Sports are Not a Metaphor for Life

First a note to international readers. In the U.S. the first two weeks in April is many sports-minded people’s favorite time of the year because of a confluence of great events highlighted by the college basketball national tournaments and the tradition-rich Masters golf tournament. There’s also the start of the professional baseball season and the beginning of the professional hockey and basketball playoffs. And this year there’s going to be a pretty special footrace in Boston next Monday, the 21st.

Few, if any, expected to see the Universities of Connecticut and Kentucky play for the national basketball championship. Combined, both teams lost nineteen games during the regular season. Similarly, Bubba Watson looked completely lost on Augusta National’s greens during Saturday’s third round. Most people thought it was Louisville’s, Arizona’s, or Florida’s tournament to lose and Matt Kuchar’s turn to break through in a major championship. Few were shocked when Bubba fell behind by two strokes early during Sunday’s final round.

But Bubba, following Connecticut’s and Kentucky’s lead, rallied to play his best golf at the most important time, and won by three strokes. My takeaway is this. Next week in Boston, pay no attention to who is in the lead at the halfway mark. In fact, don’t place too much importance on who is ahead at the 20 mile mark. In keeping with this sports season, someone unexpected will assert their will on the field over the last few miles. Call me crazy, but maybe even someone not from East Africa.

When I first sketched this post in my head, I was playing around with what, if anything, these athletic contests have to do with how you and I should live. But I was forcing it because athletic competition is not a meaningful metaphor for life. Because only one team hoists the national championship trophy and only one golfer puts on the green jacket each April.

In life, the more our family members, close friends, and co-workers flourish, the better our lives. The key to that is cooperation in the form of mutual support. In contrast, family, friendship, and co-worker competition inevitably results in petty jealousies, anger, and dissension.

And yet, sometimes there are sublime moments of cooperation in the heat of athletic competition. For example, at one of last year’s major marathons, the two men leading the race passed one water bottle back and forth. Maybe they were Stoics even more focused on giving their best effort than finishing first. And often the most awe-inspiring moments are compliments of young athletes, like high schooler Megan Vogel, who flat out reject win at all costs thinking.

 

 

 

 

 

Kikkan Randall Take Away—Find Joy Everyday

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Condensed from Jim Caple of espnW:

Tuesday was supposed to be more than just a great day for Kikkan Randall, it was also to be a great day for American cross-country skiing, its best day in nearly four decades.

America has won only one Olympic medal in the sport, and that was 38 very long years ago when Bill Koch took the silver medal at the 1976 Innsbruck Games. That’s nearly four decades of endless frustration, disappointment and losses by very large margins. The United States has been such an underdog in the sport that four-time Olympian Kris Freeman compares America beating cross-county powerhouse Norway to a Little League team beating the Yankees.

But Tuesday was going to be oh, so deliciously different.

Randall, the 31-year-old Alaskan skier with pink-streaked hair, won five World Cup races last year and won back-to-back World Cup races last month. She is a two-time world sprint champion. She said the Sochi course was favorable to her style. Everyone . . . picked her to win gold in Tuesday’s sprint free race.

Instead, Randall didn’t even reach the semifinals.

She started off well in the fifth quarterfinal heat, taking the lead by skiing powerfully up the 1.3-kilometer course’s hill. She held the lead as the athletes entered the course stadium and raced toward the finish line.

Then, Germany’s Denise Herrmann passed her. (Because the top two skiers advance from the quarterfinals, Randall still was in good shape, though.)

But then Norway’s Marit Bjoergen passed her.

Because the two skiers with the next two fastest times overall also advance, Randall’s chances still were looking decent.

But then Italy’s Gaia Vuerich passed her just before the finish line.

Randall still had a chance to advance as the second qualifier (aka, a “lucky loser”) if her time had been fast enough, but it wasn’t. After waiting many anxious seconds, she learned she had been too slow.

“That final gear wasn’t quite there and then I fell apart there right before the finish and didn’t get a lunge in,” she said. Official results indicated she was actually five-hundredths behind Vuerich. “I’m sure I’ll be living those moments hundreds of time in my head.”

After a television interview. . . Randall walked down the steps to the mixed zone to speak with reporters. Tears flowing down her cheeks, she leaned against a barrier and buried her head in her arms.

