Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sports Ethics: Lying & Deception in Athletic Competition

Juke  Feint   Misdirect   Fake     Disguise  Sneak   

We know all these words and expect them from good athletes. Everyone depends upon deception and lying in sports. How do we square this with the centrality of sportsmanship to defending the worth of athletics? And somehow by teaching deception and lying as a normal part of the game are we undermining the ethics of both players and fans?

Everyone defends sportsmanship. Ethically it is  fundamental to the moral worth of sports. We speak of how athletics teaches loyalty, self-discipline, sacrifice, overcoming odds and working with others to achieve excellence. At the core all these attributes depend upon integrity and the ability to make and keep commitments to oneself and to others. This argument lies at the center of aligning sports with schooling and making it a widespread adjunct to parenting in our society.

Yet at the center of  athletic competition lies practiced strategy of deception. Every competitive sport where athletes play against each other has built in imperatives to deceive the other side. The speed and power of modern elite athletics requires successful athletes to anticipate and act, not just react. If you react to a serve in tennis or volleyball or a feint in basketball or soccer you are too late. So the dynamic of success requires a trained ability to predict an opponent's response to a perceived action. If a player or team can feign or fake that action to get the opponent to commit and then act in a different way, they use deception and misdirection to achieve their goals. Athletic competitive success requires a mastery of deception.

Because success depends upon anticipation, much of sport relies upon disguising actions so that the other side anticipates incorrectly. If I want to succeed in an action, I need to convince my opponent that I am not going to do what they think I am. I try to disguise, deceive or intentionally lie about what I plan to do. If the opponent takes the bait of my fake, then they move out of position. They are not prepared for the action I actually take and  and are caught lunging for a volley or kick. They are out of position on a run or suddenly face a mismatch between one defender and offense player. We spend hours teaching athletes how to fake and feint and create mismatches. We teach athletes to project false intent in their interactions.

Elite athletes watch immense amounts of tape to understand their own tendencies, learn their weaknesses and practice to suppress them. Unless an athlete literally is one of the greatest, they cannot afford to have the other side anticipate and predict what they will be doing. Every athlete facing an opponent tries to avoid predictability and throw the opponent off track of what the athlete may do. The better an opponent can anticipate my action, the lower the probability of my succeeding.

Athletes also  watch tape to anticipate their opponent's best moves. Athletes watching tape seek out the quirks, tells, and ticks that give away an opponent's next move. If you are one move, one split second, one half step ahead, you can win. 

Both sides know they study each other and both sides prepare to deceive the other and project a lie for their actions. Deception and anticipation enable teams with superior game knowledge to overcome superior talent.

We worship sportsmanship but teach deception? We honor effort but play to win?

The only way to make sense of this is to remember sport competition involves a GAME. Games have closed rules. The rules define what constitutes winning and losing. They encompass the range of actions and skills needed to perform well. Athletes must master the physical, cognitive and emotional skills needed to excel within the games rule bound universe of behavior.

To excel good athletes must master pattern recognition of all the players around them. They learn to read other player's signals; they learn to control their own signals and read opponents. The skills of pattern recognition unfold during competition. Deception and feints occur within this world of recognition and competition and rules. The misdirection occurs within the bounded relation of competition. Misdirection, misreading, sneaks and feints, intentionally projected lies, become part of the game. Good athletes even learn to read the signs of feints and you get feints within feints within disguise.

The rule bound world of athletic competition thrives upon deception and anticipation. Any good negotiator or litigator or politician will practice the same strategies within the rules of their own professional practices. This is good competition and strong development of an athlete's cognitive and emotional capacities. But the real boundary world for deception in sports is CHEATING.

Athletes and coaches cheat when they consciously violate the rules of the game and try to disguise it. You see it in coaching when a coach moves beyond mastering the art of deceiving with feints, fakes and misdirection. Instead coaches or team cultures teach athletes to violate rules and get away with it. It falls apart when athletes use PEDs and hide and lie about it. It falls apart when coaches and athletes intentionally violate rules to win.  It falls apart when coaches teach and reward  athletes to intentionally injure opponents.

