Monday, February 09, 2015
“Deflate Gate” is just one scandal in a long series of alleged or actual attempts to cheat in order to secure a win. We can go back to the 1919 World Series where a group of Chicago White Sox players agreed to throw games in order for high rollers to win big on their bets. In 1980, Rosie Ruiz supposedly won the Boston Marathon with a time 20 minutes faster than any of her other previous races. Her win, however, was assisted by the Boston subway, which she rode to the finish line and then rejoined the race. Even I could win a marathon using that ploy. Lance Armstrong eventually admitted to doping during his unprecedented seven Tour de France wins. He claims doping was done by all, and he had to do it to stay competitive. Just before the 1994 U.S. figure skating competition, Tonya Harding tried to remove her main challenger, Nancy Kerrigan, by having her whacked on the knee with a metal baton at the end of a practice session. Despite being unable to compete in the championship, which Harding won, Kerrigan was voted onto the Olympic team, going on to win silver while Harding only placed eighth. On a far more serious scale than deflating balls, the New Orleans Saints were accused in 2012 to have run a bounty program paying players who seriously injured their opponents. While never definitively proven, the defensive coordinator admitted there was a pool of money to reward players for “good hits.” Four players received suspensions, which were all appealed and eventually reduced or vacated.
This win-at-any-cost attitude isn’t admirable or acceptable, but it also isn’t surprising given the amount of money winning provides in professional or high level amateur sports. It’s not just about getting the X in the win column, or the trophy, or the medal. It’s about getting a huge payout in endorsements, signing bonuses, licensing and increased fan base. Athletes with careers that rarely go into their 40s look for payouts that are inflated by winning. A deflated ball, a bribe, a hard hit, or performance-enhancing drugs can mean the difference between being winners who get noticed and everyone else. No wonder Cam Newton believes winning excuses everything. If athletes feel morally bankrupt, they can rationalize like Lance Armstrong. This attitude that “everybody’s doing it” to justify some form of deceit or manipulation absolutely gets noticed by youth players. They are already in the frame of mind to follow the herd (Mom, everybody wears crop tops to school) and to succeed because we live in a world where anything other than a win is considered failure. So these ideas percolate down to youth sports. Add to the mix adults who buy into the theory that their kids, team, and/or school has to win, and the pressure to cheat becomes unavoidable. We’ve all experienced coaches who scream at kids they feel are costing the team a win or argue with referees over the most inconsequential matters because it’s not enough to win the game; they also have to win the arguments.
How do we avoid the pitfalls of winning that excuses everything? The first step would be to resist the urge to overpraise our kids for every little outcome. If they believe that Mom and Dad only seriously value success, they’ll do anything to make that happen. Heidi Stevens, in her article, “In Criticism of Praise,” for the January issue of Southwest: The Magazine, gives some excellent guidelines for not overdoing the approval of our kids’ activities. For example, if your child scores the game-winning goal there’s no need to be overly effusive. There will be several dozen more games to follow that accomplishment, and she probably won’t score the game winner every time or even ever again. So she could end up considering her good team play as failure because she didn’t equal that moment of glory. Simply saying, “Way to go. All that practice paid off,” lets her know you recognize the result of good effort, but that honest effort is the primary factor not the outcome. Instead of effusing over a child’s story he wrote for class, engage him in a discussion of what he wrote – tell me how you decided to make the bear your main character. Later you might praise his body of work by noting improvement or how he maintains an interesting voice in all his writing. Put the focus on process rather than on product. Ultimately expressing love is far more important than praise.
Next we should refuse to tolerate boorish behavior in the name of winning. Youth sports clubs should focus on fun, but in reality clubs face the same issues of money on a smaller scale as professional franchises do. A club that can attract players who win matches and championships have excellent PR for recruiting even more participants. The more kids in a club, the more fees, and the more coaches get jobs. Therefore, the pressure to succeed is tremendous. It’s understandable to have winning as the objective. As the old saying goes, “If winning doesn’t matter, then why do we keep score?” The difference is how the adults approach the challenge. There should be no belittling of players during or after a game. Parents on the sideline need to refrain from yelling, criticizing and coaching. Kids can’t operate under that kind of pressure. Teenagers especially react strongly to harsh instruction. Fun and winning aren’t mutually exclusive activities despite what many adults believe. It’s up to us to speak to the problems calmly but firmly. Often coaches and parents don’t even realize how ugly their behavior has become. Once our team and families were watching a DVD of a championship game, and it was cringe-worthy as parents heard how they sounded and coaches saw how they behaved. It led to a good discussion about how we could all step up and be better examples. Don’t be afraid to speak up when things get out of hand.
