unchangeable conditions makes a great counsel of resignation and fatalism, but does not really belong in the world of sports or high performing teams or organizations. So how did so many athletes and coaches end up spouting its pseudo-wisdom.

I think the saying can help athletes and teams “let go” of an action over which they have not control. How many times do we simmer and stay angry over our own mistake or a mistake made by a referee or even our boss/coach.
Successful action entails intense focus on what we are doing. It requires situational awarenss of the relevant variables and people in motion around us. If we are still angry or ticked off over a call, if out minds are chewing out a referee or teammate, if we are chiding ourselves or fighting with our coach, even if only in our minds, we distort our alertness. We miss vital nuances around us because our mind and focus is divided between the emotion we are carrying with us and the raging changing context around us.

In theory it could mean. I can't change it and I am moving on. Or it can mean, "just F'it." But at its best is seems to exhort the user to himself or others to just say:

“Let Go Of It.” This is good sound advice for any athlete/coach/professional when they harbor mixed attention diffused by lingering emotions anchored to a past action.

Letting go involves action and decision. A player becomes conscious of their divided attention and actively changes focus. They redirect their concentration on issues at hand, immediately at hand. A good athlete and professional attend to what matters and learn from the mistake; they don’t hold tight to their anger and distorted focus.
“It is what it is.’ Carries a very different implications.

First, it suggest that what occurred may be opaque and cannot be understood, sort of a mystery. This urges the player to let it go. 

Second, it alludes to what happened cannot be changed. Period. It is over, done, kaput. No space time paradoxes will enable a person to go back and rectify the mistake. Again, it implies that the person let go of their embrace of the event’s emotional import.

Third, both the opaque and definitive done/gone approach mean it does not good to ruminate and torture oneself about what happened. This again directs the player/coach to let go of it.

The opacity and historicity behind the phrase undercuts the most important lesson people gain from mistakes—how can we learn from them.

James Collins in his great work on leadership argues that one crucial aspect of being high performing teams is the necessity to face the “brutal facts.”

Brutal facts is a hard phrase, but an accurate one. When we or others screw up, we need to look at the tape, check with others and learn what went wrong. Post mortems teach us to grow whether we want to or not.
Maybe we made no mistake Maybe our opponents just played better or had a better game plan. Maybe the referees blew a call. Maybe our team imploded.  Maybe the lesson becomes not to blowup over a miscue. A mess, loss, surprise, mistake demands that we face it and learn from it. High performers, athletes and professionals, live by that rubric.

Often coaches and athletes deploy this recent truism to address an injury. “It is what it is” is supposed to calm or reassure and athlete. It should move them to let go of their anger, fear and resentment about the loss. The fatalism hypothetically motivates the athlete.

What the athlete really needs is realism, not fatalism. They need to know the brutal facts and straight realities. From this  knowledge emerges a plan designed with doctors and trainers to treat and rehab the injury. Athletes and teams don’t need fatalism; they need realism, hope and prudent plans. “It is what it is” does neither for a wounded player.
Good teams, good athletes, good professionals learn.

Athletics like life  throws mistakes, implosions, surprises and luck at them to challenge them. I cannot think of a worse approach then “it is what it is.”

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