Lessons Learned from Sports

Today I want to share a brief list of life lessons I acquired from playing sports as a child.

Baseball: In a pitcher’s count (0-2, 1-2), you ready yourself for a fastball and adjust for the off-speed.

Life comes at everyone pretty fast, and mistakes will happen. Failures are an inevitable part of life. The way to minimise that is to anticipate life coming at you fast. Do not plan for life to throw you a curveball because you will never catch up to life’s usual speed. Instead, anticipate it coming at you hard and be flexible enough to make the last-second adjustment if it turns out to be a curveball. You can buy yourself some more time and possibly turn a tragedy into an opportunity.

Baseball: It often requires someone else.

This applies pretty much universally to sports, but, especially at lower levels of competition where there is less parity among competitors, one athlete might run roughshod over opponents. It’s not uncommon for a precocious hockey player to win the faceoff, skate through the other team, and score alone.

Baseball typically requires help to achieve the goal. Get a runner on first base, move them into scoring position, and drive them in to score. When down by five runs in later innings, one does not go to the plate looking to win the game with a home run (a joke my father and I often shared going to see our favourite team was how often players did seem to be trying to hit a fictional 7-run home run). No, one focuses on extending the inning and getting on base. The next batter must do their job.

Sports teach children to put faith in others to deliver on their part. Teams rise and fall as a group, not on the strength of any one individual.

Ice Hockey/Soccer: You are not in possession of the puck/ball for most of the game, but your positioning still dictates how the play unfolds. How you play the game while not in possession matters.

During the World Cup I saw a wonderful play unfold (I cannot remember the team or player, but you might from the description). Three attackers took off down the field against a pair of defenders who had positioned themselves in the gaps between the attackers. The middle attacker was the team’s superstar.

As they moved downfield, the superstar moved towards one side of the field, and the defenders both shifted with him – one to attack the ball carrier and the other to defend him. The ball carrier sent the ball across to the far attacker. As the ball moved, the superstar shifted towards the other side of the field, and the defenders again adjusted themselves.

The ball came through again to the unmarked attacker who scored easily. It was smart play by the two ball handlers, but the goal really occurred because of the run by the superstar whose placement forced the defence out of position.

Ice hockey is the same way. A story I heard from my father was that as a boy, Wayne Gretzky would take a diagram of the rink to hockey games with him and trace the path of the puck throughout the game as a continuous line. After the game the diagram would be covered with marks from sixty minutes of play, and there would be dark sections of the playing surface from where the puck crossed again and again. He had performed a rudimentary but effective analysis of puck placement and determined where the puck was most likely to be.

When it came time for The Great One to play, he skated to those places on the ice. It looked effortless, the way Gretzky just happened to be in the right place all the time. He did not simply acquire the puck and out-skate his opponents. He determined where he needed to be and then put himself there. Great things happened.

Life is largely beyond our control. We control the things we can and, ideally, accept the things we can’t. We must position ourselves through those means to have the best chance for success when life temporarily hands us control.

Ice Hockey/Soccer: “100% of the shots you don’t take don’t go in.”

Pretty straightforward – if you take chances and put in the effort, you may still fail. If you fear failure and avoid taking chances or putting in the effort, you never have the chance to succeed.

All Sports: Perseverance

It’s Game 4 of the best-of-seven series. The home team is ahead three games to none. They interview the captains before the game:

Away Captain: We aren’t out of this yet, but we have to win this one first. I think the whole thing tonight will be to get out there and just win that first period. Get the first goal. Win the first faceoff.

Home Captain: That fourth win is always the toughest. We have a lot of respect for our opponents and you know they are going to come at us with everything they have tonight to avoid elimination. We just have to play our game, stay loose, and try to have a mistake-free night.

Most of the time, interviews are unnecessary in sports because fans have seen enough of them to know precisely what the interviewee will say in that situation. This is not because the response is hollow, but because perseverance dictates it as the only appropriate response in that situation.

