Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Education Case for Keeping Student Athletes in College I & II

I want to discuss why professors, college presidents and most coaches who care about teaching want the kids to stay in school for three to four years. I do not want this to become another polemic about one and done but rather a discussion of why and how college athletes uses a three to five year time horizon to transform athletes into student-athletes and into college educated graduates. This is a long one, so bear with me.

Take a hypothetical top recruit coming into a major university. If we focus pon the major revenue sports, statistically many of them are minorities, and many are academically “at risk.” This means that they have taken the NCAA required high school core but done it with minimum grades and usually have very low SAT or ACT scores. Often they come from high schools with problematic academic standards. The combination of disadvantaged social economic background and awful academic preparation means a very high percentage of the top recruited players in the revenue sports come to their colleges woefully underprepared as students. If you predicted their graduation rate based on their academic profile, it would hover below 20%. In reality, however, these young minority “at risk” athletes graduate from college at a higher rate than non-athlete minorities and match regular rates at many schools.

This occurs because the committed universities have figured out a multi-year process to help underprepared student athletes grow into viable and effective students. These young men and women regularly defy the statistical odds and graduate with reasonable educations, but it takes time, resources and commitment by players and coaches.

These elite young athletes identify at athletes first and often barely register on the “student” identification model. This matters because an individual’s identification as a student predicts very highly whether they will actually learn and graduate from college. We need to remember that this does not just affect student athletes. The identification as a student as a predictor of academic success applies to all students, and many undergraduates especially at large state schools come in not particularly committed to being students and often take two years to full change their identification and become serious students.

Most elite high school athletes primarily identify as athletes for good reason—they have been playing sports and being praised and rewarded for it since they were 9. Sports is the one area they excel. For many of them the classroom often remains a site of failure and disappointment.

Consequently one of the huge challenges for any student athlete is to learn to become a student and identify as a student. This requires mastering student skills even as they continue to devote 25-40 hours a week of their life to college athletics. Being from a disadvantaged and poor school amplifies this since many high-risk athletes have failed as students and been failed by their school systems. They have no reason to care and many reasons to fear and reject the classroom as humiliation and disappointment.

We need to remember, again, that many students take two years to really adapt to the shell shock of college, find their direction and commit to their studies. A very large number of students ease into student-hood their first two years by taking required but not particularly demanding classes. They change as they enter their majors at the end of their second years.

This process of becoming a real student as well as athlete takes several years, usually at least 2. This matches the intellectual and emotional developmental arc of many students.  At the beginning of year three many of the athletes realize they will not become professionals. It happens earlier for the kids from more middle class backgrounds or in Olympic sports since they have more social capital as students when they get to college or have fewer professional options.

Honestly during year 1 and part of 2 many underprepared athletes along with lots of other students do take standard core courses but not demanding courses. Some schools, but surprisingly few at major universities, have easy classes for parking student athletes. Most do not do this anymore. The key is to remember these young athletes are not yet prepared academically or emotionally—for that matter neither are many freshmen kids.

Academic support and planning ease them into classes and learning to be college students. The student-athletes gain some small victories, sometimes they discover they can be students and sometimes they discover passions to learn in areas like social work, justice administration, art, education or the oft maligned ethnic study programs. When it works, and it does more often than anyone credits, individuals discover new dreams and identities beyond being an athlete.  Student athletes often make a leap in their third year where they learn to become learners—the great advantage of the American education system.

Time horizons and coaches are critical to this process. Athletes are motivated at the beginning to play. The only way they can play is to stay eligible and make academic progress. Good coaches push, cajole and threaten to get players going to class and taking class seriously. The first two years can be hard on students, staff and coaches. The best college teams have coaches who monitor class and academic progress since eligibility and APR depends upon it.
The point to remember here is that the uneven growth from being an elite high school athlete to a college student takes time, motivation and support. The coach has to be an academic motivator because he or she is a teacher and he or she has self-interest in the athlete being a student. 

This link of academic progress to degree and getting to play keeps a lot of student athletes on track. It also explains why the move to minimize the time student athletes stay in school has such pernicious consequences on the education of student athletes.

Part II

The loss of a three or four year time horizon is what makes one and done so problematic from an academic perspective. The entire arc of becoming a student and succeeding as a student falls apart. This is not about the impact on the college game; I could care less. This is about the failure to treat the student-athlete as a real student.

Modern NCAA academic reforms, for all their limits, build upon this philosophy of pushing students over three to five years to make progress towards degree. Students must meet certain percentages of total classes towards degree at the end of each year; they must meet certain minimum grade standards and they must declare a major. In addition staying eligible and returning become critical markers for coaches who seek to protect scholarships in the APR rate. The data overwhelming suggests that meeting these targets tremendously increases the chance for a student to both get an education with a major and to graduate.

