This week’s column is brought to you by the letter f, which for the purposes of the blog will stand for fanatic, or fan, rather than what I was saying on Sunday. It was a rough day for Bengals fans with the excellent season crumbling before our eyes, and inevitably it had to be against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers seemed to maintain their composure that bit more than the Bengals, but it was a cruel blow to lose Andy Dalton to a thumb fracture. I don’t want to write a woe is me piece, or spill bile directed at the Steelers, but I wanted to take a moment with the end of the regular season looming to take a look at the experience of being a fan.
You may well have heard people make reference to fan being a contraction of fanatic, and whether this is a true derivation or a nice line, there is no question that there are a huge number of people invested in various sports teams across the world, and some of them can be very committed. I would tend to think of myself as informed rather than maniacal, but there’s no question that I was excessively upset with the situation on Sunday. In fact I was probably as upset as I was with the dispiriting playoff loss to the Colts last season. I bounced back fairly quickly from that game as there were so many injuries to the offence’s skill players that I didn’t buy into the Andy Dalton narrative about not being able to win a playoff game. However, the plain fact of the matter is that he hasn’t yet, and one of the wonderful things about this season was that through play alone Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton were changing that story, and I felt that it stood a very good chance of being put to bed this season. There’s still a slight chance that it might, but I wouldn’t back it to happen, although there’s a chance that if Lewis and Hue Jackson can work with AJ McCarron that a playoff win can be found and the leagues longest playoff win drought will finally come to an end.
The key thing for this column though is that here I am on a different continent, in a world beset by problems more serious than a team’s ability to beat another at a contest of strength, skill, and speed, yet still there was a significant period of time where what I was upset about the bad fortune that had befallen a group of people I have never met dressed in orange and black. And yet I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Yes I would agree that a lot of professional sports people, particularly the men, are overpaid when compared to the truly important work that people put in for society, but that doesn’t mean I want to get rid of professional sports. These issues speak to the nature of markets and their interaction with society rather than a problem with sport. I won’t give you a complete treatise on the faults of free market capitalism, or pretend that I have a solution, but I do want to take a moment to examine the fan experience, sports, and why if we can maintain a sense of proportion that sport is important.
I have written before about the importance in coaching, and I don’t think it is a coincidence that sport coaches are often called in to give talks on management or write books on how to build successful teams. However, you average fan may not be reading books on coaching techniques, incremental improvements, or developing a coherent philosophy for success. However, I strongly believe that we all only have so much time that we can spend in focussed work. This is perhaps even more the case if you work in a high pressure situation, or for long hours. If we look back at human history, we see the need to escape the every day woven through the human experience. As a writer, a musician, and so technically an artist, I know how important it is to connect with people’s everyday experience, but also to take them out of themselves. I hate criticisms of escapism as very few people can be completely serious all of the time, and I’m not sure how much time you would want to spend with those who are. The ability to stretch your imagination, whether you are dreaming of being a Jedi Knight, scoring the goal that take Leicester City to the top of the league, or playing for your home town Bengals, is important. The ability to step outside of yourself, to escape the drudgery of your day, to take a well earned break, is really useful and I would definitely say life enhancing.
Very few people are given the physical talent and the opportunity to play professional sports, let alone pull off a move to their childhood team like AJ Hawk managed this offseason when he joined the Bengals. However, playing sports at any level is a useful way of keeping active, and if professional sports can inspire children to play a sport, and if as a society we can make that a habit so we have more adults exercising regularly, then we are already on the way to a healthier society.
The benefits of sport are not just physical though. I spend a large amount of time writing about the NFL because I enjoy, but it is also a type of practice. I’m never too sure how much faith I put in the idea of the 10 000 hour rule, but you don’t get better at anything without practice. I don’t just write about sports, in fact the first thing I started writing is fiction and over the course of the year that is what I spend the majority of my time writing, but this blog is a kind of cross training. Just as you hear of NFL players training in different sports in the offseason, or using martial arts training to help them play football, this blog helps me work on the discipline and craft required for writing. This however is not the only non-physical benefit of sport.
A team can help community in a city, or even further afield as sports become increasingly global, but the mental benefit is more than bringing a group of people together, or making you happy when a team wins. Going back to children’s participation in sport, this is a good place for a child to learn what it means to be part of a team, and how to work hard at something, and possibly most importantly, dealing with failure. Why is dealing with failure important? Because in a society that seems to be increasingly trying to protect children from failure, that praises success, we very seldom seem to focus on the steps that it takes to become successful.
In Seatle Seahawks’ head coach Pete Caroll’s book, Win Forever – Live,Work, and Play Like a Champion, Caroll outlines the steps and journey that took him to defining his coaching philosophy that he calls Win Forever. This is the philosophy he uses to approach coaching a football team based around his belief in competition, and how he thinks a football team should function, but also how he approaches life in general. I have been thinking about this as at the end of the book he also challenges the reader to come up with their own plan, which believe it or not I have been thinking about off and on since the spring. I wouldn’t say it’s coherent yet, and I haven’t got the definition down to twenty five worse or less, but I have the name. Process over outcome, which I grant you is not as snappy as Win Forever, but here’s the point – I don’t think you can always win. I don’t think you even should. Success does not come about through a series of success built on success, which in fairness is not what Pete Caroll is trying to say, success is the achievement of a goal through continuing a process in the face of adversity. To succeed at anything, first you have to fail. I’m in danger of sounding like an internet meme, but in a world of random probability it is impossible to absolutely guarantee an outcome for anything other than the most basic of tasks. However, by focussing on controlling the process, learning from your mistakes, and by continually trying to improve, you can maximise your potential for success, and that’s all anybody can do. I base this on my experience of playing drums for over twenty years and easily clocking 10 000 practice hours, and over the last twenty years or so I have clocked up a fair number of hours writing. However, not everyone has those interests, and another way to get there is sport. I don’t know how many hours I have spent running, but I am still learning and whilst I will never get close to international competition, I am still inspired by Paula Radcliffe, Haile Gebrselassie, Mo Farrah, and David Rudisha. I also love lifting weights, and through spending many years fighting gravity with a barbell I have learned about discipline, dealing with adversity, and persistence.
I am not saying there are no problems in sport, in fact if you have been listening to the podcast you will have heard me point out huge failings in the way the NFL runs. I’m also not saying that being overly obsessed with your team isn’t a problem – obsession taken too far can definitely cause problems, but if obsession can be harnessed it can also lead to greatness. I may love writing, I may adore the arts, but I love sport as well, and being a fan is as much of my personality as anything else. I don’t mind if you don’t love the NFL, but don’t give up on sport, I am sure that if you look there’s something out there for you.
Moving away from my soap box, I’m also pretty damn competitive, so I won’t pretend that I’m not happy about having an eight game lead over Dan with three weeks to go of the regular season, but I’m not overconfident so let’s get to the Thursday night game and the first of our picks for week fifteen.
Gee: Week 14 7-9 Overall 108-100
Dan: Week 14 8-8 Overall 100-108
Buccaneers @ Rams (-0.5)
The Rams caught me of guard last week by playing well, but they have a history of winning games that make you think they are turning a corner, and then sinking straight back into the mire. The Buccaneers have definitely made progress this year, but were handled surprisingly easily last week by a Saints team that have not been good this season and who have had real problems all season on defence. The Rams defence is definitely better than the Saints and so I should have pause this weeks, but whilst I’m nervous, I simply do not trust the Rams in this situation.
Gee’s Pick: Buccaneers
Dan’s Pick: Buccaneers