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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Continuous Improvement

A bullshit workplace notion. Midway into artistic or athletic activities, jobs, careers, relationships, life, we plateau. Shortly thereafter, energy ebbs, and our performance erodes.

We improve for a bit, we plateau, we decline.

I observed a good second year math teacher today at the independent middle school. Then we conferenced. After listening to him reflect on the pre-algebra lesson, I listed his many strengths. Then I made a few suggestions. Call on Ben as soon as he puts his head on his desk. Give Robin your marker, take her seat, and have her teach everyone her prime factorization method by illustrating it on the board. Have two more students explain and illustrate their methods and then ask, “Which is most efficient and why?” Let the kite string out a bit and “guide from the side” for awhile. Remember, the educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them.

He told me he likes it when I observe because he’s reminded of effective teaching methods that he has let slip. He’s a good second year teacher who has started to plateau because he’s rarely observed, and rarely gets to observe other, more accomplished teachers.

A small number of the very best teachers, artists, athletes, and people continue improving considerably longer than their peers by seeking out expert, critical feedback; by investing progressively more time and energy; and by surrounding themselves by other positive, hardworking people, who are trending upwards.

And the wisest teachers, artists, athletes, and people have a sixth sense for both when they’ve plateaued and when their performance has begun to decline. And then the wisest, most selfless, most financially secure of them, step aside to provide the next generation opportunities to improve, plateau, and decline.

Here’s an Idea—A Weekly Sports SparkNote

SparkNotes motto is “When your teachers and books don’t make sense, we do.” SparkNotes provides written and video summaries of To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, and every other book commonly read in U.S. high schools. Why read the whole book when someone else will do it for you?

No, this isn’t a philosophical discussion on whether SparkNotes is symbolic of national decline. It’s an embracing of the idea of delegating work to others. And of appearing smarter than you actually are.

Imagine how bitchin your life would be if every Monday morning a Sports SparkNote was waiting for you in your email inbox. Think of all the people who could benefit personally or professionally from being in the “sports know”, but aren’t about to take time from their weekend to follow athletic events firsthand? Sometimes I amaze myself. Brilliant, huh? My best idea since half-off, recycled, afternoon newspaper redelivery. Any venture capitalists want to front me?

Imagine the value of a weekly Sports SparkNote to the middle aged mom whose teenage son or daughter thinks she’s hopelessly out of touch because she doesn’t know who Dwight Howard or Lionel Messi is? Or imagine the value to an employee who wants to bond with his or her more sports-minded colleagues Monday morning at the water cooler. Or imagine the value to any man or woman with a sports-centered partner normally forced to fly solo.

Yes, close readers, that was a not so subtle reference to the Good Wife who knows just enough about sports to be dangerous. In hindsight, I should have kept track of her most epic sports faux paus for your reading pleasure. Here’s a sample drop in the bucket, “How are the Sonics doing this year?” Let’s just say I’m comping her a free newsletter.

Here’s a sample issue, in two different sizes, for the investors among you with especially deep pockets. Remember, Instagram was only worth $30m a few months ago. Don’t pass up on this opportunity to get in on the ground floor.

April 9, 2012—Full-meal deal.

• Dwight Howard, a star National Basketball Association (NBA or “The Association”) player for the Orlando Magic said he wanted the team to fire his coach. Then when the coach confirmed that had happened, Howard denied it. This after Howard spent the whole season saying he wanted to be traded, then changed his mind, then said he wanted to be traded, then changed his mind right before the trading deadline. Then he went out and scored 22 points, grabbed 20 boards (rebounds) and all was forgiven. When this story comes up, throw this out there, “Is it a coincidence that most of the NBA drama comes from knuckleheads who skipped college?” Then slowly moonwalk away from the water cooler, and silently thank “Sports SparkNotes” for your enhanced status.

• In the National Football League (NFL), Gregg Williams, the former New Orleans Saints Defensive Coordinator has been indefinitely suspended by the league as a result of paying his players under the table to injure opposing players. The scandal is termed “Bounty Gate”. An audio tape was released of one of Williams’ pre-game “pep talks” which shocked even the most fanatical NFL acolytes. He used lots of naughty words and repeatedly implored his players to go after the knees and heads of opposing players. This is especially problematic right now since the NFL is catching up to the science that shows repeated concussions seriously compromise players long-term well being. Some claim the NFL has known that for awhile, but is only serious about protecting players now because an increasing number of retired players with cognitive problems are suing the league. Water cooler one liner, “Guys like Williams give new meaning to the No Fun League.”

• Late last week, 51 year-old Bobby Petrino, the very successful University of Arkansas football coach crashed his motorcycle. He then told the “U” he was riding alone only to find out later a 25 year-old woman who he hired to oversee recruiting paperwork was also with him. She was engaged to another employee in the athletic department who has apparently broken it off. Now she’s in seclusion. No word yet what the coach’s wife or four kids think of his indiscretion. Smart-ass water cooler quip, “When is it okay to cheat on your wife, lie to your Athletic Director, and become ‘Sports SparkNotes’ fodder? When you win 11 games. [update—Petrino has been canned]

• Bubba Watson, a lefty from the U. S. of A., who played his college golf at the University of Georgia, is the first professional golfer never to have taken a lesson. Sunday he won the Masters, the year’s first (of four) golf majors at Augusta National in Augusta, Georgia. Bubba hit a miraculous shot from out of the trees to win on the second sudden death playoff hole over Louis Oosthuizen from South Africa. Bubba recently bought the Dukes of Hazard car, The General Lee, for $110,000; and with his wife, just adopted a baby boy. Water cooler lines of choice: 1) “I hooked my wedge 40 yards once too, but I wasn’t trying.” 2) Nice weekend to be a Bulldog (Georgia’s mascot).