It depends like most undergraduate education upon an unfolding four year pattern of learning and maturing on the part of the students.

A vague and uneasy peace protects this time line and balance in baseball and football. In baseball athletes can be drafted out of high school, but if they choose to go to college, MLB leaves the athlete alone for three years. Football has achieved the same equilibrium. The NFL will not draft a player until three years in college and since many players redshirt, by the end of junior years many football players have already amassed enough credits to graduate or be very near. The same is true in baseball. Both sports make ample use of summer classes to move students towards graduation and buffer against academic setbacks. Recent reforms push the baseball players to an even more aggressive progress towards degree. In a surprising high degree of cases students who leave after three or four years have graduated or lie within striking distance when they return to college.

MLB and NFL are not saints. Both benefit from the three or four year stay because the development of skills and body in their sports takes longer to mature. At the same time their window permits athletes to become students.

The problem with basketball is that 18 year olds are ready to play professional basketball. They possess the physical strength and skill sets to play what passes for modern NBA basketball. The can and have gone right from high school to the NBA. 

The NBA has absolutely no incentive to align with the three or four year time horizon that enables colleges to motivate and actually educate and graduate student athletes. Their kids are ready. One year is gravy because it gives professional teams an extra year to assess future players. But neither union nor the league will change their 19 year-old rule that leads talented NBA ready athletes to seek 9 months of basketball finishing school at college.

The number of athletes affected by this three and four-year horizon in baseball and football is small, maybe 1.6 to 2.5% of the graduating classes. But it covers high impact players who leave as graduates or near graduates. Modern athletic programs push students to take summer classes both to maintain progress towards degree and also provide a balance for summer workouts. The combination of summer school, strong motivation to stay eligible, and year round academic support gets many students towards graduation.

As a teacher who cares about student athletes and believes in them as students, I know we take huge academic risks with some of our at risk student athletes. I know it takes strong academic support and a team to help them get through the first rough two years of overcoming their academic and cultural lack of preparation. They gain a more complex and rich life. They may end up as professional athletes. But that career lasts on the average of 3-5 years, so at the age of 26, even the elite of the elite will have finished their avocation of sports. They will move on to new lives and careers that their education will help support.
I do not subscribe to the defeatist logic of let them major in football or basketball because this makes a mockery of any attempt to prepare them for life after sports. Even if they choose to enter the 100 billion dollar a year sports industry, they still need to write, think analytically, work with numbers and graphs and a host of other academic skills that advance their own understandings and prepare them for life off the field, even if they stay in sports industry or education. To the extent that the revenue sports bring to college many minorities and underprivileged students who would not make it to college except for sports, it takes on a social justice dimension. The university permits athletes to play what they love and gains from this, but the university promises to the students and their parents or guardians that it will do its best to provide an education and graduation opportunity for the student athlete. This takes the 3-5 year arc but also means students need to master skills and attributes beyond their sport prowess.

This is the ideal that sustains the NCAA. It is not easy and can easily be corrupted for the ultra-elite athletes. In fact the life can be hell on students and academic staff and coaches, but it generates a type of person who has played out their love with passion and excelled. This peculiar American model does not throw students onto the athletic ash heap at the age of 25 as they do in Europe and other counties but gives student athletes enough education and discipline to start another career when sports leaves them behind.

The one and done player remains just that a player and an athlete. Hanging out at college and doing sport finishing school fails the ideal and the motive of intercollegiate athletics.  In 6-9 month horizon of the one and done student, students have no incentive to go to class, to learn, to get grades or even to stay eligible beyond a three-month period. The 6 month or at best 16 month time horizon is just too short to move the individual to identify as a student and succeed in the classroom. It is too short to permit individuals to learn to learn which is the great accomplishment of American undergraduate education. That is why one and done really qualifies as academic fraud.

It makes no legal or moral sense for the NCAA to try and require student athletes to commit for two or three years in college basketball. Nor does it make a lot of moral sense to prohibit anyone they think might leave after one or two years from going to college.

The NCAA does not have many morally palatable ways to protect its academic ideal in this situation and especially given the self-interest of the NBA and its union. I have two small suggestions that might help on the margins.
First, the NCAA can expedite the rule that entering freshman have higher academic standards in grades and score. The new proposals calls for a year of academic residency for at risk students who fall within a certain range of academic unpreparedness.  The new and unprepared student athletes would have limited practices and no play or travel for their first year. They would concentrate on academics. They would still have four years of eligibility.

If we were really serious, we would simply go back to freshmen ineligibility for basketball period. This would solve a multitude of problems with a clear bright line rule.

