Friday, June 7, 2013

Athletics and Self Discovery

“Who Am I?”

This classic question haunts modern western individuals. I think many persons find athletics offers a moral and psychological field of endeavor that helps an individual discover and create self-understanding. I recently went to the graduation ceremony for our student athletes and listened to them talk about the tough journey they travelled as athletes but also as individuals trying to grow beyond a primary identity as an athlete into a richer sense of themselves and their future possibilities.

The paradox of athletics is that it rewards youth and most of the greatest accomplishments occur in your teens and early twenties. The vast majority of even professional athletic careers end by age 25. I often wonder about how being an athlete can contribute to that growth of strong individuals and not become a trap that defines a person too early, gains their greatest successes at a young age and leaves the rest of their life as an ex-athlete like those characters in early Bruce Springsteen songs.

In a  class a student of mine, a student named Mindy Reger, wrote a very suggestive essay on how playing sports at any level can engage a person in a way that challenges them to discover whom they are and express their selfhood. This insight makes a lot of sense to me when we remember that most of us do not discover who we are in our heads but in our actions.

Have you ever had the experience where you surprised yourself when you acted? Maybe you disappointed yourself? Maybe you thought, “I didn’t know I could do that!” “I didn’t know I was capable of that!” Indeed, this need not always be a good self-revelation about how we really act under stress or in face of daily challenges. We can be surprised by good or bad, appalled or proud of ourselves, but we face the reality of how we acted. Actions reveal and create our selfhood.

Being an athlete involves a fundamental human feature—goal seeking. All humans seek goals and achieving a goal requires certain character attributes and skills be mastered. So the self-discovery of being an athlete can transfer to many dimensions of life.

Athletes first discover their capacity for tenacity or will power. It takes hard work, time and focus to master athletic skills. Talent guarantees little beyond an affinity for the skills required by the game and will carry an athlete only up to a certain level of struggle. Players filter out and find different levels of competition. In every area work, commitment and practice can compensate and even overcome lack of raw talent.

Self-discovery matches self-creation. Any goal seeker and athletes experience failure. Learning to hit topspin, do a reverse lay up, dribble with your off-foot take endless efforts and thousands of misses and mistakes. At this critical point a person must decide, “Will I keep practicing?” “Will I ask for help/” Even when discouraged or after they have loudly sworn to themselves and anyone who will listen “I will never play this stupid game again,” an individual can decide two days later to take on the challenge, make more mistakes, experience failure and then practice again and again.

This practice, character and skill expression plays out when a player learns to “earn” their success. Like in any area of life, athletes can take the easy quick way or the long hard way to mastery. Athletes learn this about themselves, and more than a few choose the easy way, get so far, and fail. At that point a person can quit or learn to commit to the long hard way, very much like real people mastering a life. They discover or decide if they can endure amid challenges, failures and at some point others competing with and against them.  Succeeding in athletic goals demands hard work, focus and learning.

Being a competitive athlete, not an elite athlete, but just one who hangs in there and plays and competes effectively with others, calls for self confidence and the ability to stick up for yourself. Being shy won’t work; being tentative won’t work; being a fearful won’t work. Stepping onto the field or pool or court braces a person even when they are terrified of failure or success. But on that ground, a person learns to act as if he or she is confident because they and their teammates depend upon standing a teammate standing up for themselves and for the team.

Our actions reveal ourselves to ourselves. We prove ourselves to ourselves, not just to others.

Finally a person expresses and creates a self in the arena of athletic endeavor when they reveal to themselves whether they will cheat or not. Every athlete seeks to master a goal, and most of the time this means winning. Sports depends upon complex rules, and sportsmanship means competing within the rules. Yet everyone who wants to win will be tempted to cheat, to take the easy way. Not only will they be tempted to take shortcuts in practice and training, but a person who happens to be an athlete will discover if they have the courage and discipline not to cheat, to play fair, not to descend to the level of those who do cheat.

I am not seeking to idealize athletics or athletes, but I think Mindy correctly identified a moral possibility for persons who compete as athletes. No guarantees, but persons can learn about and help create their selfhood in sports. That is not a bad thing.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Sports Ethics: No Excuses

“No excuses,” how many times have players heard this from coaches? How many times have good coaches stated this to the media or fans when accepting responsibility for a failure. These two simply words reflect a profound acceptance of responsibility for actions and a commitment to get better that reflect core of professional growth.