April 9, 2012—Low-fat alternative.

• A star National Basketball Association (NBA or “The Association”) player for the Orlando Magic said he wanted the team to fire his coach. Then when the coach confirmed that had happened, he denied it. Water cooler line—”Is it a coincidence that most of the NBA drama comes from knuckleheads who skipped college?”

• A former National Football League (NFL) coach has been indefinitely suspended by the league as a result of paying his players under the table to injure opposing players in what’s known as “Bounty Gate”. The NFL is catching up to the science that shows repeated concussions seriously compromise players long-term well being. Water cooler line, “That screed gives new meaning to the No Fun League.”

• The very successful University of Arkansas football coach crashed his motorcycle. Turns out a 25 year-old woman who he hired was also with him. No word yet what the coach’s wife or four kids think of his indiscretion. Water cooler rhetorical question, “When is it okay to cheat on your wife, lie to your Athletic Director, and become ‘Sports SparkNotes’ fodder? When you win 11 games.” [update—Petrino has been canned]

• Bubba Watson, who played his college golf at the University of Georgia, won the Masters, the year’s first (of four) golf majors at Augusta National in Augusta, Georgia. Bubba hit a miraculous shot from out of the trees to win a playoff. Water cooler lines of choice: 1) “I hooked my wedge 40 yards once too, but I wasn’t trying.” 2) Nice weekend to be a Bulldog (Georgia’s mascot).

Which of these weekly Sports SparkNotes, the “full meal deal” or the “low-fat alternative” would change your life more? And what’s a fair price for your changed life? You spend the weekend sleeping in, reading, hiking, cleaning the garage, working in the yard, dining with family and friends, watching non-sports related films, and I devote myself to your sports (and cultural) literacy. One dollar?

What’s a Sport?

Email exchange with Eighteen from Liberal Arts College. Context. I give her a hard time about a lack of school sport spirit:

Her. The top Men’s Ultimate frisbee team just won nationals!! Best frisbee team in the nation! And guess what I watched most of the game. Yeah. I watched a sports game. Live. And I didn’t have to.

Me. Ultimate frisbee isn’t a sport. It’s how hippies take breaks from studying.

Her. FALSE. Just because you can’t do it doesn’t mean it’s not a sport.

Note a few things about this give and take.

Not sure why, but her generation is just exclamation point happy! And I’m sorry to report it’s spreading to other age groups! Soon everyone will be shouting everything!

Sometime during middle school she learned that the best defense is a good offense. If only her mother responded to my teasing with equal aplomb.

Lastly, when I was her age, much to my dad’s dismay, I was becoming a frisbee legend in my own mind on the beaches of Southern Cal. My signature move was hucking the disc way out and over the shore break, waiting for it to catch the onshore wind, and then catching it to the delight of millions of beachgoers. It was an amazing display of power, feel, and hand-eye coordination. No doubt, had I chosen to take breaks from studying by playing Ultimate, I would have become the Lionel Messi of Ultimate.

But back to the central questions: Is Ultimate a sport? And what is a sport?

For an activity to be a sport, one must answer the following eight questions in the affirmative:

1) Are over involved parents present who think their child is the best and the coaches don’t know what the hell they’re doing?

2) Does the activity produce at least as many statistics as the Congressional Budget Office?

3) Is there the potential to someday turn pro at said activity?

4) Do highlights from the national championship game or event appear on ESPN’s SportCenter?

5) Are there occasional labor conflicts, lockouts, and shortened seasons?

6) Do young children have posters of the best players in their bedroom?

7) Do some participants engaged in the activity cut corners on the rules and/or run afoul of the law?

8) Do participants in the activity and their fans place more importance on the final outcome of competitions than objective rational observers would expect?

How does Ultimate hold up in the context of our eight-point litmus test? I submit to you the answers are: no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!

We’re all Tiger Woods Now

Remember how the 1992 “Dream Team” waltzed through the Olympic basketball competition on their way to their gold medal? Fast forward to 2004 when the US lost three times and settled for bronze. Fast forward some more to today. A Sports Illustrated mock NBA draft shows five of the first eight teams taking international players.

What about golf? There are four U.S. players among the top ten, and with Woods dropping fast, that will probably be three soon.

Tennis? The top U.S. player, Mardy Fish, is ranked #10, Roddick is #11, and then you have to scroll down to #26 before finding another American.

Soccer? FIFA has the U.S. ranked 22nd in the world.

The marathon? The first 14 are East African and 65 of the top 100 are Kenyan.

Long distance triathlon? Linsey Corbin, from Montana, is ranked 7th, the only American woman in the top 10. Timothy O’Donnell is tied for tenth among the men.

The most recent international test scores (NAEP) were recently published. In math and reading, U.S. students are in the middle of the pack among students from OECD countries. In science, back of the pack.

People suffering from acute “greatestcountryintheworldhysteria” will look hard to find different competitions we’re winning (personal debt, football by default since hardly anyone else plays it, health care inflation, gun ownership, fossil fuel usage, military spending). While their parochial heads are buried in the sand, more and more of the world supersedes us in classrooms and on athletic fields.

We’re all Tiger Woods now. The rest of the world isn’t the least bit intimidated. All young international students and athletes want is the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with us.