This appeared in Ski Racing last fall, but I just realized I never posted it here. The height of baseball (and pie and fireworks) season seems like the right time to put it up. Happy 4th to all and whether you’re playing in the state champs in a tight game of Wiffle Ball or on the local ropeswing let’s all be good sports out there.
I think the good guys are winning.
This occurred to me at Fenway Park, just before the start of the final season’s match up between the Yankees and Red Sox. Before the game started the Red Sox and an entire stadium of Boston fans paid a long tribute to Mariano Rivera. A Yankee being lauded at Fenway is extraordinary enough, but the depth of the tribute went beyond any athlete farewell I have seen. It did so in part because of Mariano the player, the best closer in the game and the last MLB player to wear Jackie Robinson’s #42. But it was more about the person who brought his A-game along with his grace, humility and genuine appreciation for others to every outing. Mark Herrman said it best in Newsday: “What would be a fitting honor is to make sure Rivera’s class and dignity rub off on a whole generation in the sport and the world at large.”
How do we do that? One step, certainly, is by giving the good guys the cred they deserve, in tributes like the above that make lukewarm spectators into raving fans. Another step is refusing to feed the beast, refuse to canonize athletes for athletic prowess while excusing unsportsmanlike behavior. As spectators we’re getting there. We’ve outgrown the “Image is Everything” era just as Andre Agassi outgrew his rebel stage, shed the baggage it created, became a champion for education and married a superstar athlete whose public persona was the antithesis of his own. We’re definitely over Lance, and the notion that any athlete could be so good and famous and significant that we need to protect him to preserve our own fantasies of the hero athlete.
The time is ripe to take the notion of being a “good sport” out of the realm of loserhood (i.e. the conciliatory pat on the head, and the “there now Jimmy, be a good sport,” with the subtext being, “get used to losing and be quiet about it.”) and into the realm of greatness. Being a good sport encompasses much more than the narrow band of winning and losing. Certainly many if not most athletes have this revelation down the road, especially when they contemplate the value of sports in the lives of their own kids. But to cultivate more Riveras, young athletes need to “get” it from the moment they enter the arena, before they even have the notion of maintaining an image. They have to be shown by example, and educated from the start on the value of, well, values. And who’s going to do that? Everyone reading this–coaches, parents, fans, family and peers.
Hockey great Bobby Orr makes the case for sportsmanship in his newly released memoir, which has prompted reminiscences about his quiet generosity. Orr himself deflects the accolades, and instead credits the culture in which he was raised, where the team “expectations” were more about behavior, manners and respect than about winning. He does not hide his dismay at what he considers the “corroding culture in youth sports” where the stakes and the tensions are unnecessarily high from the moment a kid picks up a ball, a stick or a ski. “We’ve got to do a better job with our kids,” Orr said in an interview with the Boston Globe. His advice to coaches is to “Act properly, be a good person. Teach the fundamentals of the game, but teach values.” Parents can follow through on those lessons by supporting coaches and teammates behind closed doors rather than perpetuating jealousy, rivalries and conditional attention. It’s critical, but not complicated: If you want kids with values, reinforce the behavior and the effort, rather than the outcome.
It was fitting to have this sportsmanship revelation at a baseball game, because it was baseball—ironically, the province of the dreaded Little League Parent—where my kids had their most formative training in sportsmanship at the hands of a coach with an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball, a deep reverence for the game and an ability to squeeze the best out of every kid. He is as apt to quote John Wooden on character, hard work and positive attitude as to demonstrate proper stance and discuss on-the-fly strategy. This holistic approach to coaching specific skills within a broader framework of expectations instilled in kids and their parents a zen-like acceptance of the inevitable missed plays and bad calls, and a culture of self-policing in the dugout, on the sidelines and on the field.
Indeed, athletes themselves have the biggest opportunity to set a positive example. Orr takes major issue with any elite athlete who claims he or she is not a role model. Looking back I wish that during my athletic career I had a better sense of being role model. Part of it was not seeing myself as worthy of the mantle. I had the humility part down, but I didn’t get that at every level, the level below is watching. They’re always watching.
The story of Rivera showing a pitcher from another team the grip for his famous “Cutter” reminded me of 2014 Olympic champion Ted Ligety detailing how he makes GS skis turn faster than anyone on the planet. The really good ones don’t keep secrets, because they don’t feel bigger and more important than the sport. Likewise, when Ligety speaks out on the hazards of the new (and much harder to turn) GS skis it’s not for his own advantage—clearly he has mastered them—but for the sake of the thousand of kids with a fraction of his strength and experience. Kids he’s never met. Kids like mine, and maybe yours. Now that’s being a good sport. That’s winning.