Welcome to Sidelines, a blog by Karl Miran, Athletic Director, who provides insight into how sports are an integral part of the educational experience.
If there is an athletic equivalent to academic rigor, it may be the trait usually described as “toughness.” The public has always held a mixed impression of the use of sport to breed toughness, however. While respected for the competitive advantage it can provide, there has been suspicion that the cost of developing the trait may be too high. A modern understanding of the nature of toughness, however, demonstrates that it entails more than just the ability to inflict and withstand physical pain. While the notion of toughness was first personified in contact sports such as football, there are thousands of examples of the concept being employed in a healthy context and in sports that do not center on violence.
Woody Hayes and Frank Kush were among the football coaches who made their reputation by emphasizing their teams’ toughness. Whether it was Kush making his Arizona State players run multiple laps up the man-made “Mount Kush” next to the Sun Devils’ practice field, or Hayes insisting that a 3-yard-and-a-cloud-of-dust “smash-mouth” style of football was the only way to win, they were a large part of the image of coaching in the 1960s, influencing many other college and high school coaches. In the end, their version contributed to their downfall:
Kush was suspended from his job, and later sued, for an alleged pattern of physical and mental abuse toward one of his players, in an effort to have the player give up his scholarship.
Hayes was fired after punching an opposing player on the Ohio State sideline during a bowl game. Although many of his players respected him like a father figure, Woody also faced accusations of roughing up players and photographers at various times.
True toughness does not require physical violence. Many coaches and athletes consider the athletes below to be great examples of the concept:
- the 400-meter runner in the final turn who responds to the pounding in his chest and the pain in his quads by lengthening his stride, trying to run faster, not slower;
- the tennis player who has just double-faulted, but manages to banish the memory of those bad shots, as she prepares to play her next point.
Paradoxically, when faced with physical or emotional distress (as in the examples above) athletes will often benefit by concentrating on their technique rather than by willing themselves to a state of emotional strength. If the 400-meter runner whose chest is pounding focuses on arm swing or stride length, they will have a greater ability to “run through the pain.”
Similarly, when an athlete is required to contact their opponent to gain a physical advantage (a soccer player positioning for a head ball, or a basketball player “boxing out” for a rebound) exhortations “play tough” are not nearly as useful as specific instruction on the footwork, anticipation, and other skills involved, coupled with meaningful practice in which the athlete achieves success, building confidence in their ability to execute in a game situation. From this, we draw two conclusions:
- proper technique is a great aid to developing courage
- encouragement and the development of confidence helps athletes overcome obstacles
Since all our athletes are preparing for the “real world,’ it is worth closing with the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King explaining the value of mental toughness in his book Strength to Love:
“The tough mind is sharp and penetrating, breaking through the crust of legends and myths and sifting the true from the false. The tough-minded individual is astute and discerning. He has a strong austere quality that makes for firmness of purpose and solidness of commitment. Who doubts that this toughness is one of man's greatest needs? Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”
― Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love
As my Spanish-speaking teammates at the American HS in Mexico City would remind us, when breaking the huddle on third down, “Hechele duro!” (be tough!). In any language, it is often stated that one key way sport serves as a character-builder is by fostering the attitude that can be summarized as “toughness,” “heart,” or “resiliency.”
Everyone wants athletes to be adaptable and resilient, but the key may lie more in cognitive development and the control of one’s emotions than it does with adopting an attitude of toughness. Talking with W+H coaches about the factors that make an athlete resilient, resiliency and competitiveness are built through practicing and mastering cognitive skills that help them to adapt. Even if we think of resiliency as a character trait, we (educators and students) need to focus less on the God-given nature of this trait, and more on the ways in which it can be built through repetition.
Baseball is unique in that, during most games, the batter experiences a 1-on-1 battle with the same pitcher. The pitcher recalls your first at-bat (i.e. how much you struggled on an inside fastball or swung at a high third strike) while you recall what the pitcher did (maybe he started away, then came inside or threw hard enough to make you choke up an inch).