One is good athletic competition, the other is degradation of the person and sport.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sports Ethics: Clean it Up

You hear it all the time. Losing at halftime or the end of a loss a coach will respond to the question, “what do you have to do better coach?” “We need to clean it up,” will come the answer. The answer makes a lot of sense to a coach and gives a focus for halftime discussions or practices between competitions. This approach defines a particular tactical approach to professional and athletic excellence that works in many but not all situations.

“Clean it up” carries strong assumptions about the nature of sports and professional achievement that are worth remembering. Clean it up focuses on the prior existence of form and technique.

To clean up actions refers to prior forms and techniques that players and coaches know and can practice to get a more exact fit between player intent and executions. This tactic presumes coaches and members of the team know what they should be doing. They have a plan, a schema and an approach—the problem lies not there but that players are not executing with required form and technique.  Individuals need more reflective discipline and focus in practice and finishing to clean it up.

“Clean it up” is central to a formalistic conception of professional and athletic excellence. The imperative depends upon the idea that a player and team have obligation to master the technique and form of their position and practice. It builds heavily upon a skill conception of sport that focuses upon teaching players to link perception, mind, body and emotions into the execution of complex, sometimes minuscule  expertise, and integrate them into a flowing performance.

This formalism in an almost Platonic way relies heavily upon knowledge of the proper form. The form should be able to trump conditions if executed well. It builds heavily upon the ability of individuals to use their trained and integrated memory to master multiple forms and techniques and practice them in a mindful manner until they become second nature. The intent flows as disciplined action.

Clean it up points to the profound mental and intellectual foundations of elite sport and professional achievement. Most often when a coach or player talks about cleaning it up he or she refers to either the need to eliminate sloppy play or mistakes or address holes in their technique of game.

Sloppy play and mistakes arise from an intellectual and emotional failure. Individuals know the proper form but executed it without full focus and speed. The individual failed to give full attention to the exactitude required by the technique. Their attention wandered or never focused. The sloppiness can also arise from lack of full effort; they go through the motions or fulfill the form but without speed and effort so that the opponent can anticipate and nullify the action.

Mistakes can arise from lack of attention and the player deploys the wrong technique rather than what is required. They misanalyse the requirements of the situation. Or they may act but fail to remember or fully achieve the technique. This may arise from the opponent’s own efforts to force a mistake or it may arise because the player has not practiced enough or with full attention. Or the player may be exhausted and beaten up and simply misses a signal or cannot get his or her body to act fast enough.

Beyond mistakes and sloppiness lies another type of failure—a player may have a hole in his or her game. Their knowledge or implementation may be flawed or unpracticed. The player may be young or new to the system or they may not have given full attention to film or practice. Whatever the cause, the opponents recognize this weakness and exploit it mercilessly. It may be something as simple that a player has not learned to disguise intent and telegraphs their action so that the opponent can expect and quash the action. Either way the player and team need to commit to more study and practice to rectify the predictable limitations in their technique.

At the same time cleaning it up carries a wider team implication. Teammates rely upon each other to execute well. Teammates act on the confidence that other team members will accomplish their tasks and execute at point x at time y. The entire coordinated effort of the team and the effectiveness of plans, schemes and plays unfolds with this reliance. The failure to execute not only manifests the player’s breakdown but ripples through the entire team and scheme. People get caught out of place or act as if an action occurred and it does not so teams get “blown coverages” or uncovered bases or unguarded players. Timing plays where passes are thrown to a point not a player break down. These collective breakdowns permit opponents to achieve their goals much easier and more efficiently. At worst other teammates get tentative in their own assignments and commitments because they no longer trust each other or the power of the system they execute. That mental and emotional hesitation becomes contagious and can undermine the entire team’s execution.

The demand to clean it up, however, has a basic limit. Cleaning it up is vital to elite execution, but it presumes that the scheme or system works, or would work if only properly executed. It remains a fundamentally tactical ethical position. It focuses upon precise assessment of actions but with a view to the ideal technique that should guide the action. The technique itself depends upon the larger scheme of action and the goals behind it.

