Welcome to Sidelines, a blog by Karl Miran, Athletic Director, who provides insight into how sports are an integral part of the educational experience.
By March 12, W+H spring teams had completed approximately a week of practice, when the school began spring vacation, to be followed by Governor Phil Murphy’s stay-at-home orders. We challenged our coaches and athletes to continue preparing for competition. At the same time, the Athletic Department developed ways to support our athletes and coaches.
Our coaches responded by preparing workouts that could be done at home with the equipment at hand, appropriate and worthwhile to athletes with differing skill levels. Many of these workouts provide feedback to the athlete. Where necessary, they provided links to videos that compensate for the coach’s absence by demonstrating the skills to be developed. Some coaches have designed a couple of basic workouts (often one for sport-specific skills, and another for fitness activities), supplementing those with as many as a dozen how-to videos. Other coaches are sending their athletes three or more new workouts per week. Our athletes are practicing their skills, staying in shape, and sending our staff pictorial and video evidence of their work.
As a department, we are using the available technology to promote at-home fitness routines, to provide relevant information, and to provide occasional inspiration. We are also preparing to make the spring award season as meaningful as possible for the award-winners in the absence of the banquets where the GMC, NJSIAA and W+H traditionally honor student-athletes. Again, we are having fun with technology, and hope our athletes and parents enjoy it, too.
In the short term, Ram athletes are getting out in the sun, doing meaningful exercise that helps them eat healthier, study better, and sleep more soundly. Just as important, they are having a little bit of fun and earning a sense of accomplishment as they enhance their skills. Some are also working on skills for other sports, in which they compete in different seasons.
What long-term benefits will our athletes gain from this season of at-home, solitary practices in their family basement or backyard? When Wardlaw+Hartridge reopens its doors, and we can hold practices on the back fields, preparing for real games against other schools, will we have learned anything from our Athletic Distance Learning? Although we cannot measure their improvement now, we know our athletes are improving their skills and fitness due to the work they are doing. Some skills can best be learned in a team practice, but others benefit from the focused, solitary drills our athletes are doing now. Skill building and fitness are cumulative – for those who will be playing sports at W+H (or in college) next year, the work done now will pay off later. Just as important as skills and fitness, however, is the lesson about responsibility that our athletes have been taught. This situation makes very clear to all of us that, while coaches can teach, inspire, and provide feedback, the ultimate responsibility for working hard, focusing and managing one’s emotions rests with the athletes themselves. An athlete who wants to be a champion needs to learn from great coaches, but the athlete needs to supply the drive and work ethic to put the coach’s lessons into effect.
We are proud of the ways that W+H Athletics encourages participation from a large percentage of our student body, but other schools provide more dramatic examples of inclusion, inspiring us with reminders of what sport can be.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) has, since 2016, partnered with Special Olympics in an initiative that allows students “with and without disabilities” to compete together in track, basketball and bowling. For example, each Unified Basketball team must have 3 Unified Athletes (students with intellectual or developmental disabilities) and 2 Unified Partners (students without such disabilities) on the floor at all times. In the words of the Special Olympics, the program aims to promote:
social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences. Unified Sports joins peoplewith and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding.
Special Olympics counts 4,500 elementary, middle or high schools and 73 colleges and universities nationwide offering unified sports programs.
Several large public schools in Middlesex County have eagerly embraced the mission of inclusion through unified teams. Monroe Township HS’s photo galleries demonstrate the breadth of their program:
Monroe has found that practicing two days per week and playing four or five games per season is appropriate for their Unified programs. The teams at Old Bridge HS use a similar schedule. Their Unified Basketball team is 1-1 against Monroe; and also had a chance to play the OBHS Varsity in front of an enthusiastic home crowd. Their basketball team has attracted six Unified Athletes and five Partners.
Maybe the best way to understand how a Unified Sports program contributes to the well-being of both athletes and partners is through this video produced by the Unified program at Rowan University.
Unified Athletes experience all the elements of sport: from concentrating on their form, to celebrating a victory, to the bonds of team membership. As such, we expect them to reap not just social inclusion from their participation, but also all the other life-long benefits of being a high school athlete.
For a school community like Wardlaw+Hartridge, a Unified program may not be possible. Nonetheless, we should never stop looking to expand the depth and breadth of our pool of athletes. In a well-run program, every participant can benefit.
I once worked for a prep school headmaster who reminded faculty, students, and parents that we had a solitary standard: “Only your best work.” He was using old-fashioned language to portray a traditional ideal: rigorous effort, producing quality work. It was an attractive selling point: portraying the students and faculty at this independent school as motivated and talented enough to turn out high-level scholarship.
Of course, the reality is always more complex than that simplistic notion, but in that complexity are a lot of truths about education. Merely setting a high bar does not produce great work; give students a challenging assignment and they will initially respond by exerting the same sort of effort that has gotten them A’s and B’s in the past. They think that such is the best they can do! Getting them to accept and internalize a higher standard usually comes as the result of a process to which teacher and student both contribute. The teacher has to nurture and motivate the student alongside their criticism of the initial effort. For example, when an English or history paper is returned to the student adorned in red ink, margins filled with comments and questions, the student does not learn to do better work solely because of the teacher’s evaluation. He/she learns from the process of re-writing, following the teacher’s guidance. If successful, the student comes to understand:
1. What the standard for good writing and cogent analysis is
2. How it is within the student’s power to adopt the changes that produce work that meets the standard
3. Why the student would care about meeting that standard
One can easily find examples of similar teaching processes in other disciplines.
The poet Maya Angelou summarized the teacher’s advice toward the student in the adage: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
In sports, coaches face a similar challenge and do their essential work in leading their athletes to step up their game. Below, a few thoughts about the process of coaching athletes to recognize and strive for the higher-level performance that they originally did not think was possible.
There are always opportunities to learn from defeat (in practice or games), as long as the athlete does not become discouraged by defeat.
Winning early-season games against weak competition can make the growth process more difficult, unless the coach can convince the athlete of the need to prepare for tougher challenges ahead.
The desire to win is a motivator that coaches can use to promote excellence.
When success is measured in team, rather than just individual performance, the coach’s job becomes more complex.
Rigor takes many forms, and great coaches promote all of them:
Maximal physical effort
Hours of work dedicated to perfecting a skill
Attentive study of video
Adherence to the team’s offensive or defensive scheme
The mental attitude that enables playing hard
Support and prodding from teammates, and desire to be part of the team can work hand in glove with the coach’s teaching.
Many motivational sayings (“respect all, fear none”, for example) make more sense when seen as a support to the growth mindset that coaches are working to instill. Both the presence of fear and the absence of respect will hinder improvement.
At some point, the athlete learns to value rigorous effort, not only a means to an end (victory) but an accomplishment of its own. That mindset was what Vince Lombardi was describing when he said:
“I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle - victorious.”
Winning, losing, and experiential learning: the whole wide world
Because sport at the highest level includes international competition, it is tempting to think about the potential for world peace and global understanding inherent in athletes forming friendships at those events. For instance, one remembers the story of American Jesse Owens and German Luz Long bonding during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Long Jump, in open defiance to host Adolf Hitler’s theories of Aryan Superiority.
However heart-warming such stories can be, these stories of global engagement among top competitors are available only to the elite athlete, and do not have the power to change the world in the way that more commonplace athletic experience does. After all, Long’s embrace of Owens did not change history or alter his nation’s aggressive behavior. Even on a personal level, Owens and Long never saw each other again after the Olympic Games. Long joined the German army and died in the war.
Maybe more important is the role that athletic experience plays in developing building blocks to understanding the world. Although athletes are primarily focused on perfecting their skills and competing against the opponent, they also interact with the world in ways that remain vividly etched in their memory, due to the intensity of competition. In the same way that a young child’s experience with their family and their school community form building blocks for their understanding of larger, national and global communities, athletes augment their vision of the world through their experience.