If the NCAA required a year of academic residence for at risk students, it would catch a fair number of one and done athletes. Those of us who have sat through admission hearings and processes know they are often very special admits who sit at the borderlands of any credible case for admittance to college. Remember they have had no reason to study or work hard academically because their high school and AAU world has praised and supported them for their basketball skill and pro future. This would eliminate a number of the one and dones because a high percentage would be required to sit for a year of academic residency. They would simply bypass college all together.

Second, the NCAA could actually make years in residence a criteria of how it evaluates the APR. Right now if a student athlete goes pro before graduation, as long as they are eligible, then it does not count against a team’s APR and does not affect its scholarships or championship eligibility. This enables Kentucky to lose six freshmen and sophomores and still have a sterling APR.

The NCAA could impose an APR penalty point upon any school that had a player leave for the pros before finishing the equivalency of three years of class. Players can transfer but if they leave for the pros before meeting a number of credits, then a penalty would be assessed.This approach is no guarantee but it would create some disincentives for coaches to overload upon one and done. It would at least acknowledge that getting students to class and learning something does count in the NCAA calculation of value. I have no doubt Calipari and his ilk will figure out ways to game this since that breed of coach does not care about getting their students educated, but we need to change their incentives and limit their entry points.

These may not be the answer but they point to how we might start with the academic mission and move from there rather than starting with the game and tournament and move backward to academics.

The point of the game here is pushing to keep student athletes in school makes strong educational sense. It flows from taking seriously the student in student athlete, and it is one of the few answers to cynics. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Rooting for Perfection, not my Team

Somewhere in the sixth inning of Phil Humber’s perfect game at Safeco yesterday, I started rooting for Humber and the perfect game and not my Mariners. Not that the Mariners are much to root for these days, but I felt a twinge of guilt, then it passed as I watched the most exciting and demanding event at Safeco in a decade.

Why would I root for a team against my team?

Well, I did not exactly root for the White Sox. I rooted for the pitching of a perfect game. A perfect game—no one gets on base and the pitcher faces only 27 batters—often requires a miracle or two in the field, but Humber supported by incredible pitch calling from A. J. Pierzynski pitched a masterpiece. Indirection, off-speed, confusion and dominating expectations lead to a 96-pitch game. He simply pitched a great game without the classic great pitch arsenal we associate with perfect game pitchers.

I know I am supposed to root for my home time and have invested 26 wonderful if futile years following the Mariners in games and on obscure blog sites as well as infecting my children. I even wore my hat during the game (On empirical evidence I may have to stop wearing my hate since the Mariner’s have lost all seven games I wore it, but that is another story).

Why root for your home team—I root for my home team out of loyalty and identification with them. It affirms my affiliation with the northwest and the place I live and where my children were raised. I root for them because winning makes me feel good and casts a glow around the community of seven people who still follow the Mariners. I root for them because I have grown to have a respect and affection for some of the player such as Ichiro and Felix Hernandez and, God help me, Brendan Ryan. The Mariner’s are woven into my family’s sense of continuity. It gives us a focal point of conversation and common emotional loyalty even in rough patches, “how about them Mariner’s?” when we may feel like killing each other.

So rooting for a home team possesses strong emotional and ethical roots. Why did I find myself edging towards rooting for Phil Humber and his unlikely quest for a perfect game?

A sense of excitement grows inside you when you watch a game like this. All the announcers mention it around the 6th inning, “no walks, no runners, no runs, 18 up, 18 down.” I know common wisdom says don’t talk about it, but Dave Sims brought it up front and center and enriched the game and my watching by it.

Baseball humbles people. Most batters and pitchers fail more than succeed even when a team wins. A perfect game defies the inexorable humbling. Each pitch starts to matter more. Each batter has more responsibility and pressure to end the quest. No team wants to be “no hit” or “perfect pitched;” these are not badges of honor in baseball.

Good baseball plays out with a focused intensity that rises with each pitch. A perfect game or no hitter just magnifies it all. So much can go wrong, but watching such a game draws you in either hoping your team breaks the cycle or hoping the pitcher gains baseball immortality by adding to the list of 20 perfect games in 120 years.

Now if the game mattered to the Mariners, the ethical stakes might keep my straying respect and excitement from migrating to Humber and Pierzynski’s game calling which really was magnificent. A lot of “ifs” could keep my support squarely with the Mariners. If a playoff place had been on the line; if the team was locked in a pennant race; if they were in playoffs; if they even had a chance of being a playoff team, when each victory really does matter in September.