Walking off a field at half time when a coach says “we have to clean things up,” the coach is giving a vote of confidence to the game plan and to the schemes. He or she is also giving a vote of confidence to the intellectual talent and discipline of players. This comment assumes the players, once they understand where they failed to execute, will adapt and execute with precision and impact.

If, however, the opponents simply outclass or outthink the team, then no amount of cleaning up the play will help. The very goals that the techniques and form support will be undermined either by the approach, the strategy or the sheer talent of the other side.

“Let’s clean it up,” drives people to focus upon the form and technique of their profession. It drives folks to practice and internalize the methods required to pursue the goals. Beyond the method lies the coordination and communication the team relies upon to ensure that each person’s execution of a clean and precise action integrates with the planned anticipation and actions of teammates.

Form without context can create beauty but not impact. So "cleaning it up" only starts the process with oneself and learning. Real cleaning it up to be impactful involves players combining and syncing their techniques and actions to present a seamless appearance. But this seamless front hides the  endless minute adaptations of technique and form to accommodate opponent's innovationsand the needs of the moment.

If a coach and team have the wrong strategy, no amount of cleaning it up will help.

As long as the strategic goal makes sense, cleaning it up makes sense. As long as players communicate and coordinate cleaning it up makes sense. If either fails, cleaning it up only means the defeat will have proper form.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Sports Ethics: Who is a Competitor?

We were driving home from grade school one day having a discussion about the meaning of life (both kids will tell you of the madness of having two professors for parents). My daughter piped up, "well life is a journey to discover." My son hurrumped as only a ten year old can and proclaimed, "life is a game you play to win." I know, my wife and I were not planning on raising stereotypes, but there you have it.

Life is a game you play to win?

Simple enough:  A life philosophy? A way of being in the world? A way to relate to problems?

In the world of sport and of athletic competition, the highest compliment that can be paid to a person is "he or she is a competitor." I guess that the competition in athletic competition gives it away.

Being a competitor pervades the language that describes, evaluates, demeans and praises athletics. Yet it is important to remember that being a competitor does not mean a person always wins. An athletic winner can compliment the opposing person or team who lost by saying, "they were great competitors." Being a competitor may be vital to succeeding and winning, but it exists as a separate ethical status in sports. 

The reality of being a competitor lies at the moral heart of athletics and any defense of the moral worth of sports. But what does it mean? to be a competitor? Why is it morally worthy and respected even by the individuals who may win over a person. Is it a good way to live and approach life?

To compete requires a context and someone to compete against. One competes for a purpose. Without a goal to gain and someone who also seeks it, there is no competition.

In theories of evolution creatures compete to survive. They compete against other creatures seeking to survive. Sometimes the competition can be brutal and head to head since creatures seek to control the same resources of an area or herd. sometime competition can be brutal individuals compete as prey and predator or males compete for access to female  Such competition can end in a zero sum game--one dead, one alive. One propagating, one slinking away.

Sometimes, however, individuals compete to find a right and secure niche, and successful competition can mean finding co-surviving niches or cooperative strategies to survive. To succeed in this environment the creature must develop their traits and skill and intelligence to thrive in their ecosystem, not necessarily dominate another creature.

The essence of the biological competitor lies in the incessant challenge posed to survive against the environmental challenges and the other competitors who seek similar goals. The moral worth of a successful competitor is clear; the individual survives. Interestingly in this world, competitors do not want to compete against the best unless they have to. Their risk assessment preference prefers the weaker and less likely to succeed--the unique human and athletic desire to push oneself and gain glory by competing against the best grows from human's capacity for self reflection and self comparison. 

The moral worth of competition can emerge from its relationship to refine and develop the quality of a being. Being a competitor demonstrates its worth in how it contributes to the being's ability to survive and thrive.Competition hones a creature's skills and ability to thrive. It can drive a creature to develop its capabilities to their maximum extent and to find the right niche where these capabilities bring reward.