This was only natural, given that she carried the tremendous weight of her country’s hopes for cross-country. Randall didn’t just want a medal for herself, she wanted a medal to boost the sport throughout America. She wants more Americans out on the trail, learning how wonderful and fun her sport is while improving their health and fitness.

“It’s rough, but that’s sport, right?” Randall said of her disappointing day. “You prepare your whole life for something like this and it’s over in 2½ minutes.”

It’s especially rough because of the cross-country system that alternates sprint styles every Olympics. One Olympics, the sprint will be raced classic style; the next it will be free style. The free sprint, Randall’s specialty, will not be held again until the 2022 Olympics, when she is 39.

I admire Randall for going all in on medaling, but wonder if she’ll think it was worth it. “The joy,” some wise person once said, “is in the journey.” I’m sure Randall isn’t feeling too joyful right now, but in time I hope she feels the effort was worthwhile. That she has positive memories from some training sessions; and other victories; and her world travels; and most especially, her friendships with teammates, fellow competitors, trainers and coaches. Despite the bitter disappointment of not achieving her ultimate goal, I hope she feels her life is richer as a result of the attempt.

Sometimes I’m asked if I’m going to do another long distance triathlon. The key question for me is whether I could enjoy the extensive training required. If I do re-up, I will think of the race as just one small part of the larger equation.

Although I get the allure of sporadic, specific instances of accentuated risk/reward like Olympic competition, I prefer stitching together meaningful daily routines that tip the balance towards deeper relationships, better physical health, and greater spiritual enlightenment. Yesterday was a great day not just because it was my birthday, but because of small, simple joys—a longish morning swim workout; a green tea latte; unexpected emails from distant friends; unexpected sunshine; a walk with the wife and labradude; phone conversations with my two fav college students; and dinner out at Gardner’s.

Gardner’s is a bit fancy pants, but Kikkan Randall taught me something today. Don’t live too far in the future. Find joy everyday.

 

Youth Fitness Should Trump Athletic Competition

“Combined participation in the four most-popular U.S. team sports—basketball, soccer, baseball and football—fell among boys and girls aged 6 through 17 by roughly 4% from 2008 to 2012.” [Wall Street Journal]

Docs and others are worried because “It is much more likely that someone who is active in their childhood is going to remain active into their adulthood.”

Forgotten in this discussion is the fact that there are lots of ways to be active. When it comes to youth, we focus far too narrowly on athletic competition at the expense of fitness.

One common theory for the decline is that social networking, videogames and other technology are drawing children away from sports. And of course football faces a more specific challenge, “growing concern that concussions and other contact injuries can cause lasting physical damage.” The Journal speculates on other causes including increasing costs of participation to excessive pressure on kids in youth sports to cuts in school physical-education programs.

I was intrigued by one student’s story in the article:

Fifteen-year-old Jessica Cronin is the daughter of a former three-sport high-school athlete. But Jessica doesn’t participate in high-school sports, choosing to spend her time outside of class volunteering in her community and going to her temple youth group each Wednesday. “I considered doing track, but it takes up so much time,” said Ms. Cronin, a sophomore at Bethlehem Central High School in Delmar, N.Y.

Since most fifteen year-olds can run 6-7 miles in an hour, I suspect Jessica prefers her community service and youth group activities because they’re based on cooperation more than competition. Most young athletes don’t care about winning as much as their coaches. They’re not anti-competition per se, they just can’t relate to, and therefore resent, many of their coaches “win at all costs” approach.

That’s why a lot of young people gravitate to alternative sports like ultimate frisbee and alternative activities like skateboarding.

Survey youth basketball, soccer, baseball and football coaches about what’s most important to them and their athletes long-term health probably won’t make the list. Too many youth coaches are fixated on scoreboards and win-loss records. School principals, athletic directors, and parents aren’t doing enough to train, hire, and reward coaches who think about team sports as a context for healthier living.

Switching from a competitive team sport orientation to a fitness one should start with wider, better lit roads with generous sidewalks so that most young people can walk, bike, blade, skateboard, or run to and from school. Next physical education classes should emphasize life long activities including walking, running, yoga, swimming, and related activities. Students should be encouraged to compete against their younger selves to walk, run, cycle, and swim farther faster.