It is often a total chess match. Move back in the box, hoke up, see if the third baseman is still playing deep (possible bunt). Although hitting a baseball is always a difficult skill, the mental adaptation that comes from seeing a pitcher multiple times can really benefit the hitter who is observant and adaptable.
Thanks to MS Head Coach Tim Head and Varsity Head Coach Andy Mulvey
In cheer when you stunt with different groups of people you need to be able to adjust for differences of height, strength and power. Those variations mean the athlete must also adjust his or her timing. Just like any other team, injuries or illness can cause a stunt partner to be absent on any given day.
Thanks to MS Head Coach and Varsity Head Coach Emeritus Tanda Tucker
As Middle School cross country runners graduate and begin running for the Upper School squad, they will need to ADAPT to a somewhat different level of the sport. With the coaches' help they will practice harder, run longer races, and become aware that the levels of dedication and commitment are much higher.
Thanks to Varsity & MS Head Coach Rick Riepl
In golf, the player is constantly adapting to the conditions. Which way is the wind blowing? How hard is it blowing? How is the ball sitting in the grass? How far do I have to hit the ball? Given all those factors, what club should I use? These, and many more, are the questions a golfer must ask before hitting the ball.
The golfer carries a maximum of 14 clubs, but most of those clubs can be used in multiple ways. Some golf shots require power and others require finesse.
Thanks to Varsity Head Coach Jim Howard
In lacrosse, penalties occur on both sides of the field. On defense in man-down scenarios, our team must learn to play defense with one less player. They have to work together as a team to best thwart the offense, who has a man-advantage, by moving together as a unit and not overplaying the ball but doing their best to maintain their shape. This takes communication, trust and confidence, along with adaptation to the offensive set, the movement of the ball, and the skills of the various offensive players.
Thanks to Varsity Assistant Coach Dan Miggins
In volleyball, the most common example of adaptability occurs when a hitter receives a less-than-perfect set. The hitter must be smart enough to take what the defense is giving, even if it means forcing the opponent to return a tougher roll shot or free ball. The hitter must be conscious not only of scoring points, but of making his or her team’s ensuing job on defense easier. Sometimes we go for the kill, but other times we play it safer. Sensing when to do one, or the other, is a big step in a player’s development.
Thanks to Varsity Head Coach Dave Arva
The world-class athlete has just made a sensational play to win the game, and the TV interviewer asks him or her, “What were you thinking when you…..?” The athlete’s answer is less-than-Nobel-Prize-worthy; in fact, it is usually much less profound than the results of the fruit-fly research in Dr. Zusman’s class. Yet, there is a great deal of mental processing as athletes play their sport, and W + H coaches spend a great deal of time working to develop and train the mental habits that foster championship performances.
It has been calculated that Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt maxed out at 27 miles per hour, (Australian physiologist Jeremy Richmond - https://www.runnersworld.com/newswire/ultimate-100-meter-time-927-seconds)
but the athlete’s mind moves much faster. Depending on the needs of the sport, the sort of thinking can vary:
- Middle School soccer coach Lee Nicholls explains that when players are off the ball, they need to process multiple possible scenarios, preparing to react most effectively when the ball comes to them.
- Jim Howard reminds his golfers that they need to properly analyze their environment, to feed the right data into their analysis: “If I normally hit a 7-iron 160 yards, will it be enough club on this uphill, 145-yard shot into a moderate wind?”
- Cross Country coach Rick Riepl spends a great deal of the season teaching his runners how to develop a strategy that is appropriate for their ability and to run a “smart race.”
- Rick’s Middle School assistant coach, Tim Head, explains further the depth of analysis undertaken by the coaching staff to develop meaningful strategic goals and to create practice routines that develop appropriate mental toughness for each runner.
- A baseball player who realizes that the opposing pitcher “always throws fastball on a 3-2 count, because he is scared of a walk” is demonstrating some degree of Theory of Mind, the awareness of the thinking and desires of others that underlies empathy and emotional intelligence.
- Other coaches prefer to focus on the mental state they try to develop in their athletes, which they call concentration, or awareness. Whatever they call it, such an attitude always involves ignoring certain stimuli, and focusing on others.