No stakes for my team—but these are my Mariners. Playoffs lie several space-time continua away, and they are hitting 232 this year. High stakes does not come to mind when rooting for them. So rooting for them in this position becomes a negative, I want them to avoid humiliation. But these are negative reasons that can motivate players, but the draw of history and perfection really pull much more positively.

History unfolding before me—wanting to be part of an historical moment can catch a person up in the moment. It feels a bit selfish but also noble to be there and be a part of something special. Sports is full of games of the century, we have several a season in college baseball, but perfect games in baseball are really really hard and rare and complicated—so hard that some pitchers have pitched nine innings of perfect ball and literally lost the game in the 10th inning. Being a minor character witnessing history that is enshrined is pretty cool and slowly stole my allegiance.

Another aspect drew me to hope that Humber succeeded especially in the eighth and ninth inning—respect for the game.

Respect for game and athletes—Sport is hard work and winning involves skill, practice and luck. Humber and the White Sox were winning this one on skill and practice, not luck. This game was a pitcher/catcher in perfect sync with amazing results. I respect most sports I watch and respect each game’s complexities and unique challenges and beauties. Seeing a perfect game unfold, unless you miss the steroid inflated home run 90’s, the perfect game reduces baseball to its essence—you catch the ball, you throw the ball and you hit the ball in the immortal words of Bull Durham.

It might seem boring to have no one on base and no runs being scored—it does happen all the time to the Mariners—but to watch it unfold each second and each pitch with each one a possible quest ender, that focuses a fan and player’s attention upon the core activity.

I can also respect the athletes on the quest. Professional sports offers so many games and baseball more than double anyone else. It can become drudgery even for committed professionals. Good professionals keep bringing it and can up their game when the moment requires. The quests are season long for playoffs, total wins, batting averages etc. But here the quest reduces to one game, nine innings, one pitch at a time, one play at a time. This is the game stripped to its core. The players must rise to the occasion as it reduces the season to a magnificent nine-inning quest.

Every sport has perfect moments—a great catch, a great pass, and an amazing stop. Baseball itself has perfect moments such as a perfect catch, perfect pass, perfect hit or perfect stop. A coach and team can experience a play unfold just like it is drawn up in its Platonic perfection. The skill and artistry and demands of the situation combine for an exquisite never to be repeated moment that any sport can deliver at any time. This moment of perfect achievement keeps us going back to watch the same games over and over.

But only baseball permits a perfect game, not just a moment. Here the form of perfection breaks through the permeable layers separating our world from other worlds of form and beauty. Every perfect moment breaks that barrier and reveals the mystery and possibility of our lives and makes us glad to be humans.

Only baseball extends that ecstatic moment to an entire game.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Will & Mind: Pat Summitt & the Essence of College Sport

Pat Summit's retirement today prompted me to reprint a piece I wrote on her after watching her coach during the NCAA tournament. It also reminded me that in our society Alzheimer's is a sentence as is dementia. I want this post to remind us of what an extraordinarily powerful coach and teacher Summit was, but also to remember that the cumulative evidence that some of our sports, especially football, are taking immense toll on the brain and inflicting a sentence that eventually destroys the brain's capacity to support the personality and intelligence that give sport its nobility and beauty.Will & Mind: Pat Summitt & the Essence of College Sport

I loved watching Pat Summitt coach. She stalked the sidelines with fire in her eyes and willed her players to victory. She x-rayed the game, made split second decisions and her fine-tuned teams adapted on the dime. Under her tutelage players grew as players and persons. She collected 6 national titles, but they only confirmed to me  she embodied the basic truth that mind and will govern sports and achievement.

Players flocked to play for Summit not because she was easy or cuddly. She could be coldly demanding and spit fire and brimstone with a polite drawl. She trained for perfection and demanded a level of technical excellence and superb conditioning of each of her players. Her teams were not flashy or fancy. They played hard tenacious defense, rebounded better than anyone and played enough offense to “sell tickets” and win.

She imbued her players with this forceful intelligence and undaunted spirit, preparing them for “life” as much as sport. As she liked to say “don’t every say can’t to me” or in an all admonition to her players and herself, always “pay attention.”

She built her team on basics, execution and intensity, above all intensity that radiated from the coach through assistants to every player past and present. People knew what to expect when they played Summit’s Tennessee teams. The team simply did what they did better than anyone else. They beat you fair and square.

She had few rivals as an in-game coach. She could read the other teams’ and respond to defenses and match ups. Her vision comprehended the game, and her mind patterned and adapted on the fly. The training and preparation of her teams enabled them to execute and finish. Her mind and will infused them and her best teams were always finishers.
In another interview I remember her emphasizing how “to focus upon everything” when preparing and mastering the game. This played out in games where she demanded of herself and of her teams that they “bring the best every day.” If not, a player faced her famous baleful “the look.” One she modestly said was a “little intense” and helped to get “players to focus.” More to the point her son describes how that  “stare of hers burn(s) a hole through your head.”