When fitness trumps athletic competition physical education classes and team sport practices will be more fun than video games. There should be little to no standing around. I have fond memories of some high school water polo practices where our conditioning consisted of a crazy obstacle course that culminated with a celebratory jump off the three meter board. We improved on the coach’s design by firing balls at one another mid-air. Granted a nose was broken and that was in the Pleistocene Era before the first lawyer emerged from the primordial ooze. Practices would be shorter because the emphasis would be on quality of activity more than quantity.

Who is with me?

 

When Nationality Binds and Blinds

You know the story. A former NBA player recruits a team of retired professional basketball players to play an exhibition game in front of Kim Jong Un on his birthday. Obviously, the players haven’t spent any of their post NBA lives learning anything about life in North Korea. The whole trip, especially the players clapping adoringly while the team leader serenaded Kim Jong Un with “Happy Birthday”, was almost too surreal to process.

Understandably, the media was quick to criticize the player and his friends. But the national-centric nature of the media’s criticism warrants criticism. And as far as I’m aware, there hasn’t been any. Never mind that 1m North Koreans died during famines in the 90s, that hunger is still a daily reality for most North Koreans, or that state prison camps have doubled in size since Kim Jong Un’s ascension two years ago. Learn more here.

The media’s criticism has focused on only one thing, American missionary Kenneth Bae, whose story is tragic. Bae, who is in declining health, is being held against his will for allegedly cataloging the extent of hunger among North Koreans under the guise of Christian missionary work. Bae’s story deserves media attention, but not at the expense of tens of millions of ordinary North Koreans whose daily lives have always been a living hell.

Our passivity about the plight of ordinary North Koreans explains the myopic media coverage we’ve been subjected to. Interestingly, Bae was born in South Korea and moved to California when he was 17 or 18 years old. Overtime he not only gained citizenship, he secured the one thing that seems to make him far more important than all the North Koreans combined, a U.S. passport.

Our passivity about our media’s national-centrism is an embarrassment. The North Korean media spotlight is in actuality a sporadic lighting of dim, fast burning individual match sticks. Given that, it’s especially important that our first instinct is always to honor the humanity of everyone held captive in North Korea irrespective of their nationality.

On Talent and Effortless Style

Fascinating essay last week by Don Van Natta, Jr. on the 1973 Billy Jean King-Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match that 50 million Americans and I watched on television. I was eleven and still remember it.

Riggs was a masterful hustler who “stayed in the barn” early in high stakes tennis and golf matches, meaning he purposely played well below his potential to lure his opponent and other bettors into a false sense of accomplishment. Then, mid to late match, Riggs would “come out of the barn,” play as well as possible and ultimately win. The art was in the timing.

The most talented, compelling artists almost always appear to be at least partly in the barn. As if they always have another gear or two in reserve. That’s what makes their performances so compelling. My first memory of this phenomenon was probably around the “Battle of the Sexes” when I was awestruck by a televised Dionne Warwick performance. She seemed to be expending about a third of her energy. Here’s just one example from the video archives:

When My Betrothed dances, she’s partly in the barn. And when watching my friend Brian ride his bike, with his rhythmic high cadence, perfectly still body, and oh so steady pace, I think, “Damn, if only it were that easy.”

Lake Center Dive is an immensely talented and stylish, up-and-coming foursome that conveys that “partly in the barn” feeling big time. Dig these examples:

Of course, an individual or group can only make something look effortless when they combine natural talent, intense commitment, and serious preparation.

My Betrothed, Brian, and Lake Center Dive owe people like me, who try to compensate for a lack of talent through extra effort, with a huge debt of gratitude. The rough edges of our extra effort is what makes the truly talented appear so stylish in comparison.

Human Rights, Selective Perception, and the Olympics

Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch’s Director of Global Initiatives speaks Cantonese and German, wrote speeches for the U.S. Attorney General, and more recently penned a New York Times op-ed titled “The Olympics Leadership Mess“. It’s an informative editorial, but her argument that the next I.O.C. president should strictly assess the human rights records of bidding countries and monitor selected host countries progress towards improving that record, rests on the flawed assumption that the West has a monopoly on virtue.