While every student’s athletic experience is unique, we can assert that this element of athletics may be the most valuable in later life. In spite of the fact that “real life” as a doctor, lawyer, husband, wife, businessperson, or novelist will demand different types of thinking than sports, the athlete’s memory of what they achieved on the athletic field can help them in those very different arenas. Perhaps the most applicable lesson that an athlete learns is that the proper mental approach is necessary for success in a competitive field. Further, acknowledging the value of guidance from an experienced coach in developing one’s mental tools is a great template for future success. That may be what a former president of Amherst College meant when he labelled athletics “the sweatiest of the liberal arts.”
The definition of ethical conduct that Dr. Bob Bowman, Head of Upper School, learned from his 5th grade teacher, “telling the truth and doing the right thing” http://www.whschool.org/page.cfm?p=747 is a great starting point for discussing ethics in sport. Why is it so hard sometimes to do the right thing? As I sat down to compose this blog entry, there were two articles on the sports pages that revealed some of the unethical behavior that occurs in the world of athletics:
- “Russian Athletes Banned from 2018 Winter Games” due to a systematic use of performance-enhancing drugs by Russians in the 2014 Winter Olympics.
- “A Rivalry Grows Dangerous” as the NFL game between the Bengals and Steelers was marked by dirty play, with two players removed from the field on stretchers, and multiple players suspended for unnecessary roughness.
The above-referenced world-class athletes can reap great monetary rewards from winning a championship. Although high school and middle school athletes do not have the same monetary incentives, they may still struggle with what “doing the right thing” means in a particular situation, and from that struggle they grow as competitors, and as human beings.
A couple examples:
1. High school tennis and golf are played without officials. Tennis players are expected to fairly call their opponent’s shots “in” or “out” and golfers are responsible to call stroke penalties on themselves and to keep their own score accurately. The learning process in those sports has two dimensions:
o Getting athletes to commit themselves to acting honestly and fairly in carrying out these responsibilities
o Teaching athletes how to deal with an opponent who shows evidence of cheating
- Don’t get mad
- Continue to do the right thing
- Confront your opponent; try to convince him to change his behavior; don’t be bullied; and call in coaches when needed.
2. In sports where there is a referee or other officials to enforce the rules, the athletes still have a responsibility to behave ethically.
In any game, referees will make mistakes: out-of-bounds calls missed, fouls not called, timing errors, all of which often strikes a competitor as “unfair.” However, the game requires acceptance of an impartial rules enforcer to give the result legitimacy. Players and coaches who lose control while protesting a call run several risks:
Giving the team an excuse for failure (“the refs were against us”)
Losing their focus on the things they can control
Escalation of emotional response to the next disputed call
One other aspect of imperfect officiating is illustrated by the strike zone in baseball. According to the letter of the law, the zone exists as shown in the picture below:
On any given day, however, the actual strike zone depends on how the umpire calls balls and strikes. If a ball between the ankles and knees is consistently being called a strike, while every pitch above the waist is called a ball, that umpire is consistently calling a “low strike.” Protesting is likely a useless waste of time and energy. It is ethical, in that situation, for our pitchers to target their pitches to the area where strikes are being called because the umpire (who is granted authority by the rulebook) has demonstrated what he considers the zone for that day. Throwing pitches at the mid-chest level and arguing that they “should” be called strikes is a waste of energy.
The above argument does not apply to practices that are clearly damaging to the health of athletes or are universally disapproved. For example, the fact that many Olympic athletes have profited from performance-enhancing drugs does not justify their use by the Soviet team in 2014.
3. As competitors, both teams are trying to gain an advantage over the other – sometimes the methods of the other team seem unsportsmanlike. As an analogy, think of the basketball player boxing out to position himself for a rebound – the best response for our player is to concentrate on the “controllables”:
Push back, within the limits of the rule
Establish inside position quicker the next time
4. Within the team dynamic, athletes have an ethical responsibility to play to the best of their abilities, and to do so in ways that promote the growth of their teammates, and the strengthening of bonds between teammates. Within a team there is competition between players for playing time. Playing hard in scrimmages is desired, but playing dirty or using psychological intimidation against one’s teammates, increases the risk of injury and may make the team less able to compete against their real rivals. Since “what is good for the team” is at the heart of athletic ethics, such actions are to be avoided.
