Welcome to Sidelines, a blog by Karl Miran, Athletic Director, who provides insight into how sports are an integral part of the educational experience.
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.
Recent blog posts from my colleagues show the multitude of ways that analytical thinking skills are woven into a W+H education. It feels like a cliché, or a distillation of hundreds of commencement speeches, to say that the goal of a liberal arts education is not to teach a student what to think, but rather how to think.
Fittingly, just as we are about to release our seniors to college and the real world, we give them a massive test of their ability to apply the habits of analytical thinking to their own life. The college search process requires and rewards clear thinking. American teenagers often look at college as the first years of their adult lives, but they really need to think in a clear, focused, mature manner before they get to college, if they are to make a wise decision regarding their future.
Students who wish to play a sport in college add another layer of questions to their college search; not only do they need to consider big school / small school, urban / rural, but they need to ask, “Can I play at this program?”, “Can I trust this coach’s promises?”, or “Should I play soccer or run track?” Also, the prospective student athlete (or PSA, as NCAA literature refers to him/her) is further challenged because they must recognize and acknowledge the emotional component of their choice. Some of the questions that can complicate their thinking include: “Do I really want to be a college student-athlete, or would I be better off as a simple college student?” “Is my desire to play Division I based on who I am, or the hope that it will make other people happy?” “Am I trying to compete with my teammates to get into the ‘best’program, or am I trying to find the best match for me?”
For Noah Toney ‘16, the opportunities that he earned while competing for the Rams helped turn a long-held dream into a reality: “When I was in Lower School, all I wanted to do was compete in the Olympics. It didn’t actually occur to me that the traditional route was through a Division I program. I first realized that I wanted to compete collegiately after my freshman year outdoor season. Performing on a larger platform and racing in my first Meet of Champions opened my eyes to what I could truly achieve if continue to put the work in.”
Later in his W+H career, as he immersed himself in the recruiting process, he came face-to-face with some daunting feedback: he wasn’t good enough, yet. “As a junior in high school, I was calling college coaches informing them of my times and each one of them told me that I’d have to run at least two seconds faster in my 400 and four to five seconds faster in my 800. But I just kept my eyes on the goals set by these coaches, and went after them.” That determination is one of the major reasons he is now a Division I athlete, running middle distance for the Virginia Cavaliers.
Camille Menns ’15 had to face adversity head on when she suffered a major knee injury her junior year, missing a lot of playing time. While re-habbing her injury, she searched her motives and discovered that basketball was too important to her spirit to stop with her W+H graduation: “My experience in high school was complicated. I had to garner interest from college coaches after tearing my right ACL. Most of my advice came from Taylor Gerhart ’14 and Mairead Forrest ‘14. My motivation was living my dream of playing collegiate basketball. I knew that I couldn’t miss the opportunity of playing because of my injury. The most important advice that someone gave me was not to devalue myself for the sake of others. I had to be confident in the fact that I could play after my injury although it was so recent. Proving to myself that I could excel in basketball again was important to me.”
Camille being Camille, it is not surprising that, out of all the freshmen in her Arcadia University recruiting class in the winter of 2015-16, she is the only one still playing for the Knights. After starting all 25 games and averaging 8.8 points and 9.7 rebounds, she earned an Arcadia Athletics Award of Merit as a junior, and looks to take the program to a higher level this season, as she completes her double major in Psychology and Pre-Occupational Therapy.
Mike Anastasiou ’14 recently finished his pitching career at NYU, and is currently working in Manhattan in finance, so he is able to see his athletic career as a preparation for his life in the “real world.” He credits Rams’ coach Andrew Mulvey with helping him build the self-confidence that has helped him through the maze of recruiting: “The best advice I received at Wardlaw was from coach Mulvey; he was the one who recognized the potential I had as an athlete, something I didn’t even realize I had in myself. I remember after a workout in the summer between my sophomore and junior year in high school, he said ‘Only you can make your future, now take it full stride.’ That foundation for excellence was something I learned on the ball field, and have taken with me in the corporate world and beyond.”
Like Camille and Noah, Alexandra Garces ’17 recognized that her passion for her sport, soccer, was intrinsic to her personality: “I always knew I wanted to compete in college ever since I was a little girl. I have been playing since I was three years old and always had a passion for the game. My life would be incomplete without soccer.
No matter how difficult, or uncertain the recruiting process was, I followed through in order to prove to myself and everyone else that I was good enough to score goals in college, too.” In her sophomore season for Cabrini University, Alex started every game and emerged as the Cavaliers’ leading scorer, with six goals and two assists. She also faced physical adversity in high school, when doctors identified an unusual condition that limits her ability to run for long periods of time. Pragmatically, she used that information to simplify her college search, narrowing her choice to Division III schools within the Northeast.