Her approach to coaching and players exemplified the old school theme but in modern feminist fugue, something she would probably vehemently deny. She exercised strong willed authority but not to the obsessive minute control of a Vivian Stringer.

These memories of her haunted me when I watched her coach late this season. She sat on the sidelines and watched the games. Clearly engaged but not with the almost feral penetration of the past. When she talked it was one on one; her long time assistants handled most of the huddles and most of the plays.

I have never been able to identify “fire in the eyes” although I understand the metaphor, but I could read her careful body language. It’s absurd to think of the word fragile and Pat Summit, but she carried herself more gingerly. The players paid attention to her but took their many cues from Holly Warlick and the Mickie DeMoss.

Pat Summitt is suffering from early-onset dementia Alzheimer’s type. The cruel disease steals a person’s mind and memory though the accretion of plaques in the brain that undermine neural communication. I watched it slowly befuddle and steal the energy, focus and memory of my grandfather. Last year at her announcement she could talk about forgetting some things and having trouble concentrating. He son spoke of simplifying house keeping mechanisms. Alzheimer’s is noted for sapping memory, but it steals concentration and focus. It diffused intensity that go with those. It confuses complex information processing so that persons can handle some information but get muddled much faster.

All the requirements of elite coaching and the strength of Summit’s greatness are being attacked by Alzheimer’s. She wants to continue coaching, and this year made arrangements to “assign staff responsibilities.” Her excellent and long-time assistants have always carried a lot of the load in practices. Now they do more, much more, and during the games, they handle most of the huddles. For someone with Alzheimer’s processing the massive inputs and pattern recognition required to manage a basketball game becomes harder and harder, let alone focusing and making quick decisions plus expending emotional energy to motivate and direct players.
It cannot continue because the essence of coaching of elite sports competition lies in the mind and focused will of the players and coach. It grows from the ability of the player and coaches’ to decipher patterns of a game and adapt to them on the fly while emanating emotional energy that keeps players focused and together during the ups and downs of a game. With luck and care, we will not have to watch her decline on national TV during games that she can no longer master.

Summit stood as a master of both mind and will. Her best teams demonstrated both. While she could rage with the best, she inspired loyalty and executed with virtuosity. 

I can only admire her brilliance as a teacher and coach. How she channeled her intensity and intelligence into recruiting, coaching and playing an intense game. How success did not change her or quench her fire. Mellow would never describe her.

So watching Tennessee play the other day reminded me of why college sports involves mind and spirit. The erosion of either undermines athletics much more so than physical loss.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Field of Dreams: the Costner Baseball Movie Trilogy

The Mariner's begin their home season today! They have been on the road for a month if you count back to their opening in Japan. To celebrate the beginning of baseball I would like to meditate upon how we think about baseball as reflected in our national narratives in the movies. Over a couple of entries I will talk about the Kevin Costner baseball movie trilogy--—Field of Dreams, Bull Durham and For Love of the Game.

Costner moves like an athlete. His lanky and lean body moves with grace and surety. As he ages, he thickens and feels more careworn, but careful, but still fluid and competent. He was made for baseball movies, and his presence gives credibility to athlete roles that often actors cannot carry off. He embodies a type of laconic, flawed authenticity that lies at the core of so many American dreams.

Many fans regard Field of Dreams as one of the greatest baseball movies. It’s based upon a fine book called Joeless Joe by W. P.  Kinsella, and the struggles of the movie center upon a vaguely disillusioned and failing farmer living in Iowa with his wife and child trying, not very well, to make her old family farm work.

Costner does not even play a baseball player. The myth of baseball drives the movie, not baseball itself. In the movie a Platonic form of baseball lies just beyond an almost Celtic permeable boundary between planes of existence. Anyone who has experienced the beauty and joy of gazing upon a baseball diamond knows how the space and rhythm of baseball places us one remove from life. A rip in the fabric of space-time permits great baseball players of the past to sneak through to play in a farm field in Iowa. Some like Joeless Joe Jackson emerge from the cornfield for redemption; many others come to play the game.

Costner’s farmis  going broke but he barely seems to notice. His own alienation and the loss of his father haunt him. He remembers his father as broken and sad but who once played as a minor league player. Costner’s character Ray Kinsella rememberers refusing to play catch with his father in pique and rejection and bitterly regrets the action. He seems so preoccupied with his own pain he barely recognizes the pain he is inflicting upon his loving family.