Those interested in a deeper examination of ethical conduct in sports should check out the following links:
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport
NYU’s program in Sports and Society
The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport
Teachers, parents, students, and coaches sometimes need to be re-assured that learning is messy, progress is messy. The hard part is not in accepting that life is “messy”; during adolescence, the evidence is unavoidable. No, the difficult part is in trusting that progress, learning, and growth is taking place.
A couple reflections on the necessity of going through “growing pains” in the messy phase that leads to growth:
Developing leaders may be sloppy:
Jeremy LaCasse, Assistant Head at Taft School, writes about the temptation for teachers (and parents) to work too hard to steer students toward success. To see his full essay, go to: https://www.gclileadership.org/why-wont-they-simply-do-what-i-tell-them-to/ It is natural, after all, for adults to want the outcome of a student project to be successful. However, he stresses that it is necessary for students to “do the work” and face the risk of failure, in order to fully grow as leaders.
Developing a team is not a one-and-done:
In my years mentoring coaches, I often hear coaches (after a loss, or a string of losses) echoing LaCasse’s rhetorical question “Why don’t they do what I tell them to do?” They sometimes say:
“we told them to deny the ball to #23”
after #23 from the other team scores 3 goals, or
“we told them to work the ball inside”
after our team loses by shooting 20%, all outside shots, or
“we told them to eat a healthy lunch”
after an athlete gets sick to her stomach during a race
As we talk, I will try to help those coaches understand some wisdom that I received in my second year of coaching, working for John Whitehead, a sometimes grumpy, old-school coach. He reminded me of the “Four Stages of Coaching”:
You Tell Them
You Show Them
You Watch Them
You Tell Them
At first, I thought this was a cute little adage, but eventually it made sense. The lesson: Good coaching is a circular process, relying on evaluation and effective feedback, and it never ends.
Great coaches and great teachers recognize when learning is taking place internally, even when it is obscured by a messy exterior. They adjust their teaching when the evidence calls for it, but they keep the faith that progress is being made. They combine flexibility in their methods with steadfastness in their commitment to their long-term plan.
Playoffs!!?? Don’t talk about…playoffs !!
At this time of year, as our varsity teams begin their post-season play, I am asked lots of questions about the playoffs:
Which organization is this playoff game a part of?
What is our league?
Why are we in this championship or this tournament?
What are we playing for? – if we win, we would be champions of what?
Unlike Colts coach Jim Mora in 2001, I don’t mind answering questions about the playoffs.
We belong to two state-wide athletic associations and a conference (or league). Both the associations and the league divide their members according to school enrollment and strength of program, to promote fair and meaningful competition. Ideally, the playoffs and championships at the end of the season will be scheduled in a manner that do not overlap but, when they do, we make the best of the situation:
Please click on the logos below to learn the basic facts about each association and their roles in determining our athletic schedules:
Explanation of the video clip:
Nov. 25, 2001
The Indianapolis Colts, after earning a spot in the playoffs in Coach Jim Mora’s first two years, had just lost to the 49ers to drop their record to 4-6. The coach began his remarks to the press by focusing on how inept their offense had been that day, when one reporter asked him about the Colts’ chances of making the playoffs. His response is now a piece of American sports lore and legend.
What does the “plus” in W + H mean? In what ways does school life create something in our students’ experiences that didn’t exist before? In Athletics, that process of creating a new entity is most clearly shown in the concept of a team, in which 10, or 15, or 20 individuals come together, under the guidance of their coaches, to create something new.