Being a competitor involves two possible obvious outcomes: to lose or win against the environment or fellow competitors. In the biological frame, to lose means to die, to win, means a creature lives another day, that is the reward, not dying, living another day for another set of possibilities.

Actually a third outcome exists. If a creature or species loses in the competition for resources, they do not necessarily die. They can move to another ecosystem. They can find different resources that permit them to survive by filling unoccupied niches or exploiting underutilized resources. They can accept a different and lower place in the herd. A real competitor can also be smart and use the "loss" to find another way to survive and thrive. They can also use the loss to get smarter, skilled or stronger.

Competing helps creatures and people grow. It can help them develop and get better or find the right niche for them by trying one area and moving to another.  But what does being a competitor mean for a human being and an athlete.

Athletic Competitors

At its center being a competitor involves an internal dialogue where the person sets goals and measures him or herself against their ability to achieve those goals. One can compete against oneself to expand skills, develop knowledge, refine technique and practice, reflect and learn. Being a competitor begins with the internal stance of competing against oneself and pushing and testing and developing one's skills.

This self dialogue introduces an often lost aspect of being a high performing competitor. Good competitors learn and adapt when they lose or face strong competition. But strong competitors  also innovate. In professional and athletic competition, people use their mind to reframe issues. They discover new ideas and approaches and tactics. They invent new ways to deploy resources and even one's body or team strategy. So being a competitor involves not just endless refining one's skill and strength and bodily integration, but thinking and applying imagination and mind to the game and challenges before the person. This can range from innovation in training, mental preparation, nutrition as well as tactics and skill refinement. A good competitor pushes him or herself to get better both for the sake of their own excellence and of winning against competitors. 

A competitor lies in an uneasy relationship to him or herself and to life. The relationship to self remains restless since personal identity can anchor in success as an athlete.  Any strong competitor can link their sense of self worth to the extrinsic goal of winning, not just the intrinsic goals of meeting their own aspirations.

This relation to self involves a constant assessment of how good one's skills and intelligence. A competitor cannot ever be satisfied with him or herself. The challenges of the game or sport change. Younger, more talented and sometimes more innovative athletes enter the arena of competition. No safe harbors exist. To succeed and stay competitive in this arena requires immense personal focus and discipline and adaptability. It means every day tests whether one has the self-discipline and desire to perfect one's skills and push oneself to the limits to stay in the game.  

This self awareness and discipline is why "she's a competitor" remains one of the highest compliments athletes can pay to fellow athletes or coaches can pay to their own or opposing athletes. It articulates the deepest level of respect that exists independent  of whether the athlete wins or loses, it means they compete.

The competitor works to perfect and overcome deficiencies that are revealed in competition. Most athletes not only love to win, but they HATE to lose. In fact one of the saddest aspects of many competitors lies in the reality that he or she does not nearly enjoy the delight of winning and the sheer rush of being at your best; but rather feels only relief that they did not lose.  The fear of losing and the  pain of loss drives can reduce a competitor to a dreary driven and haunted life.

More than a few athletes can be described as "one of the most competitive people I know." What the person reveals is not just the drive to excel and win in athletics, but this carries over into every area of their life. I can be tiddly winks or RISK or making money or just goofing around over a video game. It does not matter, this type of competitor can be fun to have around, but to be honest can get pretty tiresome if they have to win or more to the point, just act out when they  lose. Learning to be an accomplished competitor is only part of learning to be an accomplished human and friend.

Each loss can eat away at their self worth, but real competitors use it as a spur to get better. This quest to get better defines another moral aspect of a competitor and athlete's code--a competitor does not quit. What does that mean? To most athletes quitting  takes on a moral overtone, to give up, to refuse to try any more. A quitter is the antithesis of a competitor.

This is not the same as a conscious decision that one cannot attain the level of excellence or cannot compete at the same level. This acknowledges  truthful self assessment. It means individuals may leave the field and retire or they may go to another level of competition such as age related such as  masters tournaments and levels where people can compete and excel and not give up but move beyond the need to win.