The literature of sports is full of inspirational stories and tales of resilience. As heavyweight champion boxer Jack Dempsey said, “A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.” Michael Jordan expressed similar sentiments when he recounted his road to success: “I’ve failed over and over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
What about the winners? Does the returning champion have any special difficulties? Do the successful athletes need to be resilient?
Reflecting on the greatest teams I have been part of, I believe the perpetual champions needed resilience as much the teams who achieved in spite of adversity. Four elements emerge as critical to their success:
- They worked hard
- They enjoyed their sport: both practices and games
- They believed in the plan
- They stayed in the present
Adversity and success produce different challenges to those four elements:
Adversity discourages athletes by fixating them in the past: “We lost to this team the past two years – here we go again.”
Success tempts athletes to anticipate future glories and ignore the needs of the current moment: “We always beat this team – we just need to show up.”
Adversity makes athletes doubt the plan: “If only we had a better coach…”
Success tempts athletes to forget how important the plan is to their success: “I/we are really good. We don’t have to concentrate on all that fundamental skill work anymore.”
Adversity and success can both rob athletes of their joy when they focus on results, rather than on process: “This season isn’t as much fun.”
Adversity gives athletes an excuse to avoid hard work: “The deck is stacked against us. That’s why we lost, not because I didn’t work hard.”
Success makes athletes giddy, to the extent that they can forget how hard they worked to get where they are.
Successful professional coaches have different ways of encapsulating the sort of mental approach that leads to success, regardless of whether the athlete’s recent history was one of adversity or success.
"Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while… you don’t do things right once in a while… you do them right all the time. Winning is habit.”
- Vince Lombardi, Green Bay Packers, NFL Champions: 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966, 1967
“That’s why at the start of every season I always encouraged players to focus on the journey rather than the goal. What matters most is playing the game the right way and having the courage to grow, as human beings as well as basketball players. When you do that, the ring takes care of itself.”
- Phil Jackson, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, NBA Champions: 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010
Our own W+H girls’ soccer team has been used to success, but in 2018 they have taken it to a new level. At the time this blog was written, they had compiled a 17-1 record, including an undefeated run through the GMC Blue Division, and have achieved the deepest run ever into the Middlesex County playoffs by a Ram team. As Phil Jackson, and W+H girls’ soccer coach Mike Romeo preached, they remained focused on the journey.
The new Rams Boys’ Varsity Soccer coach is Jason Montesinos, a Colonia resident who, in spite of his relative youth, has been coaching for 15 years. After getting his start with the NJ Rovers Summer Soccer program, working with the legendary Spencer Rockman, he moved on to positions with Edison United, the Colonia Youth Soccer Association, and St. Joseph’s HS. In 2012, he founded the Valencia Soccer Academy, for which he serves as president and head coach. His passion for the game, and his ability to teach young players has fueled Valencia’s rise in the local soccer ranks, which caught our attention. The Q&A below will help the W+H community get to know Coach Montesinos:
1. Where does your passion for soccer come from?
My passion for soccer began with my family's heritage. My father, Joseph, is from Valencia, Spain. He had a very successful career as a player, winning three state titles at Harrison High School. In his senior year, my father won the Fred Coggins Award as the best player New Jersey.
Later, my father played for the US Army and professional domestic leagues, before transitioning to coaching. He was named to the All-Century Team for NJ High School Soccer, which included the likes of Tab Ramos, Tony Meola and John Harkes. Based on all of this history, soccer was a part of my life before I was born.
2. When you think of coaches you played for or worked with, what are their best characteristics, that you have tried to borrow?
There are so many excellent coaches that I have had the privilege to work with, one of which, Mike Romeo, is our girls’ head coach. It is a great advantage to have a mentor who not only understands the game at the highest level, but is also familiar with the student body and overall culture.
In order to understand what a team's goals are, a coach really needs to apply himself/herself to understand their players' capabilities, what motivates them, and how to get the absolute best out of each individual in order to develop a consistently competitive team. The beautiful part of coaching is that there is never a universal "right" or "wrong" way of completing this task. The most important characteristics are being organized, having a unified and consistent message, and executing that message each and every day as a whole.
A coach's job should never be to win, nor should it be defined by wins and losses. The best coaching characteristic is to enable your players to become the absolute best version of themselves.
3. How do you want your teams to be thought of?
I want our team to be organized, respectful and consistent, while having fun. I believe soccer should be played with creativity and inspiration. I would like for people to understand that we, as a coaching staff, have empowered our players to coach and think for themselves.