One of the clichés that supports the value of teams is “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” As with many common sayings, the wording of the original phrase was different, and the different formulations through history provide useful ways of thinking about the value of an athletic team.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, wrote. "...the whole is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the totality is something besides the parts, there is a cause of unity ...". What brings a team together? What makes its members dedicate themselves to the well-being of the unit, and makes team success more important than individual glory? Is it the camaraderie, the bonds between teammates? Is it the athletes’ respect for their coach, and their desire to live up to the principles he espouses? Is it a recognition that the only defense against a rival team is to work in unison with one’s own teammates?
In the 20th Century, the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka declared, "The whole is other than the sum of its parts." When that phrase was mis-translated by some Americans to “greater than the sum of its parts” Koffka was careful to correct the speaker. What he meant can be illustrated by the triangle to the right: there are 3 black figures that create a white space between them. Our mind has a concept of the nature of a triangle, so we see a triangle in that white space. The white triangle space is not “greater” than the black figures, it is different. According to the Gestalt thinkers, athletic coaches must have a pre-conceived notion of a team, and must teach those characteristics to their athletes. All the actions help create a team, such as:
- common suffering through conditioning drills
- adoption of a selfless, sharing, style of play
- team dinners or other social events
- sharing of duties like transporting team equipment will only help build team bonds if the players are alerted that their goal is to create a strong unit, and given a clear picture of what “team” feels like.
What have we learned from our exploration of these philosophers? Even though they may have never taken a corner kick, or turned a double play, they teach us that:
- Teams do not come into existence automatically or by accident
- Coaches must develop a concept of shared effort and accomplishment in their players’ psyche, and must teach their players how to achieve that goal
- Players must want to be on a successful team, to adopt the mindset of a champion
All the more reason to celebrate the successful Ram teams of the past, and the present!
In a provocatively titled article in The Atlantic two years ago, Joe Pinsker asked “Why Do Former High School Athletes Make More Money?” https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/05/why-do-former-high-school-athletes-make-more-money-and-get-better-jobs/394283/
As it turns out, this is not based on wishful thinking, nor is it a misinterpretation of the facts. There are many metrics demonstrating the earning power of high school athletes compared to non-athletes. The earning power of athletes is correlated with several other differences including their prominence (relative to non-athletes) in upper management positions (see graph below). It is as true for women as it is for men. http://www.nber.org/papers/w15728 It is true when athletes are compared to musicians, actors, or yearbook editors.
Now a group of academic researchers, led by post-doc researcher Kevin Kniffin, is trying to answer questions about why that disparity exists:
- § Is it because kids with more marketable skills, and more confidence, are drawn to sports?
- § Do sports teach the skills that make successful business people and professionals?
- § Do some sports teach those skills better than others?
One encouraging piece of the data: Former athletes not only earn more, but they give more back to society, giving more money and donating more time to good causes.
Kniffin, et al.’s findings will be of interest to parents, and to others (like me) who love sports and value their place in our society. However, I will pay a lot less attention to the statistics on athletes’ average salaries, while paying more attention to the data on the skills that athletes learn by competing and being a great teammate. Lifetime earnings are only one measure of success. After all, if a former Ram athlete chooses to excel at a less lucrative profession, we want him or her to lead and achieve in that field, too.
For the past three years, our Rams Recognition Night banquet has been headlined by two student-athletes, chosen by the Captains’ Council to represent the Wardlaw-Hartridge athletic experience. Opening and closing this year’s presentation were seniors Carlin Schildge and Jordan Rose. Their speeches contained powerful messages to their teammates, parents, and coaches about the most valuable lessons they learned competing as Rams.
Carlin, who excelled at soccer and cheer (serving as captain of both teams), started by recognizing the extraordinary opportunities available to W-H students in the Ram Athletic program. Her own career, in which she quickly became her team’s best offensive threat in a new sport (girls’ lacrosse), only to switch to boys’ lacrosse on the school’s first-ever varsity squad, was offered as proof of the support for student opportunity offered by the school.
But, she pointed out, the very presence of so much opportunity makes it incumbent on the athletes to seize those opportunities with a full heart and a full gas tank.
Using Coach Mike Romeo’s words, she pointed out that the extraordinary accomplishments of the W-H girls’ team the past four years were significant as indicators of the “story” that the team wrote about itself.