Historical context compliments of Worden:

The 12-year term of the current International Olympic Committee Chairperson, Jacques Rogge of Belgium, will be remembered in large part for the glaring contradiction between the I.O.C.’s explicit vision of its lofty role in the world (as outlined in the rules and guidelines of its charter) and the fact that Mr. Rogge has been responsible for two Olympics with extensive human rights violations: the 2008 summer games in Beijing and the 2014 winter games in Sochi, Russia, which start in less than six months.

To host the Olympics, governments and cities pledge not only to build sparkling new stadiums but also to uphold the I.O.C.’s “Fundamental Principles of Olympism”: respect for human dignity and press freedom, and a rejection of “any form of discrimination.” But the I.O.C. under Mr. Rogge has failed to enforce its own rules.

The 2008 Beijing games, which cost an estimated $40 billion, led to a host of rights violations, including abuses of domestic migrant workers who were building Olympic infrastructure and a harsh clampdown on civil society and media, with punishment (including imprisonment) for those trying to protest.

Then she fast forwards to the present:

Now the I.O.C. is preparing to stage another Olympics in a host country that almost appears to be taunting organizers and sponsors by flagrantly flouting its pledge. Starting in 2008, Human Rights Watch has documented myriad Russian abuses associated with preparation for the Olympics. These include government harassment and intimidation of activists and journalists, abuses of migrant workers from the former Soviet bloc who are building all the major Olympic venues (including the media center) and forced evictions of some families without compensation. Some migrant workers who tried to complain have been detained.

Over the past year, Russia has also introduced repressive laws targeting certain nonprofit organizations as “foreign agents.” With raids, threats and intimidation, the crackdown has been the most severe of its kind in the post-Soviet era. Central to this campaign is a new law targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. All these efforts are at odds with the Olympic ideal, as expressed in its charter, of “promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Russian authorities are apparently counting on the I.O.C. to keep quiet again.

Her argument:

The shame here is that the I.O.C. can and has used its considerable leverage to improve the conduct of host nations. Countries with repressive governments often seek to host the Olympics to improve their global reputation, and only the I.O.C. can make the Olympics happen. . . . There is no reason the new I.O.C. president could not issue a mandate to strictly assess the human rights records of bidding countries and monitor a selected host country’s progress toward improving that record.

How can Worden ignore how the U.S. and other Western developed countries are doing in regard to “respect for human dignity and press freedom, and a rejection of any form of discrimination”?

Let’s use the Wednesday, August 21st, 2013 edition of my local newspaper as a frame of reference for evaluating how well the U.S. is applying the “fundamental principles of Olympism”. The Daily Olympian does a much better job covering the Pet Parade than world events; however, on Wednesday, August 21st, 2013, there were two substantive stories that suggests the U.S. should probably focus on getting it’s own human rights house in order.

Story one, “Documents link Army to man accused of spying on anti-war protesters”. The first three graphs:

More than four years after an Olympia anti-war group accused John Towery of spying on them on behalf of the Army under an assumed name, new evidence has emerged showing that at least some of Towery’s former superiors at the Army were aware of and supported his intelligence-gathering activities.

The documents detailing JBLM’s knowledge of Towery’s activities “providing crucial police intelligence” were released as part of the discovery in the Olympia anti-war group’s federal civil rights lawsuit against Towery. . . .

Story two, “Graphic photos, testimony shed light on Bales’ actions in Afghan massacre“, is a tough read. Robert Bales is a U.S. soldier who slaughtered 16 Afghan civilians and wounded six more in a solitary killing spree at his combat outpost last year. He plead guilty in June to avoid the death penalty. Admittedly, one person does not make an institution, but every U.S. citizen should think about the details of this story:

On the night of the killings, . . . Bales stewed on his troubles at home and his disappointment in the Special Forces unit his Lewis-McChord team supported in southern Afghanistan. He wanted to be more aggressive. . . . He also was taking steroids and drinking alcohol in his down time.

Against that backdrop, Bales twice snuck out of his outpost to murder civilians in the villages of Alkozai and Najiban in a single night. He put his pistol in the mouth of a baby, and shot men, women and children in front of their families.

