Sunday, January 10, 2016

What Message Are You Sending?

Last Sunday (12/27/16), those members of the 1972 Miami Dolphins of the National Football League so inclined, for the 43rd consecutive year, popped open champagne bottles, as the previously undefeated Carolina Panthers suffered their first loss of the current season. You see, for those of you out there who were not around in 1972, & suspect that's many of you, the '72 Dolphins were the last NFL team to assemble an unblemished won/lost record for the regular season through to the Super Bowl. The 2007 New England Patriots came within one game, unfortunately it was the "big one", of matching that remarkable feat. And I'm not kidding about the champagne thing. Apparently some of the members of that '72 Dolphin team actually do that.

The loss did very little to deflect the Panthers march toward a possible Super Bowl Campionship. The team has already clinched its division and unless there's a second before the regular season ends, the road to the Super Bowl will go through Charlotte, NC as it will have secured home field advantage throughout the playoffs. But there's more to the loss than might first meet one's eye.

The victorious team was the Atlanta Falcons, a team in the Panthers division. Not only that, only a few weeks earlier, the Panthers defeated the Falcons 38-0! But it's what happened immediately after that lopsided victory, to which I want to draw your attention.

The entire Panthers offensive unit, led but its MVP-bound quarterback, Cam Newton, gathered on the sideline for a celebratory group photograph. The defeated, and I'm guessing humiliated, Atlanta Flacons, upon leaving the field took note of this. I suspect that extra incentive might just have been what the Falcons needed to put an end to the Panthers' undefeated season. Certainly, without bragging on their part in the sound bites I've heard, the victorious Falcons made mention of the Panthers' group photo.

It's hard enough to win a game at an elite level in any sport! Why would one provide any "bulletin board material" for those teams in one's competitive environment? To my way of thinking, it's just not smart! But, I know, I'm in a shrinking minority so save your dissenting comments. I'm "old school" on this. I know that. But I'd rather error on the side of caution and I'll explain why beyond the example cited above.

In every athletic contest, there are two battles to be won. One is obvious, it's the battle on the scoreboard. Many would argue that it's really the only battle. That's naive to believe, as the scoreboard battle often hinges on another, albeit more subtle but nonetheless significant struggle. It's  the psychological tussle for mental superiority. If you don't believe it exists you haven't competed at a high level. I don't mean that as a shot across your competitive bow, it's simply a statement that in your career development, you're currently at some other stage. When you get there, you'll better understand the premise of this blog but trust me, you'll be better prepared when that day arrives and it will arrive!

From the moment the two competitors arrive at the venue, before the contest begins, the process of "sizing up" will be in full forward gear. The way you talk, react, carry yourself/selves, your pre-game actions etc., all make a statement about who you are and what you are about. Allow me a real time, personal example.

When I take our national senior champions to the world championships, we conduct all our team meetings at our hotel. The other countries never see Canada huddled together in some last minute discussion, planning some sort of strategy going forward. And the same is true following the game. We socialize with our opponent as soon as possible, often waiting for them to "debrief" while we enjoy the company of one another, our supporters and/or spectators, curious about who we are and what life is like "back home". We want to be seen as so confident, so prepared, that on site conferences just aren't  necessary. Don't misunderstand, we'll debrief and plan for our next game, but as state above, it will be in an environment we control! And in the process, we want the message we send in that psychological engagement to also be carefully controlled as well, as we understand that winning that battle often give us a better chance to win the one we want!

One of the scenarios I use in high performance camps around the country is to ask teams how they might react to an unfortunate bit of adversity, such as a pick on a particularly important shot. I point out that the opposition is watching the reaction very carefully. I suggest that it's really a choice as to how your team will visually respond. It can look like someone just shot their dog or they can deal with it like so much water of a duck's back. It's their choice but consider the two reactions. Imagine the extra "lift" the opposition gets to not only benefit from your misfortune but also from your very negative reaction. You can't do anything to change what happened to your shot but you have complete control over your reaction to it.

But I don't stop there. I also ask how the team will react to an unearned bit of good fortune. Perhaps missing the line on a shot so badly that the shooter ricochets off a stone, and perhaps raises another and, well, I think you've got the picture. Your opponent is also watching that reaction as well.

The sports world has changed. I get that! Spectators of sport seem to first want to be entertained. It's not good enough it seems to just make great plays on the field, court, ice etc. Now it's expected that when you do excel, to please the fans, your teammates and perhaps your own ego, you need to create a unique celebration to cap it off. I smile that major league baseball players, adults mind you, who have a "secret handshake" to congratulate a teammate for excellence. I recall one rookie who's first task, first task, was to learn the secret handshakes (and there were many) even before the third base coach's signals to the player when he was at bat. I kid you not!

I've cited this coach before but I'm going to do it once again. His name is Bud Grant and he instructed his players that when they scored a touchdown, they had two choices (there's that word again). They could hand the ball to the nearest official and jog to the bench or they could drop the ball and jog to the bench. Why? Send the message that you've been there before and you're coming back real soon!

There's a very fine line between the camaraderie that comes with recognizing the accomplishments of a teammate and the type of celebration that provides that extra incentive to your opponent.

I have, on a DVD, ten very famous shots that have been made by Canadian teams over the years. Each shot is spectacular in its own way. The reason for showing the shots is because of what happens before or after the shot, out of camera range. One of those shots is by a very well known team whose skip who is now on the SportsNet broadcast crew. It's a wonderful shot! Make no mistake! It was called and made! It was no fluke! The fans and the team went wild. To be fair, the skip to whom I referred, to his credit, was, by comparison to his teammates, quite matter-of-fact about it. But the damage had been done and what the viewers don't see is the other team who got together and said, "Look at them! They think they've won the game!". Well, they didn't and one of the reason why was because their celebration sent the wrong message.

I understand that sports, like society in  general, has different cultures. What's acceptable behaviour in one sport's culture might be way over the line in another. Those who play different sports are well aware, or should be well aware of the differences from one sport culture to the next. So my admonition about one's reaction is to be seen within the culture of the sport in which one is engaged. But what concerns me most about excessive celebrations is the fact that in my opinion it subordinates the athletic accomplishment that led to the celebration as we're left with it in our mind rather than the great play!

I referred to my age earlier in this piece. I'm still of the mindset that it's what happens within the context of the athletic contest that causes me to be "entertained". I don't need the entertainment value of the celebration that follows. When and why did that change?

Now that I've descended from my soap box, let me remind you that the reason I've put fingers to keyboard is not to try to change the sports world (despite what one of my loyal readers might think), I know that's not going to happen, but rather to caution you to think before you act and react.

Before you set foot into the venue, perhaps might want to give some thought to the message you wish to send! It's too important to send the wrong one!


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