In an homage to Kobe Bryant, Jordan began his speech with a “Dear Basketball” letter that he penned this February, after realizing that he had played his last organized game.
He demonstrated how Coach Maxwell’s words, notably his reminder that “basketball is a microcosm of life,” had stuck with him.
As examples, he cited three of the most vibrant lessons that basketball had taught him about life:
a. Respect is earned, not given
b. Change is inevitable, but growth is optional
c. We are defined in life by our response to failure
Both Carlin and Jordan gave numerous examples of the particular challenges, and the unique strengths of Ram Athletics. They are grateful for the ways their athletic experience (and many aspects of their education) were different for having enrolled at W-H. Speaking for everyone in the room, Jordan ended the evening by reminding the audience that, “We are what we choose to be, and I chose to be a Ram.”
In the late spring, we begin the “award season” at W-H. It’s not as lucrative as the motion-picture industry’s 7-week slog from the Golden Globes to the Oscars, but the awards at any independent school are nonetheless accompanied by tension, elation and disappointment.
The Athletic Department participates fully, naming “winners” of many awards, including the Wigton and Chambliss Awards, the Vietor Award, and six scholar-athlete or sportsmanship awards given by the NJSIAA and GMC. Every year, we try to distribute these honors to the most worthy of our senior (and 8th-grade) student-athletes, and every year we fail to do so perfectly. Some students and parents are disappointed, and other bystanders may criticize us for not picking someone they believe to be the “best” candidate.
If the charge is “emphasizing imperfect awards that add to the stress, and fail to make graduation season joyous for many students,” we would have to plead guilty. Humans make mistakes, awards have a subjective element in the judging, for every winner there are three or four losers. In that case, why do we continue to promote these career awards at the end of each school year? Our answer has two parts:
1.) A look at the real recipients of the “message” of award season
2.) A look at what remains in the memory banks 10, 20 or 30 ears later
1. Awards have two purposes: we certainly want to reward student-athletes who have contributed mightily to our program, but we also need to send a “message” to juniors, sophomores, and freshmen that “you can aspire to win this award in your senior year; embrace the virtues we are rewarding, and make them central to your performance, every day.” As a former headmaster of mine said every year at award time: “We honor the young men and women on stage tonight, but we also honor the notion of excellence itself.” That is, none of the award-winners are intrinsically better than anyone else; they are rewarded for their dedication to the ideals of the scholar-athlete, the great competitor, or the true sportsman. There is something very democratic in that notion. It also may lend a little humility to the “winners” while serving as a source of hope for the younger generation..
2. Since this blog post began with a comparison to the movie industry’s awards season, perhaps some well-known motion pictures can provide useful perspective on our awards, too. Now that the awards shows are over, and the newspaper stories have been written, does it matter that Moonlight won the Best Picture, rather than La-La Land? After all, audiences were moved by both pictures and both films made a lot of money for their producers, directors, actors, and assorted others.
If we still watch The Godfather 45 years after its release, we do so not because it won “Best Picture”, but because of the story, the beauty of the cinematography, and the memorable lines. People of my generation still sprinkle their conversation with “make him an offer he can’t refuse” or “leave the gun, take the cannolis.” After all, the Best Supporting Actor honors went to Joel Grey (Cabaret), rather than Godfather co-stars Robert Duvall, James Caan, or Al Pacino, but none of us today remember any memorable quotes from Cabaret.
In a similar way, the meaningful work a student puts in for a chemistry lab, like the effort he or she put into winning a soccer game, becomes part of their DNA, and, if it was really good, it affects the memories of others: classmates, teammates, teachers, and coaches. It lives on, regardless of whether they received an award for their work, or not.
My message to all the students who wonder why they are not given awards that they feel they deserve:
1. Remember what you did receive: a Wardlaw-Hartridge degree
2. Consider how outstanding Duvall or Pacino were in “The Godfather”
3. Consider the work that Duvall, Pacino, and Caan did in 1974, 1975, and 1976, after “losing” the Oscar.
4. Wherever you go to college, knock ‘em dead!
Choose groups to clone to: