Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Culture of Sport

In my coaching manual ("A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion"), one of the articles about which I am most proud has the same title as this blog, "The Culture of Sport" (pp.249-253). In that article I refer to the mores that surrounds sports in general and curling (as well as golf) in particular.

The premise of the article is simple. In sports, as in all walks of life, participants tacitly or openly agree to a set of principles. From a sociological perspective (if I recall some of my sociology classes at Wilfrid Laurier University), it's mostly a birth rite. In other words, we are born into a society that has rules of conduct which form the basis of that society's laws and general day-to-day anticipation of behaviour. I'm sure my sociology professors from WLU will say that I've greatly oversimplified the topic but for the purposes of this blog, it's going to have to do.

Most human conflicts are a result of one group of people trying to impose its culture onto another whose mores are different. Unfortunately, we're seeing that played out today, in perhaps its most brutal form ever.

In sport, the participants play by a set of unwritten rules, accepted by all with negative sanctions imposed on those who break the rules. Sometimes it's referred to as the "code". The National Hockey League is an excellent example of such a code, vigorously defended by its Players' Association, sometimes in my view, to the detriment of both the game and the players themselves. 

In my article referred to above I cite the case of a major league baseball player, who in a pivotal World Series game, accepted an awarding of first base, when the home plate umpire felt the pitched ball had struck the batter on the hand. Replay showed clearly that the ball had not hit the batter's hand but rather the end of the bat. It was an honest mistake and here's the point, the batter might have been the only one who knew for sure the ball had not struck his hand. He could have turned to the umpire and corrected the error. Of course he didn't! Why? Because the culture of baseball is such that when the official makes an error in your favour, you accept it, to do otherwise would most certainly incur the wrath of your teammates. But, had that same batter had a golf club in his hand as opposed to a baseball bat and been on a golf course as opposed to a baseball diamond and had that same athlete accidentally touched the golf ball at address, out of site of anyone else, he very likely would have imposed a penalty on himself. Same person, different culture!

In my last blog ("Dealing With On Ice Issues") I referred to a situation in a Brier game where the culture of the sport of curling took a bit of a body blow, not in any way fatal, but not commensurate with curling's culture. In juxtaposition, last night in the Brier, curling's culture was on display for all to see and for the right reason.

In a critical round robin game among two teams favoured to be playing in the playoffs, an apparent hog line violation occurred when the athlete released the stone, only see the dreaded red lights glow brightly. The player's body language showed some consternation as he felt he had released the stone before its leading edge reached the inside edge of the hog line. Replays showed that was indeed the case! It did not take very long for the other team to decide that the player should replay the shot even though, according to the protocol, the hog line violation could have held. 

I for one was not surprised that the skip of this non-offending team, along with his third, quickly made the decision to have the shot replayed. You see, that's the kind of athletes they are and the skip in particular, in the final of a Canadian Junior Championship, displayed the same quality of sportsmanship! Was it the culture, the basic decency of the athlete or a measure of both? I like to think it's a combination of the two!

At this year's M&M Meat Shops Canadian Junior Curling Championship in Corner Brook, NL, I was in conversation with the front desk clerk at the host hotel. I asked how everything was going now that all the athletes had arrived. She started to speak when I raised my hand and said, "Let me tell you how it's going. These athletes are polite, enthusiastic, respectful and a joy to be around." Her mouth dropped open as she asked, "How did you know what I would say?" With a smile I replied, "Oh, just a lucky guess." 

I recently on this site encouraged parents of aspiring athletes to read an excellent article. I'm going to encourage parents once again, as they help their offspring to engage in sports, to take the time to examine the culture of that sport as it will play a role in the way their son or daughter not only sees the world but how they act and react in it. And perhaps most importantly, it will set for a good deal of their young life, the friends with whom they will spend a good deal of time. Will they get the same message from those friends that you are sending at home? 

If you're looking for a sport whose culture represents the best of what we in our society see as positive, curling might be a good choice!

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