Playing with Quality*

Posted by jlubans on January 20, 2015


A blowout girl’s basketball game got national attention this past week.
Arroyo Valley High School (CA), the winning team, scored 162 points, the loser, Bloomington H.S., 2. Yes, two points. As a punishment for unsportsmanlike conduct, the winning coach was suspended for two games for the egregious and embarrassing run-up of the score.
I’ve used sports as points of departure for commenting on teamwork and collaboration, so this story joins previous blogs**, one about offering a hand-up to a downed opponent, another about aiding a fellow runner to cross the finish line, and a third about literally carrying an opposing team’s player to victory - all which might qualify as “man bites dog” stories. That’s because popular sports opinion and practice is never to help your opponent. You don’t win by helping the other guy.
So it is not surprising that the winning coach’s suspension enraged many fans. Their view: fire the loser coach. Many see nothing wrong in running up the score. After all, it’s good for kids to experience defeat. The losing coach obviously did a lousy job in preparing his team; if you can’t run with the big boys, don’t play.
You get the idea.
"People shouldn't feel sorry for my team," the losing coach said, "They should feel sorry for the (winning) team, which isn't learning the game the right way."
So, there’s supposed to be a tacit understanding among players and coaches that when the score is one-sided, the stronger team needs to let up – show some mercy (and class). Not doing so is poor sportsmanship. Or, is this sentiment-soaked wimpiness, a caving in to the “everyone’s a winner” self-esteem crowd?
I’m on the side of the former – always be the gracious winner or loser. If you’re in a mismatch - an athletic team with veteran players vs. an inexperienced team - then you need to resist the temptation to be the bully. In this high school game the winning coach used a full court press for the entire first half. Then, relentlessly switched from full court to “trapping” – 2 or 3 players surrounding the player with the ball, forcing a time out or a held ball or literally ripping the ball away. There’s also something to be said about the common practice in basketball conferences, of all levels, of playing very weak teams out of conference. Supposedly, these are “tune-up” games prior to beginning conference play. I’m the last person to say there’s no value in getting trounced by a better team – it’s why women teams in college use men practice players –to get better. The beating can ramp up one’s game, but not if you’re in shellshock! Some say these easy games are simply for empty Ws and boosting player statistics, dubious reasons if true.
And, there’s a downside. Easy wins give the illusion of invincibility. Once in conference play, the team may lose a game or two because of that surfeit of confidence.
What about the winning players and their development as leaders and followers? Did any of the winning players confront the coach: “This is embarrassing me. Can we quit hammering them and play this like a varsity/JV scrimmage?” Or did the players delude themselves, “Wow! Look at my stats!” The winning coach admitted: "the game just got away from me." That’s not all. I’d say leadership got left in the locker room.
What does this have to do with workplace teams?
Plenty. Remember, it is indeed “always more than a game.” Respect for other work teams matters; how you compete and “play the game” matters in the organization. Treating other teams with kindness and in a cooperative spirit will advance the goals of the organization further than focusing on only one team’s goal. A shared achievement is better for the organization than one team claiming the trophy (recognition and reward) at the expense of others. A team that talks trash about other work teams is acting unethically and like a bully – taking advantage of circumstances that may hinder another team from doing its best. Instead of destructively mongering rumors to undermine reputations, air your differences with that team, in private, and once you’ve made your point – and heard their side - offer to help that team in real and supportive ways to get past whatever is impeding them.
OK, but what to do when you are up against a terribly weak team, one that is pulling down the organization? I think this has to be met with the same openness, listening and consideration. The outcome may well be different – the team may need to dissolve - but at least the decision is made in an upfront, caring and cooperative way.
Arroyo’s winning coach had this to say: "It wasn't a good feeling (afterward)," … "It's not something I would put on a mantel.” Maybe, just maybe, a lesson about fairness – other than being more cunning when thrashing weak teams – has sunken in.

* As in a Gentlewoman or Gentleman of Quality.

** A few other of my sports blogs:
“Altruism in Sports and Work”
“Aiding the Enemy?”
“What’s Fair?”

@Copyright John Lubans 2015

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