We all prefer excuses—“not my fault;” “Mr. Nobody did it;” “the sun was in my eye;” “the ref botched it;” “my partner missed the signal.” I could go on because the ways to duck responsibility stretch endless and tempting. Having an excuse avoids the pain and demands of responsibility. Having an excuse avoids being singled and taking the blame for an action’s consequences. No excuses is the flip side of the buck stops here.

The concept of excuse is old and important. It arose legally to exonerate and justify pardon for actions. A person offers excuses to explain that he or she had reasons to guide their action. The bad consequences of the action really flowed from good reasons and reasonable responses, so they were not guilty of malfeasance.

An excuse is not an apology. An apology accepts responsibility for an action and consequences and seeks forgiveness for acting and the consequences that follow. Apologies accept responsibility as moral core of the action.

Excuses really mean to escape from “cause” of an action—excuses nullify responsibility for actions. Excuses carry huge import in legal and moral assessment of blame. Determining negligence makes them even more important in moral life because if a person has prepared and done due diligence and makes an honest mistake or faces impacts beyond their control, they offer an excuse to avoid charges of negligence.

Excusing oneself possesses serious moral weight. It offers an explanation for why it was reasonable for me to fail and reasonable to make a mistake. It deflects responsibility from my decision making to external influences or deflects it to others. Sometimes we may even have good reasons for our mistaken actions as in “excuse me” when we sneeze or inadvertently insult someone.

No Excuses takes a different tack towards oneself and responsibility for actions. Essentially it refuses to let oneself or team off the hook of responsibility. Maybe one mistake or bad call or luck influenced a game or decision. No excuses, however, means players and coaches look at the entire context of the game, not just one actions. They do not use excuses to release them from seeing their failure and from working to find the causes and working to correct them.

Rejecting excuses puts the onus on players to embrace responsibility. No excuses for oneself or team pushes players to want to take action when under stress. It creates a mindset that motivates players to practice and learn from mistakes. Players, coaches and professionals prepare by practicing scenarios and anticipating future actions.

In professional and sport life publically stating “no excuses” extends responsibility to go back and learn from what happened. It requires a post mortem and sometimes scenario testing to get better. This may mean going back and relearning basics or changing patterns of recognition. Often it involves mental work where individuals and teams refocus intensity or learn how to handle the buffeting of luck and bad calls and maintain their focus despite the slings and arrows of fortune.

Mistakes, losses, blowups all tend to linger in the back of one's mind. People can nag and diffuse focus and intention. Worse, they struggle to rationalize away what happened and are tempted to blame anyone or anything but themselves. No excuses as a team culture does not eliminate this self recrimination, but buffers against it and drives players to the future, not the past. To responsibility to grow and learn, not blame and gnaw on oneself or teammates. 

I believe no excuses makes sense as a public position for players and coaches and one worth internalizing for high performing teams. I think, however, that in private relations among professionals excuses matter profoundly and need to be acknowledged. For instance, players often play with injuries or at limited strength. This debilitation constitutes a reasonable excuse by any moral standards, and coaches and fellow teammates need to understand this. People have “brain farts” as they say. Sometimes luck intervenes or bad calls happen. Sometimes despite preparation the other team is more talented and focused and the team struggles to make a game of it.

Coaches, players and professionals need to acknowledge and integrate these assessments of themselves and teammates in assessing blame and praise. Inside the team, people need room for support, mercy and pain. A player who plays through pain and injury may deserve as much praise as excuse.

No excuses not only isolates responsibility and obligations to learn, but it generates another imperative. Once admitting “I contributed,” no excuses helps players and teams move on. 

This approach demands honest recognition of what happened and people’s contributions to it. But it insists that once this has been done, people have to let go and move on. As Nick Saban likes to preach, “last race doesn’t matter.”

High achievement and learning requires being full present to the moment and open to seeing the patterns and needs of a moment. To learn requires total presence and focus on technique and situational awareness. Players cannot afford to have the past nagging and shadowing their action. Acknowledge, learn, let go.

Players, teams and coaches have to “let go” of the past to be present to the future. Offering and accepting no excuses lets this happen.