As Morse described those killings, jurors saw gory photos of Bales’ youngest victims on a wall-sized screen. One image showed the corpse of a 3-year-old girl.

Bales appeared to shrink from viewing the photos. He closed his eyes and glanced to the side when prosecutors presented images showing the bloodied head of a young girl, Zardana, he shot inside her home. She survived with the help of Army doctors.

Several of the young Afghan boys who testified spoke shyly about the nightmares they and their siblings still experience 17 months after the slaughter.

“I am always fearful,” said 5-year-old Khan. Bales murdered his father, Mohammed Dawud. “What do I wrong against Sgt. Bales that he shot my father?”

If Worden, a human rights expert, seems unable to think critically about our own human rights record, it’s no surprise the same is true for the rest of us. In particular, we’re unwilling to take a long, hard look at the ways in which our military often subverts the fundamental principles of Olympism.

If the Bales example is too anecdotal, how does one explain the fact that female soldiers are more likely to be assaulted by a fellow soldier than killed in combat? For too many people, anything short of unconditional praise of the military is unacceptable anti-Americanism. Far better to talk about China’s migrant workers and Russia’s outrageous homophobia.

Also, last week we learned from a Central Intelligence Agency document that “. . . the military coup that overthrew Mosadeq and his National Front cabinet (in Iran in 1953) was carried out under C.I.A. direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy; conceived and approved at the highest levels of government.” That won’t surprise Guatemalans (1954) or Chileans (1973).

And I completely lose Worden here:

Before another I.O.C. president is selected, the corporate sponsors who make the Olympics possible should insist that the president enforce the committee’s own rules about human rights. Unless sponsors and franchise-holders like NBC, Coca-Cola, G.E., McDonalds and Visa want to risk being associated with an officially homophobic Olympics, they must find their voices — before the next I.O.C. head is anointed.

In what world is Minky living? One in which major U.S. corporations care more about the human rights of gay and lesbian Russians than maximizing profits? What evidence is there for that? Corporations only act in the best interest of powerless people and the planet when their shareholders demand it of them.

Which leads to you, me, and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. I predict we’ll watch just like we always do. I suppose, when it comes to the bobsled and luge, resistance is futile. And the Russian government will feel emboldened. And the multinational corporations will make a lot of money. And for those of us sleep walking in the West, we’ll feel good that we have our human rights act together.

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A Masterful Lesson

I watched a hell of a lot of golf this weekend. I do that one weekend in April every year. It’s a tradition like no other. If I played the same amount as I watched, I would have halved my handicap.

While watching, I marveled at my complete and utter dislike for Tiger Woods. Why do I want anyone but him to win? On Friday, why did I silently cheer when his half wedge at 13 hit the pin on a bounce and caromed back into Rae’s Creek? The Saturday morning penalty was icing on the top. Why do I root so intensely against him? Why does he bring out the worst in me?

My anti-Tiger mania is especially odd since I grew up in Cypress, California a small-medium sized suburban city six miles from Disneyland. It’s most famous for being El Tigre’s hometown. In my teens, I anonymously worked and played the same courses he did so famously in his well documented youth. And he’s a brother in a lily white sport desperately in need of diversity. And his talent is undeniable. And the way he grinds on every shot is admirable. But that’s the kindest thing you’ll ever see me write about him.

Was it the serial womanizing? No. My deep-seated antipathy precedes that downward spiral. Is it the Michael Jordan-like mix of constant commercialism and over the top materialism. In small part. Is it my nostalgia for Nicklaus and my childhood. In small part.

The much larger part came to me while watching Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera on the second playoff hole. Cabrera hit a very solid approach on the par 4 about 18 feet below the hole. Scott’s mid-iron ended up about 12-14 feet to the side of the hole. Clutch as it gets. Cabrera walked as he watched Scott’s shot in the air. When it landed, he turned and gave Scott a thumbs up sign. Class personified. Scott shot him one right back.

An epiphany exactly one week after Easter. “That’s it!” I realized. Humanity in the midst of the most intense competition imaginable. We’ll never, ever, ever see Tiger do anything like that. His intensity routinely crosses from the admirable to something that makes me root against him. We will never see Tiger applaud an opponent especially in a moment like that. Or reciprocate as Scott did. Never ever. Maybe it’s his dad’s fault, but Tiger learned to focus so intently on winning that everyone and everything else be damned.