Addressing dirty play as a way to secure a win can be (excuse the pun) difficult to tackle. At a U-10 match during a tournament, the coach and several parents of the opposing team were encouraging their players to take our players out. “Hit his ankles. Get his knees. Take him down.” Play got very chippy and the poor 13-year-old referee couldn’t control it. No one on our team, myself included, spoke to the opposing coach after the game or the tournament director, and I regret that decision because we tacitly provided approval for such bad manners. With our own player and team we need to be vigilant for instances when kids get too violent. Good coaches will pull these kids from the pitch and let them calm down before instructing them on good sportsmanship. As parents, we need to let our kids know that we won’t tolerate dirty play. We told our sons that if they got a yellow card for dissent or a foul, we wouldn’t be happy, but we would understand that’s part of the game. However, if they got any card, especially a red, for vicious play, they would be sitting out a few games. We only had to institute the punishment once, so I think forewarning helped them think before they acted. If your child’s coach encourages dirty play, then you need to consider if that’s the environment you want for your player. Chances are you can’t change that, but it wouldn’t hurt to try. You may just need to find another coach/club.
Finally, we should redefine success in all endeavors. The sports duality model of a winner and a loser spills over into so many of our kids’ activities. Earning an A is seen as a win and anything else is seen as a loss. Being first chair in the orchestra is success and all other positions are failure. Getting an art project chosen to be displayed is a victory and being left out of the exhibit is a defeat. Therefore, kids will do just about anything to be the winner since that role is so narrow and specific. We need to help our kids move from that binary approach to success and discover what true winning can be. Over-celebrating the big success diminishes the smaller successes that don’t fit into the “first-place finish” category. In fact, those big shows of approval only lend credence to the theory that winner take all is the only thing that matters. According to a recent study by the Ad Council, 75 percent of students admit to cheating in order to get A’s (not just better grades). Obviously, students have lots of pressures to compete because they are trying to get into the best colleges. However, as a college instructor, I have seen students who are working on the thin edge of their abilities and achieve success through cheating often end up failing at the university. At a high school freshmen parents’ meeting for my youngest daughter, the big question was how we get our kids into Ivy League schools. When I asked how many of the parents had attended an Ivy League school, not a single hand went up. Instead of seeing entering college as a win, they only saw entering the top colleges in America as a win. This pressure to accomplish some inflated definition of winning leads to a lack of integrity in the effort because there’s no way to get there honestly. We need to start redefining success and then applauding that success.
Confident people have a more realistic view of what constitutes a win and can actually achieve more under that view. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor, conducted a study that was reported in Steven’s article. In the study, Dweck presented young students with problems that were far beyond their ability to resolve, but she wanted to see how they reacted to the challenge. Some kids dissolved into tantrums and tears seeing their inability to solve the problems as failure. Some coped with the situation accepting that they couldn’t find a solution. However, surprising to Dweck was a group of kids who loved the challenge, happy to struggle with the situation and unfazed when they couldn’t find an answer. As she put it, “they acted like it was a gift.” These kids had learned not to see the world as win and lose, but as a spectrum of situations that had to be met and attempted. They had a spirit of adventure looking at the journey more than at the destination. In a follow up study she gave a group of fifth graders an IQ test. Along with their scores she offered two different praises. To one group she said “You must be smart at this,” and to another group she said “You must have tried really hard.” Then she offered the kids a chance to take another test but they could choose whether to take an easier test than they had just finished or a harder test. The majority of the kids told they were smart opted for the easier test and those praised for effort primarily selected the harder test. The “smart” group didn’t want to risk their status of being smart by challenging themselves with a tougher test they might “fail.” The “effort” group had the freedom to push themselves because they could then further the level of their effort in the eyes of the scorer. Winning was seen as working harder, not in getting a higher score.
As a writing teacher I’ve come across my share of plagiarism. For some students the cheating stems from laziness – they procrastinate in the assignment or just don’t want to do it. But for the majority of students who cheat, it’s because they recognize a weakness in their writing and don’t want to be judged on that level. It pains me when a student plagiarizes, not because I’m incensed by cheating, but because I know the writer is suffering from feelings of failure. So I use the situation as a teachable moment. I ask the student to rewrite the plagiarized passages in their own words while in my office where we can discuss how to translate the ideas of others into their own opinions. I’ve always said I don’t teach writing; I teach thinking. I want students to be as proud of a C as they are of an A if that C was earned through honest, hard effort. And I want a student to know that improvement is possible through effort. I don’t agree with Cam Newton that winning excuses everything because winning should be a spectrum of success that builds on previous successes earned with integrity. We can’t all be winners in the model of win/loss, but we can all be winners in the model of process and improvement. I prefer the latter definition.