Perhaps the best way to introduce the value of this athletically-gained knowledge is to review the oft-mentioned fact about the Inuit people and their many names for snow.
A person living in the suburbs may be able to function perfectly well in the winter by referring to “snow” and perhaps “slush” but for the residents of northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia, who may build igloos, hunt, and fish during their 6-7 months of winter, multiple words are necessary to describe different types of snow and its impact on their lives. For example, the Post article referenced above points out that: “aqilokoq” means “softly falling snow” and “piegnartoq” indicates “the snow [that is] good for driving sled,” to name just two. Understanding the Inuit culture and economy would require a student to learn those different words for different types of snow, as a window into the Intuit’s life.
Skiers also have many words for snow: Powder, crud, popcorn, corduroy, packed powder, boilerplate, ice, hardpack, and my new favorite: chicken heads. Because a skier feels the difference under her feet, and adapts her technique to master the type of snow she faces on a given day, the words take on a deep experiential meaning. The argument from this linguistic similarity is not that skiers are automatically more globally aware or globally engaged than the rest of the population. Skiing is an expensive sport that is often enjoyed in elite resort settings. The point is that mastering a sport often includes learning a new language and skills that provide the mind with vivid examples.
We learn many things from playing sports that provide experiential understanding, and ultimately serve as building blocks for larger understanding. Some examples:
- Playing a contact sport vs. a larger, or a smaller, or a faster opponent
- Understanding physics: force, mass
- Executing a skill in ways affected by weather – making cuts on dry turf, or on a muddy field, playing a golf shot from dry or wet sand, or a shot to a firm, dry green as opposed to a wet, soft green
- Understanding absorption, drainage, resistance
- Training sprints run up a steep hill
- Understanding gravity
- Building speed by sprinting on a mild downhill
- Intensive weight training to failure
- Understanding the oxygen-carrying capacity of muscle
- Recovery from injury
- Understanding the form and function of bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments
- Experiencing the support of teammates and building bonds with a teammate who grew up in a totally different community from yours
- Understanding on a gut level what a community can be
Why do world records continue to fall?
In the sports where performance is measured in minutes and seconds, athletes continue to achieve times that were once thought impossible.
How did scientists create data that helped athletes train better?
Coaches and distance runners may have long understood that their training needed to do more than just copy the event. Thus, they have trained by breaking their training into parts, such as:
a. Over-distance: running distances longer than the race distance
b. Speed training: running shorter distances at faster than race pace
c. Hillwork: using uphill and downhill running to increase force production and neuro-muscular efficiency (stride recovery)
d. Pacing: practicing the runner’s most efficient pace over shorter distances
However, relying on their own experience to design workouts had drawbacks in producing improvement. For example, if a runner felt faster or stronger after doing a particular speed workout, they would naturally be inclined to repeat that workout every week. If their times improved, they might attribute the improvement to that particular speed work. However, they couldn’t know with certainty that they were doing the combination of workouts that would produce the most long-term improvement.
When exercise physiologists (and other scientists) began to pay attention to running, they were able to measure the human body’s ability to generate force, use oxygen, and delay lactic acid production. Thus, they were able to put runners in the lab to measure if they were using their energy-producing systems and their muscles to maximize their speed (for a sprinter), or their speed-endurance (for milers and marathoners). More importantly, they were able to extrapolate their lab results to specify the kind of workouts that produce the most significant improvements in the key physiological characteristics.