Competition possesses a darker side. First, it possesses its own demonic dynamic where competitors demonize the other competitors. Teams or individuals will compete not just to push themselves, not just to be the best and win but they supplement this motivation by projecting anger or hatred on the opponents. This anger and hatred motivate. 

The demonization undermines the sportsmanship by pushing individuals to test the rules in ways designed to hurt or punish the other side, not just win within the rules. Too many coaches preach to their teams that members need to  dislike or hate their opponents. This dehumanizing lessens the nobility and strength of the competitor as a model of emulation. It distorts the satisfaction of winning into a sharp lust for dominating rather than sheer appreciation of winning and being the best that a person or team can be at that moment.

Second, darkness can shape how competition pushes individuals to get better. A competitor learns from mistakes. When they lose or get bested, they think about why they lost, work on the weaknesses or perfect their strengths, and they work to get better. But two dangers sneak in here. In the first the competitor sacrifices their self worth and identity to the external trophy of winning, to their need to beat the other. Their worth and success is in some ways diminished because they triumph not in their excellence but in their dominance that depends upon the endless king of the mountain game. When they do lose, they lose not just the game, but they feel less as a person. Or as my ten year old volleyball players used to do, they blame it on the other team, the coach, anyone but themselves because it hurts too much.

Of course my young male volleyball players missed another vital point. Evolutionary biology demonstrates that the best cooperators become the best competitors. Humans succeed as a species not because of their immense strength, talent or even intelligence. They succeed because of their capacity to develop complex successful teams that succeed. The same is true of sports. Talent and skill will often fall before talent and skill melded into a coherent team philosophy and commitment. True competitors understand that successful competition requires a team culture.

Another facet needs to be remembered. A competitor competes to the end of the trial. This is why winners will compliment the vanquished. The competitor gives it all their effort and skill even when he or she is losing. Even when he or she or the team falls so far behind, no chance exists to overcome the deficit. The athlete keeps fighting and competing. This drive and way of being honors the game they play, honors their opponents but above all honors their own integrity. The person wins that internal dialogue that even when the extrinsic goal eludes them, the intrinsic goals exist and the person remains true to their self, their goals and their teammates. 

The great competitors revel in their wins, but they revel as much in their excellence, in the sheer joy and fun and success where they and their teammates exhibit utter mastery that plays out as success and victory. They don't need domination but they celebrate mastery.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sports Logic: Soccer & Mêlée Sports

In medieval England, villages would play a “sport” called mêlée  that involved entire villages rampaging across the countryside. No rules, just who could get from here to there fastest. The "players" used an inflated oval bladder of an animal and drove the ball towards a goal. Tradition says the first ball was the head of a Dane. Bumping, kicking, biting, hitting, fighting permitted as everyone ran, threw, punched, kicked, and drove the object to the goal. The “game” resembled a battle or rather a  mêlée      In French, a melee represented a specific kind of battle where order had broken down and individuals fought each other one on one or gangs on gangs with little order or direction.

In that medieval game no one quite knew who won or what the purpose was except to let off lots of energy and barely controlled non-lethal violence. But the sport involved chaotic, nonlinear and unpredictable interactions with everyone striving to get through the chaos and achieve something like a goal. These melee sports or melee moments hide among many sports and have their own logic and skills that are worth remembering.

The modern Rugby scrum resembles this moment with everyone pushing, shoving and mauling to get control of the ball. Modern roller derby resembles a melee on wheels with shoving and pushing and barely controlled violence. Scrambles to recover a fumble or onside kick in American football have some of the same chaotic nature. A player once remarked to me, “you would not believe what goes on down at the bottom with scratching, hitting, head buts, biting, anything to get control of the ball.” The melee can erupt in many spots such as distance running or peloton in cycling.

At melee moments individuals collide to fight for position to gain an advantage either to control the object or control position in a race or unfolding play. Either way the chaotic jostling involves serious physical contact or muscling against each other. But the muscling and strength only tell part of the tale since the entire point of the fray is to escape with a tactical advantage. Preparation involves strength but also emphasis upon scenario practicing and pattern recognition to address surprise in nonlinear conflicts.