A Voice, yes, a voice, calls him to “build it and they will come.” Later the voice calls him to “ease his pain.” This begins an odyssey where Kinsella over the violent objections of his practical brother-in-law and despite the deep misgivings of his wife risks his family and livelihood to plow up acres of superb Iowa farmland to build a baseball field. The players do arrive, although they will not let Ty Cobb play because everyone hates him. Yet only Ray and his daughter and wife can see them play.

Called to “ease his pain,” Ray  heads on a road trip and kidnaps a J.D. Salinger like novelist Terence Mann, played by James Earl Jones to bring him to Iowa. Mann vehemently denies ever writing or caring about baseball until he truly sees the players in the Iowa field and admits it. The road trip ends by picking up Moonbeam Graham a young player who had only one at bat and ended as a beloved country doctor. Moonbeam later crosses the boundary and returns to his youth to play with the major leaguers he worshiped.

Ray answers the voices and creates a space for baseball players to play amid the Iowa sun, but his farm careens towards foreclosure. His loyal and loving wife has reached her limits with him and is about to see her farm destroyed. His daughter barely understands the tensions in the family and wonders at his absence even when he is physically present. Ray's dreams that baseball will redeem him are destroying his real life, and his brother gloats as he gets ready to take over the farm. 

Ray builds the Field Of Dreams, and they do come. Into that dream space of Platonic truth, players arrive for play and redemption; the novelist arrives to be reminded of his own passion and abandon his seclusion; and Moonlight Graham gets to bat in the big leagues.

In a central moment for the film and American memory, the farm will be saved because Ray built it and people will come from miles away to be there. Terence Mann’s monologue sums up the mythical role of baseball:  

Ray, people will come Ray. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won't mind if you look around, you'll say. It's only $20 per person.….And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.
The movie portrays baseball as a medium of identity and renewal for people. The combination of individual achievement and integrated teamwork capture an abiding American narrative. The movie highlights how powerfully we Americans link identity and history through sports. Ray Kinsella, Terence Mann and Doc Graham find meaning through baseball that eludes them in other aspects of their life. For many American fans, it matters not the sport, loyalty to team and following the team’s triumphs and failures moors identity and meaning in their lives in powerful and scary ways.

The Costner trilogy, however, insists that sports cannot provide the deepest meaning and importance of life. Baseball brings us together, but the critical decisions involve relations with others. Mann enters the Platonic dimension to rediscover wonder; Doc Graham again leaves baseball to save a human being, but in the end Ray makes the deepest discovery.

He risks his farm, his future and thoughtlessly his wife and daughter for a dream, a dream for him to come and to ease his pain.While reality falls apart and while others find renewal in baseball, Ray discovers his young father playing with the dead guys. He introduces himself, and his father asks, “Is this heaven?”

Ray answers, “No it’s Iowa.” He turns and looks at the house and sees Amy Madigan who plays his wife with his daughter and reconsiders, “maybe it is heaven.”

Ray discovers  sports and our relation to sports makes no sense to us unless it brings us back to the real ground of our humanity—family, friends, and love.

As his father walks back to the Platonic field, Ray hesitantly calls, “dad, would you like a catch?”
His dad replies, “yes I’d like that.”

Only baseball could reveal this insight. Only at baseball can people actually watch the game and talk, converse and deepen friendship. No other sport permits that amid their noise, violence and hurly-burly. 

The movie ends with an endless line of cars moving to the Field of Dreams while Ray and his father play the game of catch that has haunted Ray all these years.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Why Do Coaches Lie?

“Own it!”
“No excuses!”
“Take responsibility for yourself?”
“You can only control one thing, yourself!”

Coaches scream the words and as they stalk the sidelines and tower over practices. They engrave them in the minds of their players. These words define the credo of every good coach who works with young athletes.

With their visibility, celebrity and stature coaches are elevated into role models and moral arbiters beyond the field of play. They even author books like Sean Payton of the New Orleans’ Saints with Home Team. Jim Tressel at Ohio State authored a passel of motivational and leadership books such as The Winners Manuel: For the Game of Life. Coaches become spokesman for values and leadership.

For good coaches it begins with coaching a person to accept responsibility for him or herself. A strong coach builds the foundation of honest self-assessment and growth. If a person does not take responsibility for actions, she or he will never acknowledge problems or failures, a player will never see the need to change and learn. Players who do not take responsibility for themselves never grow.

Honesty grounds responsibility. A person has to be honest with him or herself to have a chance to acknowledge mistakes, learn what they are doing wrong and practice getting it right.

A good coach knows this and inculcates it in their style. Respect for a sport, respect for a person and the passion to help a player get better and a team to succeed require transparent honesty—sometimes hard even harsh honesty to get through to an athlete who needs to get over their ego and start developing as a person and player.