I wish the golf press would make a pact and do us all a big favor and just stop interviewing him. He always looks so pained and he never says anything the least bit authentic. He always gives the answers he thinks will end the interview the fastest. The following dialogue bubble should be superimposed on the screen whenever he’s being interviewed, “How much longer until this god foresaken interview with this god d*mned idiot is over?!”

My position on Tiger will soften when a groundskeeper, a golf journalist, a waiter, a caddy, a Tour player, or anyone not on his payroll says something genuinely nice about him. Something that reveals his humanity.

I’m not holding my breath.

You May Now Unplug the Treadmill

The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive (or negative) life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. For example, a person excitedly drives a new car home from a lot. They’re marginally happier. But a few weeks later it’s dirty and the driver has adapted to the improved interior, handling, and quietness. The loving feeling dissipates.

Now that you’re an expert on the hedonic treadmill, you’re ready for a March Madness story about our tendency to think the grass is usually greener on the other side. Let’s title the story “Why is contentment so elusive?”

UCLA, my team, got schooled in the opening round. A few days later, the coach got whacked. The backstory to why is an interesting case study in leadership, but that’s peripheral to our story.

Along with many others, Mark Few (Gonzaga) and Brad Stevens (Butler) have been mentioned as possibile replacements. Because of a new Pac-12 conference television deal, UCLA can triple or quadruple their current “small market” salaries. Both coaches, young and very successful, have been sought after by other schools in recent years.

Here’s what an Indiana reporter recently wrote about Stevens and UCLA.

UCLA just spent $138 million renovating Pauley Pavilion. Stevens is going to be able to negotiate, not just a top salary, but also facility upgrades (the Bruins need a practice facility), length on the contract, security on that contract (Howland got a buyout for the remaining four years on his deal), and assurances that this coach can run the program as he sees fit.

You give Stevens all of that, coupled with the lifestyle that living in Beverly Hills (just a long jump shot from the UCLA campus) brings, and all of sudden Butler fans have a very legitimate reason to be nervous.

I don’t question Stevens’ love of Butler in any way. I love my alma mater, as well. But when he visits the UCLA campus and tours a renovated Pauley Pavilion, visits the private school where his children will attend in Beverly Hills, eats lunch and plays golf at Bel-Air Country Club (just across Sunset Blvd. from the campus), takes Tracy and the kids shopping along Rodeo Drive, and has them (second) home-shop in Hermosa or Manhattan Beach, where they’ll spend their weekends, I can’t fathom that Stevens doesn’t give pause before waving it off.

The same reporter acknowledges:

There is no doubt, Stevens’ love of raising his family in Indiana, his love of Hinkle Fieldhouse, his love of his players, coaches and administration, his affection for everything about his position at Butler, is going to be tested if the UCLA Athletic Director calls.

Finally, he writes:

Stevens has always said “No, thanks” to job offers. And perhaps he will again. But an opportunity to coach UCLA is different. I told him he’d be crazy to turn it down.

I fully expect Stevens to say “thanks, but no thanks” again. And while he’d be a great coach, I’m actually rooting for him to stay off the treadmill. The writer is projecting his desire to live large in some place like Los Angeles onto Stevens. I suspect Stevens knows money changes you. Sending your kids to a Beverly Hills private school will definitely change them and probably not for the better. And if Stevens wanted a second house twenty miles from his primary residence, he would have probably jumped on the elite program coaching treadmill already.

Few’s the same way. Prefers Spokane, Washington over West Los Angeles. Some people are like moths, attracted to the bright lights of big, celebrity filled cities, but both Few and Stevens are reported to be “intensely private” and know there’s a cost to lost anonymity. Nearly everyone thinks they’d be a lot happier if they made a lot more money. A preternatural minority knows that’s not the case.

I applaud Few’s and Stevens’ self-understanding, wisdom, and willingness to not just say “no” to a lot more money once, but repeated times. Here’s hoping they keep daring to be different.

Ask yourself "What would Nike do?" and then do the opposite. Just don't do it.

Ask yourself “What would Nike do?” and then do the opposite. Just don’t do it.