4. What are the most important characteristics for a player on your team to possess?
The most important characteristic for any player is to understand their role and to buy in. We can all think of any team in any sport where you have a complimentary combo of players that possess varying degrees of abilities that are much different from one another. Nevertheless, the combination of these abilities creates a winning team. Not everyone is a finesse player, and some players cannot defend for their lives. How can you combine these players to help one another? The only way is if everyone buys into executing whatever it is they do best on a consistent basis.
"Buying in" would also include the implied intangibles of respect, punctuality, attention to detail, hard work and execution. Winning simply does not happen without the inclusion of these extremely important cultural norms.
One of the key building blocks of any successful team is effective leadership, in tune with the team’s mission. Team leaders, whether they have the title of captain or not, are essential in getting all members of the team to buy into a shared vision of the team’s competitive identity.
Most Ram athletic teams have 2 – 3 captains. Although one captain may be selected by the coaching staff, every team is also required to hold elections to allow the players to choose at least one of its designated leaders. The logic behind this mandate is that, while coaches have a clear vision for what the team can become, the athletes know whom they trust to show them the way to that vision.
Every year, we charge our Captains’ Council with the selection of two speakers for Rams Recognition Night. Those speakers are asked to use their own experience as Rams to provide perspective for all our athletes. Just as a team’s election of a captain says something about the attitudes of the team, so does the selection of RRN speakers underline what our student-athletes find valuable in sport.
CJ Stueck ’18, who played tennis and basketball, and ran cross country and track, spoke about different aspects of belonging. He recounted anecdotes about the ways that coaches welcomed him onto the team, and deepened his bond with the team over time. He spoke about how he was able to achieve things in the context of the team (pushing himself through the hard miles of a cross-country race, for example) that he never could have done on his own. He recounted his admiration for the ways in which coaches nurtured his resiliency and also pointed to the value of the personal victories that any athlete can achieve with effort.
Audrey Vu ’18, a leader on our basketball and volleyball teams, and an enthusiastic contributor to the softball squad, focused on the end of a significant piece of her life, her career as an athlete. She assured the crowd that, like many of them, she hated many things about sports, such as running and the risk of injuries, but that she hated more the realization that a season had ended, and a group of girls with which she had forged bonds of camaraderie would be forever changed. In previous years, she took some solace in knowing that the loss of some of her friends and comrades would be balanced with the infusion of new teammates, new talents, new spirit. As a senior, however, realizing that she is leaving Ram Athletics behind gives Audrey a wistfulness, balanced with an appreciation for all she has accomplished.
Because our speakers are now young Wardlaw+Hartridge alumni, their talks were thoughtful, deep, and often humorous. It is not possible to capture their entire message in one sound bite. Below, we include links to both C.J and Audrey’s full speeches.
Sometimes, you need to communicate without talking.
Baseball coaches have perfected techniques for telling all the relevant players what to do in various situations. Andy Mulvey, the Rams’ Head Varsity Baseball coach since 2010, is willing to show how he communicates with the batter from the 3rd-base coaching box, 90 feet away.
a. Coach Mulvey pretends to be the batter, demonstrating to the coach that he is ready for the sign by taking one foot out of the box (the rules say he has to keep the other foot in.)
b. One way of communicating precisely and discretely is by using an “indicator”. In this case, the indicator is the coach touching his left arm, which tells the batter and the runner that the next sign is the one to pay attention to. The coach successively touches nose/right elbow/nose (which mean nothing) but when he touches his left arm, the players focus on the next sign (wiping his hand across his chest) which signals a hit-and-run. He then gives a series of other meaningless signs, and ends by clapping his hands, which confirms the hit-and-run call and signals the batter to step into the box and prepare for the pitch. As in all these examples, the coach stands at a 45-degree angle, to ensure that not only the batter, but also the base-runners, can see his signals.
c. Another way of giving signals is to pre-determine that the second sign will always be the “live” or relevant one. In this case, the coach touches his nose first, then his chest second, indicating again the hit-and-run, followed by other meaningless signs and clapping, which ends the sequence.
d. One way to trick the opponent, who may be trying to steal our signs, is to give one sign, then “wipe it off” by sliding the hands down the thighs. The next sign after wiping his hands on his pants (in this case he touches his nose, which indicates a steal by the base-runner) followed by other meaningless signs and a clap to end the process.
e. It is also important for the batter to confirm that he has received and understood the sign. In this case, playing the batter, Coach Mulvey sees the sign, and shows that he got the sign by tugging on the brim of his cap.
f. Sometimes, the batter may be unsure of the signs he just saw. If so, he can signal, with a rotary move of his hand in this example, that he needs the coach to repeat the sequence of signals. Once he sees and understands the sign, he confirms that he received it by tugging on the brim of his cap.
In these ways, our Ram baseball team keeps their intentions hidden from the opposing team, while ensuring that all our players and coaches are “on the same page.”
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
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