Honest responsibility drives a coach to x-rays the player’s performance to identify strengths and weaknesses and then help an individual get better. As important, a good coach self-critiques. A good coach is brutally honest with themselves and takes responsibility for their mistakes—my bad—as team slang might say.

This honest self-criticism and taking responsibility leads coaches to spend hours on tape and break down their own past performance as well as that of players and opponents.

Good coaches model the responsibility they so passionately preach.
So why do they lie when they get into trouble?

This year bursts with examples. Jim Tressel, the successful and devout football coach at Ohio State, lied to his boss and then the NCAA to “protect” his all star players and protect a bowl season. When he found out his own players had violated NCAA regulations on a regular basis, he should have accepted responsibility and demanded they accept responsibility. Instead he hid the corruption, then he lied about to everyone.

Sean Payton tacitly and probably not so tacitly condoned creating a culture that encouraged and rewarded his defensive team to deliberately set out to maim, injure and damage the brain functioning of opposing players. Payton clearly benefits from a culture of immoral and illegal actions that violate the moral core of the sport. He ignores it with culpable negligence and rewards the coaches who lead it. When it comes out or when he knew, he should have stopped it immediately. He should have changed the behavior of his coaches and acted to inform and protect his bosses. Instead when it leaks, Sean Peyton misrepresents it to his bosses initially and then directly lies to the Commissioner of the NFL.

Now Bobby Petrino the coach of Arkansas, a bluff motorcycle riding good old coach, has an fairly serious accident riding his hog, sorry about the bad pun for all you razorback fans. Blood splatters with broken bones and fractured vertebrae in his neck, he snuck away from the accident and got his body guard to get him to the hospital. He told a bystander not to call 911 and cooperated with the police. He told everyone that he was riding alone after a day with his wife. Twice he made it clear in public environments. Turns out he had a passenger, a 25 year old stunning blond ex-volleyball player whom he had hired the week before. Oops. Turns out he was having an “inappropriate relationships” with her—read betraying his wife and family and having an affair.

Did Petrino accept responsibility for the accident, yes, sort of, but he did his best to cover-up with lies the unfortunate fact that he was joyriding with a girlfriend half his age. He lied to the press, his boss and his team and his wife.
These are just three examples this year. What befuddles me is how these men who so passionately preach and demand accountability and responsibility from their players abandon all these principles when it comes to them.

Tressel lied to protect his team, his record and himself. Payton lied to protect his team but also cover his own negligence and to spite a type of control over safety that he despised as weak. Petrino lies to protect his reputation protect his job and in theory protect his family from the embarrassment.

All three coaches live and die by honest demanding responsibility. All three fail when it comes to demanding it of themselves.

In this they join politicians, business leaders, clergy and many folks in power who default to lies and denial rather than taking responsibility. Unfortunately we have heard the story before and will hear it again.

What matters here is not that the coaches screwed up, we all do. What matters is that they lied and tried to shirk responsibility violating their own basic moral code.

We make coaches bigger than life in the press and in our own worship of them. We turn them into moral and leadership guides for players and fans and even buy their books. I even taught a chapter from Tressel. The media, ownership, colleges and we all collaborate in this collective conceit.
Turns out they are not heroes nor necessarily heroic. Turns out they work better on the field than in real life. Folks who get used to power and adulation begin to believe they are immune to the rules. They get so protected, even with their own body guards, and they are so successful in one area of life, that they begin to feel entitled in other areas of life. They take risks but most importantly they never believe they will be caught. At worse, they are so used to being right, they do not notice they are dong wrong. They are so used to being protected that they assume either their own power or their own network will protect them even against the truth.

I could cite hundreds examples of failed liars, but none of them seem to learn from each other. Payton did not learn from Tressel and Petrino did not learn from either.

Turns out they lie to protect themselves. They lie to evade or hide responsibility for their own moral failings—the very stance they condemn in their players

Turns out they are mortals after all, a fact they often forget in their celebrity.

Coaches should remember that for good or bad, we and their athletes take what they say seriously, too bad they don't.

These three will be back because they can win games, but if I simply cannot take them or their words seriously, how can their players?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Handling Success Harder than Handling Adversity

One of the wisest coaches I know, Lorenzo Romar, was asked during one of his team’s nerve-racking midseason turnarounds, “which is harder to handle adversity or success?” Lorenzo laughed and replied “well when you are drowning, most of us will fight to say alive. It’s deep within us to struggle to survive. But it is way too easy to get complacent or take your press clippings seriously. Handling success is harder.”