A quick look at the scientific work that measures force production and other factors that build sprinter speed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPgTnhJjU0I
Other scientists, with other types of laboratory tools, have quantified the factors behind great distance running: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqXIyK0feus
How do those scientifically-influenced training principles get put to use? Please allow W+H’s cross-country and distance running coach Rick Riepl to explain what he imparts to our runners:
“If you can improve your body’s ability to quickly transport oxygen to the muscles, you will be able to run faster. The way to do this is to increase your myoglobin and this is accomplished by high intensity running drills. Runners improve their speed training by doing the drills mentioned in the “pace” section. Other speed workouts are the wolfpack and fartleks. Any recovery between each sprint should be short because the rationale is that a runner doesn’t get breaks in races and must learn to run tired.
“Running hills builds endurance and strength. Uphill sprinting is a form of resistance drill that builds stronger quads, calves, and hamstrings. During a race the hills can be a huge advantage to the runner who is in shape. Runners should attack an uphill, lean forward, shorten the stride, drive with the knees, and pump harder with the arms. Downhill sprinting has other benefits: on the downhill, gravity is the runner’s best friend. They should sprint down the hill by leaning slightly forward, keeping the body perpendicular to the slope.
“Pacing is important because it will determine how well the runner finishes a race. In a 5K, a smart runner will want to run the same pace for all three miles with a possible negative split (running the last part of the race faster than the first) for the final mile. If a runner runs the first mile out of the gate too fast, it could drain the gas tank sooner than wished for. If he goes out too slow, he will have TOO MUCH energy left over at the finish. The optimum goal is to run out of fuel a few steps past the finish line. Pacing drills are done on the track (usually 200 or 300 meters) and all runners are expected to be consistent with each sprint.”
How does a coach build a program to suit the different motives of adults and children?
Cyndi Lauper may have become a star by singing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” but America has seldom allowed its young people to play a game solely for the enjoyment. That creates the potential for a lot of conflict: Adults have goals for their children: among other things, they want them to get a great education and a good job. Boys and Girls are willing to buckle down for finite periods, but they also want to play, and have fun. The need to bridge that conflict helps define the attributes of a great coach.
The history of school sports has reflected the different perspectives on play held by the students who play the games, and the adults who supervise them. Before the late 19thCentury, student attempts to play were frowned upon and restricted by teachers and school administrators. Schools wanted students to concentrate on their lessons, and spend more time studying – games and sport were seen as distractions from the real point of childhood: becoming an adult. The schools with a Puritan background even equated games with the work of the devil. Playing sports was an act of rebellion against faculty control of all aspects of their life by students.
When, in the 2ndhalf of the 19thCentury, schools decided the student’s demands for play had become too powerful to ignore, they began to sponsor athletic opportunities, building much of the apparatus of school sport within a few decades. In order to do so, however, they needed a justification for allowing students so many hours away from their schoolwork. They found it in the English public schools, which had begun to promote rugby, soccer, and cricket as opportunities to build the skills and attitudes that would make men more masculine, preserve the gentlemanly virtues of the upper class, and create a new generation to run the Anglican Church and Foreign Service, preserving the Church and the Empire for the future. American headmasters who travelled across the Pond to learn from their British contemporaries (Endicott Peabody at Groton is one famous example) or read “Tom Brown’s School Days” (1857) felt confident in asserting that their new athletic teams were building “Muscular Christians”.
From that brief history, it is easy to see how the notion of sports “building character” came from. Moreover, as societal goals have evolved, from moral virtue to business success, the type of character traits that athletics is supposed to develop has also evolved. Still, the core notion that sport builds better men remains, exemplified by this sign in The Hill School’s wrestling room, erected by their long-time coach, Frank Bissell.
And yet…… “kids just want to have fun”. My observation over the years is that students do not stay with a sport because it will please their parents, build their character, or make them better business competitors. They play because their friends are on the team, they play for fun, and, after they experience some success, they play because they enjoy that feeling of success.
Thus, the perfect coach needs to be an “institutional anarchist”, one who understands and promotes the school’s goals for sport, while also remembering the rebellious mindset that brings his young athletes out to the field. Young coaches have a special advantage, in that they can relate so well to the emotions of their athletes, including the anti-establishment desire for fun that motivates them. Older coaches have had more time to learn the strategies and techniques of their sport, but the best ones stay young-at-heart, and maintain the young coach’s ability to speak the athlete’s language.