The High Cost of Win-At-All Cost

In 1972, when I was the scrawniest ten year old swimmer in the Midwest portion of the United States, I competed in a big YMCA swim meet somewhere in Ohio. According to the buzz on the deck, one guy I had to swim against was the top ranked ten year old in the state. I can’t remember the stroke or distance. All I can remember is his psycho mother hovering behind the blocks prompting him to swim fast enough to hop out, towel off, and throw some clothes on. In her twisted mind, posting the fast time wasn’t enough, he had to belittle his competition. He executed her maniacal plan to perfection. Having lost the mother lottery, odds are his adult life didn’t turn out too well.

Oscar Pistorius, a.k.a., ” The Blade Runner”, has me thinking again about athletic competition and character.

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Conventional wisdom is that athletic competition enhances character. But when win-at-all cost thinking prevails, conventional wisdom is dead wrong. Athletes shouldn’t bare all the blame for “win-at-all cost” approaches to sport. Among others, corporate sponsors, insecure parents, and rabid fans are all co-conspirators.

I recently read a book and watched a television series that powerfully illustrate the high cost of win-at-all cost thinking. The book, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. The television series, House of Cards, a Netflix original program.

On the Pad, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was 307 pages. The first 57 were decent, the last 250 truly outstanding. Billy Lynn is an 18-19 year-old Iraq war soldier. His Bravo troop is touring the United States following a widely reported and celebrated fire-fight with Al-Qaeda enemy combatants. Apart from a few flashbacks, the story encompasses about 48 hours, one day at a Dallas Cowboy game at Dallas Stadium and one day at Billy’s small-town Texas home.

Sometimes, when reading especially good fiction, I can’t help but stop and marvel at the artistry. Franzen’s Freedom was the last book that repeatedly stopped me in my tracks. The same with Fountain. “How did he do that?” I kept asking myself. Sometimes by “that” I mean how did he write a particularly beautiful sentence. More generally, I mean, how did he weave together details of soliders’ lives, the realities of modern warfare, the violence of professional football, class differences, family dysfunction, free-market economics, evangelical Christianity, and popular culture into a cogent anti-war argument? All of those sub-topics interest me, and I’m a dove, so it was as if Fountain set out to write a book for me, but if any of them interset you, I strongly recommend it.

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Netflix spent $100m to make 26 episodes of House of Cards, loosely based on a critically acclaimed 1990 British t.v. miniseries of the same name. The first 13 episodes are available to U.S. viewers. Netflix streaming costs $8/month. Think of House of Cards as a cross between The Sopranos and The West Wing. Kevin Spacey, the main character, is a phenomenally immoral, Machiavellian political heavyweight. The question isn’t whether should you watch it, the question is whether you can watch just one episode at a time. Long story short, Spacey, Francis Underwood, or FU, is the House Majority Whip who helped a Democrat get elected President. Underwood mistakenly expects to be appointed Secretary of State in return. Sent reeling, his immoral politicking is riveting stuff. Again, highly recommended.

Win-at-all-cost thinking is corrupting on athletic fields, on battlefields, in business, in politics, and in personal relationships. In every sphere of life. But we’re loathe to admit it because we loose perspective all too easily and are part of the win-at-all-cost problem.

True Confession

If you were standing here beside me right now you’d probs (adolescent form of “probably”) counsel me to immediately abort the mission. You might even slam the laptop on my fingers. You’d argue, and I’d be hard pressed to prove otherwise, that this is not the right time or place to confess that I’ve been unfaithful to my wife. But being of slow and stubborn stock, I feel I must come clean.

Straying from the marital straight and narrow started innocently enough, wishing the love of my life was a few pounds lighter, then fantasizing about weekend get-aways. I wish I could say this was a one-off and that I immediately realized the damage done, but in fact, since taking the plunge, I can’t stop thinking about her. She’s promised to spend hours with me. Take me places near and far. Climb steep mountain passes. Crush anyone that gets in our way. To always be there for me.

If you’re a female reader, you’re probably so disgusted with me that you can’t see straight. If you’re of the male persuasion, you’re wondering what she looks like. Without further ado. . .

Be still my beating heart.

Be still my beating heart.

The start of a beautiful relationship.

The start of a beautiful relationship.