Lorenzo hits on a powerful reality of life. Jim Collins in his superb book Good to Great argues that the good can be the enemy of the great. Organizations get good enough to succeed in their market. Too often they plateau at that point. They are doing well, very well, but they do not become great. Paradoxically their very success saps their motive to become great.

I believe Romar’s insight captures well the motivation of teams. When a team is down or struggling, they hate it. They want to get better. A team can respond with a chip on their shoulders. They have something to prove each game, and coaches can exploit this underdog, upset-minded, prove yourself approach. No one enjoys feeling bad or failing, so coaches can exploit the desire to prove themselves better.

Competition signals very clearly when a team fails. Losing confirms that a team needs to get better if they don’t want to lose again. Continuous losing can erode a team’s confidence in itself or its coach. It leaves no doubt a team failed. It leaves do doubt that a team and players must work harder to get better.

Winning poses a very different problem. Winning reassures everyone that they are doing the right thing. The media reinforces this with praising coverage and feel good stories. The paradox of winning is that it proves what you are doing works.

Incessant improvement is hard. Looking yourself in the mirror each day and realizing you need to continue to work harder than anyone and never being satisfied is hard. Having a coach dog you to get better and constantly demand effort and improvement in small things like footwork, ball handling, position, reading defenses, is hard. It feels good to revel in your success and how good you are.

The danger in victories lies in getting complacent. It leads players to become comfortable in what they are doing. They expect to win, which can be a good thing. You want teams to be confident and even have some swagger. If confidence bcomes arrogance and leads to cocky taunting and resentful learning, a team overestimates itself or under estimate its opponents, then it can be disastrous for a player or team.

  1.   This attitude ignores the fact that every other team is working harder. In conference play where teams play multiple times, the beaten teams target the team that beat them. Winning teams become targets, so at the very time it might become complacent, other teams are working harder, nursing chips on their shoulders, plotting upsets and innovating to counter a winning team’s strengths
  2. Winning can take the edge of a player or team. When players are hungry to win, they work harder. They enter each game on an edge pushing and fighting. They play at the edge of their talent and their emotions. Winning can erode that edge because a player gets comfortable doing what they do. They believe their present or past effort is enough, and that they can call it up as needed. Each game does not become a challenge or require the dynamic self-motivation of pushing oneself to one’s best or pushing boundaries.
  3.   Winning can harm learning. Coaches can tear their hair out, if they have any left, when players begin to think they know better. Coaches need teams to adapt to each team and listen to the scout. They need the team to focus upon the keys to winning and make special efforts to push their strengths or stop the other team’s tendencies. Each game requires learning and anticipation. The problem arises when players misdiagnose why they are winning. Success lures players to believe they are winning simply because they are really good, not because they work harder and study harder and practice harder.
  4.   Winning leads to a sense of entitlement. Winning tempts players to believe all they have to do is show up. Players begin to think they deserve to win. They not only expect to win, they expect it to be handed to them. Other teams and the referees are supposed to know how good they are. They make a run or get a lead, and this should prove to the other team it is time to give up. When referees go against them, they express outsize anger, even outrage, because as winners they should not have to deal with such things as fouls or bad calls. Modern players have enough issues with entitlement and winning just compounds it. This reinforces the learning lapses.

The need to counteract these tendencies accounts for some of the mad hatter behavior of college coaches. Professional teams seldom fall prey to complacency, but 18-21 year olds succumb much easier. They have less experience, judge on much smaller samples and have lived an entitled life for along time.

Collins talks about the need for a “ferocious” approach to greatness and the need to face brutal facts and incessantly learn. To counteract the attractions of success, coaches try to demand, cajole, or terrify teams into keeping an edge. Coaches have to remind teams that anyone can beat them if they do not “show up” in the full sense of bringing their focus, talent and skill honed to its highest level. More than a few coaches handle this with relentless schedules that demand teams respond. A loss now and then can keep teams receptive to learning. Modern power ratings now reward rather than penalize this in most sports and seedings.

The best coaches lay out clear metrics that enable players to see, measure and understand their progress. The metrics define goals that focus behavior and permit players to grow incrementally and see their growth and success. The metric driven approach to coaching reaffirms success but reminds players in a clear way that they can and must always get better. Nothing stands still in life and athletics. The best response remains appreciating one’s strengths but never giving up on getting better.

I think coach Romar is right.

Ironic isn’t it that success breed failure? While Kipling reminded us they can both be "impostors," endless failure can break us. Success in any area of life can generate arrogance combined with complacency--jerk in simple terms. A great  team and leader see hrough the illusions of success to the core demands of excellence and realize the path of personal and professional growth never ends, never stops.

 The journey, not the destination.