When an athlete finishes their final lap, they are often compelled to put their athletic experience in perspective. “Why,” they ask themselves, “did I sweat and work so hard, all those years? The wins…the losses… what was it all about?”
That moment of introspection has provided meaningful and memorable moments in recent years at our annual athletic banquet, Rams Recognition Night. This year was no exception, as we heard from Olivia Tobey (a 3-sport captain in soccer, cheer, and softball) and Isaiah Singh (also a 3-sport athlete who was a captain in soccer, and a leader by example in all his competitive endeavors.) They were chosen by the Captains’ Council, and their mission was to represent the athletic experience of all their classmates.
Olivia covered many topics, focusing on the camaraderie between teammates, and the sense of school pride and identity that she helped build through one of this year’s undefeated division champion teams. She expressed well the gratitude that our athletes feel for the work of our outstanding and committed coaches and athletic staff.
Isaiah spoke passionately about the pride he and his teammates developed from their most valiant efforts, regardless of whether the scoreboard registered a victory or a defeat. He spoke with appreciation for the support his teams received from the school community and also recognized the unbreakable bond he developed with the teammates who shared his competitive zeal.
As we salute the many contributions of the Class of 2019, we include the ways they enhanced the Rams’ athletic legacy. Olivia and Isaiah did a great job summarizing their classmates’ four years in Green and Gold. In many ways, they made it “a great day to be a Ram!”
When a sports fan’s favorite collegiate or professional team is losing, the head coach is fired, with management promising to bring in a new coach who will “rebuild” the program. Soon, the news media is flooded with stories about potential candidates, speculating which one is a “winner” or a “proven turnaround artist.”
Fans dare to dream of their team repeating the success story of Gonzaga basketball, where Mark Few has converted a mid-major level program to a Final Four contender, or the New England Patriots, who (believe it or not) were not Super Bowl Champions before Bill Belichick. However, most new coaches who walk into rebuilding situations fail. Is there a way to prioritize the characteristics of those who succeed?
For insight, I met with Dave Cecchini, the newly-appointed head football coach at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA. Coach Cecchini was chosen by the Bison (who completed a 1-10 campaign in 2018) because they believe he can turn their program around. After all, he revitalized the fortunes of the Valparaiso University Crusaders, who had been in a worse slump (winning only three games in four years prior to his arrival in 2014). Under Cecchini, the Crusaders began a steady improvement, which paid off most notably in a 6-5 season (5-3 in the Pioneer Football Conference, good for third place) in 2017, when he was honored by his peers as the AFCA Division I FCS Region 4 Coach of the Year. Spoiler Alert: Our discussion did not uncover any single, magic strategy for rebuilding a program. As Cecchini explains it, the recipe for success involves believing in oneself and one’s system, an appreciation of the unique strengths and challenges of the school, and a fanatical attention to details.
Among the key principles he shared in our meeting:
Evaluate the situation you are walking into: Coach Cecchini said, “We do a lot of research before applying, and before accepting a new job. What structural weaknesses can you see, to account for the program’s lack of success? What is missing? For example, at Valpo the facilities were lacking, compared to the rest of the conference, putting us at a disadvantage. The next question is why that weakness exists, and whether the institution will allow you to change it.”
Further research after taking the job: After accepting the job, one of the great opportunities to prioritize a rebuilding plan comes from interview the players (every one of them). Some of the important questions include: What is your recruiting story? Tell me why you came to Bucknell. The answers to this question provide information about each young man and what makes him tick. Also, the accumulation of those answers provide data about the perception of the program; which recruiting battles are being won and lost, and why, for example.What do you think are weaknesses in the program? There are usually a wide diversity in these answers, demanding that the coaches understand where those answers are coming from, because it is imperative that they respond to commonly-perceived weaknesses. Some commonly-held perceptions are true, and offer the coaching staff opportunities to make inroads; others are true, but not as much of a detriment to winning as common wisdom says they are. Others are mostly false, or perhaps they are simply urban legends.