Every inch matters. The game is not over until it’s over. The series is not over until it’s over. As long as there is time on the clock, as long as there are still outs with which to work, the game continues and victory remains a possibility.

All Sports: Defeat is inevitable; so is victory. Tomorrow is another game. Next season is another year until one retires. And after the game is over, all that really matters is how well one played the game.

In all of NFL history, only two teams have gone undefeated – the most recent being the New England Patriots 16-0 season that ended in a Super Bowl loss. The first team, the Miami Dolphins, had an even shorter schedule. No other team in major American sports has gone undefeated.

Best MLB record of all time: 1906 Chicago Cubs – they lost 36 times that year. A Hall of Fame batting average is considered anything north of .300. That means the absolute best hitters fall to record a hit 7 times out of 10.

Best NHL record of all time: 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens – they lost 10% of their games. The greatest shooting percentage of all time is just 16% for one season.

Best NBA record of all time: 2016 Golden State Warriors – lost 9 of 82 games. The best shooters miss more than 40% of the time.

Best MLS record of all time: 2018 Atlanta United FC – lost 6 of 33 games.

Failure occurs all the time in sports. The greats take another shot, take another swing, throw another pass. We remember the Barry Sanders and Dan Marinos long after they stop playing even though they never won a championship because of how they played the game.

All Sports: When a teammate behaves inappropriately (towards a coach, another teammate, an official, a fan, or even an opponent), it is your job as the teammate to call them on it and demand they represent the team better, not the object of the bad behaviour.

People are naturally inclined towards Us versus Them thinking. Men and women. Black and white. Heterosexual and homosexual. Binary and non-binary even. Studies have shown that even if we could reduce a population towards something resembling homogeneity (say, all straight white males with blond hair and blue eyes), humans will inevitably move on to some other characteristic. Those over six feet tall would subjugate those shorter. The right-handed people would oppress the left-handed.

We define ourselves in terms of our opposition and we compete with that opposition. When someone represents the Them, many people have little trouble expressing their attitudes and feelings.

But no one is perfect, no ideology completely sound. We are human and fallible, unable to avoid cognitive bias (this coming from a universalist who believes there is a absolute truth to the universe, we simply cannot see beyond our relative experience to understand it).

Responsibility and accountability are for oneself. After that, it falls to members of the team – not to others first. Men who behave inappropriately towards women must be held accountable by other men, not by the women. The men behaving inappropriately do not concern themselves with the opinions and protests of the women they wrong. It’s not that women are weak or victims, it’s that the men in question are beyond that reasoning.

In baseball, for example, if a pitcher throws intentionally at a batter, the unwritten rules dictate that the opposing pitcher will throw at a batter from the other team. If the response attempt does not occur, it sends the message that “we will tolerate you pushing around and threatening our team”. If my pitcher throws at one of their batters, I should expect that a batter on my team, perhaps myself, will have a pitch thrown their way. One respectfully accepts that injury, takes the base, and life moves forward.

If my pitcher throws at one of their batters unprompted, he just decided he did not like someone on their team, it becomes my responsibility as his teammate to call him out on that action. We function as a unit and that behaviour is inappropriate, it reflects poorly on us as a team. Standing up and defending him as a teammate is just as wrong as his act. We know the other team will rightly retaliate, so our pitcher has also endangered one of our teammates through his actions. He does not care what the other team thinks and so will not care about that retaliation. That is why my voice as his teammate to prevent that behaviour in the future is so important.

Observe that in many sports brawls the involve multiple players, one inevitably sees personnel from one of the teams restraining and talking down members of their own team. That is teamwork, that is responsibility, and that is accountability. So too one might observe opponents who are not fighting but who are serving as de facto ambassadors for their side, talking through the disagreement with the cooler heads on the opposing side who will prevail upon their teammates to put an end to the violence.

These are not wimps who fear conflict and shy away from aggression. They are responsible, courageous individuals who are willing to do the truly difficult thing and stand up to their friends and allies. The right thing is more important than winning.

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