In the scrum model, players push and shove. They must be prepared physically to endure a physical free-for-all. They have to be both physically well trained and strong, at the same time, they must have a trained eye to see the moment when the object can be snatched and passed out to be free. In American football it can be grabbed and protected. But in Rugby it requires seeing the moment to pass it out and release. Similarly in “traffic” in American basketball, it involves seeing the crease and accelerating to break away or pass through the melee. A similar melee moment exists in American football when a play breaks down and in a melee offensive and defensive lineman battle each other in scrum like manner and the half back or quarter back waits for a seam to open an cuts to it.  So much of this involves a combination of strength, perception to assess the force vectors at play on oneself and others, patience while applying force and quick response to push, pass or commit when a seam opens.

Such skills involves a resilient strength to take the knocks inflicted by others and keep one's integrity of purpose and skill intact. It also depends upon a capacity for trained improvisation in response to emerging patterns from the chaos of the melee moments.  The players work to forge the conditions and see the moment of release.

Many sports have mêlée moments and can be combined with different logics. For instance many running events start as parallel sports, some remain that the entire way with  enforced lanes. But others can alternate between bunched scrums and breakouts. Apollo Ohne the three time Olympic speed skater described his own sport as requiring short but "chaotic bursts of athleticism" and at moments reduced to "mayhem" as speed skaters careened around jockeying for position while maintaining balance and speed. Similar combinations can be found in cycling or cross country events and football which is an organized start over sport has quick intense mêlée moments woven through its texture.

The moment of release can differ in each sport but requires the same trained eye abetted by physical prowess. In racing competitors struggle to find some ordered advantage in the nonlinear and chaotic groupings. Inside the groupings of runners, what cyclist call pelotons, runners seek to draft behind a runner to reduce drag and energy expenditure. At other times they fight off efforts to box him or her in and prevent a break out seam. The pushing and shoving for position balance against the tactics to save energy through drafting. At the same time, just as in scrums, runners look for the seam and precise moment to release from the group and break away. The break away might work, it might not, but success depends upon the combination of managing the disordered group with the pattern recognition and energy management of when to fight loose and run free.

These  mêlée sports and moments reward clear types of individuals:

1)   He or she needs the strength to survive and hold their own amid the scrum jostling. The strength need not be overwhelming but designed to hold integrity of form and purpose against the jostling.

2)   The athlete needs to enter the mêlée with a particular intention of taking advantage of it for a goal whether to recover a object, pass it out or release and break away.

3)   The athlete needs a high capacity to improvise in light of intent and chaos. Mêlée oments, even in tightly rule bound sports, defy predictable outcomes and create surprise given the numbers involved and multiple and random force vectors.

4)  An athlete needs to keep a cool head even as he or she exerts maximum pressure to both push and shove and keep their position amid pushing and shoving. Often the battle in the mêlée sports or moments may be hidden given the tight packed nature and the ability of experienced players to conceal their digs and jabs fighting for position Too often melee moments seem to reward berserkers when the opposite is true.

5)   Adapting to these moments puts a high premium on pattern recognition, but also the ability to see patterns emerge in new unplanned forms. The improvising athlete can recognize the seam or open space but these opportunities do not open in predictable ways. Often a new schema or play suggests itself from the play and pattern recognition of the melee.

6)   It can be possible to train players and teams to respond to exactly such moments and create a play from the chaos by practicing and coordinating the ability to see and improvise.

The word  mêlée  derives from the French word for uncontrolled fight where strategy and even tactics leave off. The fight occurs amid chaos and plans give way to resolve and improvisation. Strategy or tactics may have brought the warriors to this moment, but not is degrades to blunt force trauma fights.

These moments still exist in many sports and still call upon ancient and practiced disciplines of strength, energy deployment, finding the right moment to release or escape or capture. The improvisation depends upon trained pattern recognition and the practice in dealing with the surprise of chaos. Good teams and athletes can make this an art.