Player response: “We never were allowed to have fun at practice, or in meetings.” An easy one to respond to – Cecchini and his staff consciously set a tone in which players can enjoy the game, as long as they also love the game and work hard.
Player response: “The old coaching staff had too many rules.” This sort of perception gave the new staff a chance to differentiate themselves by stressing attitude, and principles (a sort-of golden-rule approach to discipline.).
Player response: “The dining hall here stinks.” Upon researching this belief, the coaches found it to be a campus legend, when the reality concerning the nutrition, selection, and availability of food from their dining service places it among the best in American colleges. In this case, the coaches have been selling their players on how to take advantage of what they’ve got.
Player response: “The academics here are too hard.” This may be true for some players, so the coaches are wise to acknowledge it, while reminding the players that school is demanding at all their Patriot League competitors. They also promote use of the university’s tutoring services, and will acknowledge their players’ academic successes as they move forward.
One pre-requisite for raising the performance standard of a team is to get them to understand how a champion does things. Cecchini, who is not normally prone to bragging, says, “This is the one time I share with them how many championships my teams have won. I know, and our assistant coaches know, what it takes to be great, and we need the players to trust us.” Players have had other coaches in the past who probably did not earn their trust, so it’s good that they see this current coaching staff as different, as having their best interests in mind.
In terms of defining championship performance, Cecchini says, “We set expectations for what they do on the field and off the field” (including how they interact on social media). The position coaches keep track of their players’ GPAs, weight room performance, and social media activity, as well as any reports from the Deans’ Office or Public Safety.
Getting player buy-in is an important goal, and every interaction between coaches and players can contribute to success in this area. One particular way the Bucknell staff works to develop buy-in is through their leadership council. Two players are elected from each class and meet regularly with the head coach. The council will have an impact in setting team rules, which is helpful in having players feel ownership of the team
Use the honeymoon: the first couple seasons with a previously losing program can benefit from that newness. The coaches and players are doing different things, and any improvement on the scoreboard can be attributed to those changes from the old order, increasing the players’ trust in the staff. After a couple years, however, no players on the team remember the old staff and the old ways, and a mediocre W-L record will not be perceived as “improvement” – it will just feel “mediocre.” At that point, a good coaching staff will establish new goals, based on the realities the program is facing at that time.
Intrinsic desire to change: One critical development in a rebuild occurs when the players recognize the areas they need to improve. To be effective as a motivator for change, this sort of maturity has to come from within; human beings do not respond well to having their boss or coach enumerate their faults. This part of the art to coaching (like so many others) was well-summarized by UCLA’s master coach John Wooden when he said: “A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.”
NOTE: Mr. Miran’s son, Jason, has served as an assistant coach with Cecchini at Lehigh, Valparaiso and Bucknell since 2010.
Rams’ Athletic Director Karl Miran was fortunate to have chaperoned W+H’s first border immersion trip, February 17-23. This month he shares his perspective on this unique experience, rather than talking about sports.
The land around the Holy Cross Retreat Center, our home during six days at the border, is dry and dusty. It supports a pecan orchard, only because the workers nurture those trees and provide the water that supports life. The orchard is crisscrossed by a network of drainage ditches, and a pump powered by an old Ford tractor engine. Anyone up at sunrise (some of our internal clocks stayed stuck on East Coast time) could see how the workers flooded one section of the orchard every day.
For many of the migrants who come to Texas and New Mexico, the environment is similarly harsh. Like the agricultural workers in the orchard, the people we met nurtured life by maintaining order, providing nourishment, and helping migrants deal with the immigration process. Our students not only learned how lawyers, non-profit organizers, volunteers, border patrol agents, and judges approach their work; they also did a lot to feed and equip the refugees who move through the system. Our students humanized the process for many of the refugees by talking with them and playing with their children.
Over our six-day stay, our students participated in activities and educational opportunities that fed into three strands that contribute to the picture at "la frontera" (the border).
First, our students threw themselves into the non-profit Border Service Corps' preparation to welcome a group of 30 migrant refugees, who had just been released from government detention and were on their way to the house of their sponsors (anywhere from Los Angeles, to Houston, to Bound Brook), where they will await their immigration hearing. The made food and also learned to cook some Hispanic foods. They sorted donated clothing and other supplies and created a bedroom with 36 air mattresses, sheets and comforters, which was a big improvement from the cold concrete these migrants had slept on the previous evenings. When the refugee families arrived, our students welcomed them, played with their children and otherwise brightened that portion of their journey.
The second strand culminated in the group’s visit to the border in El Paso on Feb. 21. They observed Federal District Court proceedings with 50-60 migrants, all in jumpsuits and chains, being arraigned, some for smuggling and others for immigration offenses. They spoke with a Federal magisterial judge, immigration lawyer, border patrol agents, women who are unable to leave Juarez to reach U.S. soil, and several migrants about their struggles to build a life on the American side of the border. All these experiences contributed to the group’s understanding of the many dimensions of the immigration issue.
W+H students also had opportunities to appreciate the hybrid culture that has developed in the Texas/New Mexico borderland. Not surprisingly, the tortillas and salsas available at many meals were slightly more authentic than what is available in New Jersey. W+H students also met with a local writer and visited the historic town of Old Mesilla, the location of a trial where Billy the Kid was sentenced to death. Even the home base at The Franciscan Holy Cross Retreat Center, surrounded by pecan orchards at the foot of the Organ Mountains, reinforced the reality that this was a different part of America.
The title of the trip – Border Immersion – was very appropriate. As if we had been dunked in the Rio Grande, we were surrounded by all the issues and realities that make up life at the border. Of all the people we met, no one was pre-occupied with a single problem, and no one proposed a simple solution. The border patrol agents, the refugees, the lawyers and the volunteers deal every day with the complexities of human society: wealth and poverty, crime and punishment, love and hate. The ones who inspired us are the ones who have found ways to stay true to what they believe as they go about their daily routine.
In many ways, sports have evolved since my youth: artificial turf, 24/7 cable networks, and the proliferation of elite youth sports teams, among other changes. One of the more significant developments concerns the expected adjustment of a team’s style of play when it is clearly the stronger team, having built a big lead on the scoreboard. Traditional sports ethics called for the coach with a big lead in the second half to substitute his second- and third-string players into the lineup as soon as possible, while changing offensive and defensive tactics to avoid further expanding the point margin. Allowing the stronger team to play aggressively, with the starters in the game (or “running up the score”) was universally looked down upon by coaches and pundits, even if it did happen occasionally.
Today, we can see a top womens’ basketball program like UConn beating St. Francis 140-52, and plenty of other instances of teams running up large margins of victory, as more coaches and commentators defend those results because:
- It is important for the development of the team to “keep their foot on the gas” the entire contest.
- The business world is similarly cutthroat.
- Sports should be seen as purely competitive, without rules defined by morality.
There are some situations in sports in which all coaches cease trying to score:
- In American football, when the team with the lead can end the game without giving the ball back to the other team (less than two minutes remaining/defense has no timeouts) they will “take a knee” to avoid any chance of injury or turnover.
- In basketball, when there is so little time and such a big lead that both teams recognize that the losing team cannot catch up, the team with the ball will “dribble it out” without trying to score, while the defense lays back.
- The “mercy rule” in baseball and softball ends the game before seven innings have been completed when one team has amassed enough of a lead (10 runs after 5 innings or 15 runs after 3 innings). Reaching that margin of victory and triggering the “mercy rule” is universally considered sporting behavior, due to the nature of those sports.
Beyond those three clear-cut scenarios, there are many other scenarios in which the losing team has little realistic chance of catching up, allowing the winning coach to change his team’s tactics and personnel to hold down the score. For example:
- A basketball team is ahead by 25 points in the fourth quarter.
- A lacrosse team is leading 12-2, but has controlled possession of the ball in their offensive half of the field for 80% of the game.
- A soccer team is leading by five goals in the second half, and the losing team is unable to generate a meaningful scoring opportunity.
*due to the different nature of the contests, there is no consideration of margin of victory in individual sports: a tennis player who is leading the match 6-0, 4-0 is expected to try to win the next two games; a runner who has a 50-yard lead at the start of the last lap of the 1,600 is expected to expand that lead by running as fast as they can, and so on.
Our athletic program at Wardlaw+Hartridge exists to develop a competitive mentality in our student-athletes, while also developing respect for our opponents, and for the game itself. Thus, we believe that our teams (when they are strong) will sometimes have to take steps to control the margin of victory.
From my career as a coach and athletic director, allow me to offer a few thoughts about why, when, and how a coach should think about controlling the margin of victory:
1. When our team has established a dominant lead in a game, there is good reason to continue to play hard, but little advantage from widening our margin on the scoreboard:
2. The other team may be so weak, or so discouraged, that neither our starters nor our back-ups will gain effective game experience. Our players will gain more from challenging drills against good players in practice than they will from their minutes at “garbage time."
3. Our players should understand the game well enough to recognize the measurements (other than the score) that demonstrate their mastery against a mis-matched opponent. For example, it might make sense to reward our team for completing 10 passes in a row, or to deny the other team any shots in the paint.
Among the negative effects that accrue to the team that runs up the score:
- An over-inflated estimate of their own ability
- Lack of appreciation for the attributes they will need in a close game against an evenly-matched team
- Possible retaliation in future years by the coach of the team whose team suffers a big loss today
- Possible injury, if players on the opposing team act out their frustration
Every coach and every team must begin every game respecting the opponent’s ability to beat us, and doing all that it can offensively and defensively, to gain the upper hand. It is not possible to “run up the score” in the first quarter.
When it becomes clear that our team is clearly superior to the opponent, and as our lead builds, the coach must have a pre-rehearsed strategy for holding down the score in a way that respects the opponent and allows our players to gain as much useful playing experience as possible.
Each sport has its own way holding down the score, among them:
- Passing the ball around the perimeter, not attempting a shot on goal until a fixed number of passes have occurred
- Changing player positions, specifically moving our leading scorers to defensive positions
- Substituting 2ndand 3rdstrings players for starters.
- Calling off any pressure defensive scheme that is designed to create turnovers and easy scoring attempts.
On top of specific proactive measures, there is also an over-arching sense of whether a team is “running up the score” or “holding the margin down”. As a famous Supreme Court justice wrote (in reference to a different subject, we know it when we see it. For example, if our coach substitutes hordes of 2nd/3rdstringers early in 3rdquarter, but our leading scorer remains in the game, and continues tallying goals, in the 4thquarter he will be perceived as running it up.
As should be clear, we believe that we can develop fierce competitors without running up the score. As we enunciate the lessons our student-athletes should take from their athletic career, we include:
Know what 100% feels like:
How hard do you have to work physically to beat a good team?
How many hours of hard practice are required to master your skills?
How much concentration (mental effort) is required to execute our offense and defense in a game situation?
How much emotion do you bring to the table in a big game, and how do you stoke your teammates competitive fires?
Respect your sport, its rules and ethos. Respect your opponents, and earn their respect. Some teams will be better than ours, and some will be weaker.
All of the athletes who compete today will soon move on to other pursuits. We should celebrate the achievements of the winners without denigrating the effort and skill of the losers. Matched up against other competition, today’s winners could be losers, and vice versa.
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