Culture, in many ways, is the holy grail of a team, group, or organization. Much has been written on culture and more surely will be. It is the blood of an outfit, without it any fellowship becomes toxic and extinct. If we agree culture it vital, then what is it and how do we implement and refine culture?
As much as we want it to be, athletics is not a “hard” science. The truth: unequivocally, sport falls within the realm of “soft” sciences. No experiment demonstrates this better than the US Olympic Track & Field trials, which I was pirvileged to coach at and witness this month.
It is no secret that I am a big fan of late 1980s NBA basketball. In my opinion, these days are the apex of the league and one team had an unmatched zenith of competency and dominance, the 1985-86 Boston Celtics. The main catalyst for this team’s summit of competitive greatness was their leader, Larry Bird. Today many applaud Steph Curry’s work ethic and skill proficiency. While he is very good right now we should remember he was influenced by Kobe Bryant, who was influenced by Michael Jordan, who was influenced by Larry Bird.
Track and field is a beautifully simple sport. The standardization of implements, distances, equipment, and competition venues allow for a clear cut comparison of results. The height a high jumper cleared in New Hampshire can quickly be compared to another athlete’s jump in Qatar. It is truly is a universal game. With numerous athletics results available online we can compare marks in an instant. This cements track & field as a globalized industry.
The past five years I coached at the NCAA Division I level here in Portland. This year, however, I am happy to report I have left the NCAA system. Why? In a word: burnout. No, I am not burnt out on coaching — I still have 5 more years until I retire! — rather I am burnt out on watching athletes burn out. From my experience, the heart of this variety of coaching entails an attempt, in vain, to prepare young men and women distance runners to compete at a very high competitive level for nine months out of the year, four years in a row. It is a fool’s gambit and athlete burnout is a guarantee.
Every so often Vern Gambetta, a mentor, colleague, as well as contributor here on HMMR Media, comes to Oregon on business. We always find time to grab a cup of coffee and chat – for hours and hours. What I enjoy most about Vern is he’s honest, transparent, curious, and humble. He has more questions than answers, but much of what he does know, I do not. I always leave our coffee talks having learned and questioned more about the art of coaching than from any conference, clinic, or continuing education course. When he was in town recently our discussion centered around culture in athletics. The good. The bad. And the ugly.
Recently, I came across this exquisite investment article which discusses a phenomena called the Babe Ruth Effect and its application to financial portfolio management. The central takeaway from the article — “that the frequency of correctness does not matter; it is the magnitude of correctness that matters” — hit me like a lightning bolt of truth. The statement awakened a clarity about a variety of elements related to track and field, including training, coaching, as well the industry of the sport itself. What follows is my attempt to inspect how and why we could apply the mental model of the Babe Ruth Effect to these areas.
An undeniable law of existence is that there is an expiration date to everything. You see this wisdom express in every text of spirituality across the globe. In Judeo-Christian traditions this truth is succinctly discussed in the the Old Testament in Ecclesiastes 3 which is commonly known as the “A Time For Everything” chapter. This truth is a focus in Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Native American traditions as well as numerous others. Many philosophers, scientists, and artist know this as well. The inescapable intelligence of term limits is a deep enteral wisdom. Why then it is common practice to coach with an open ended timeline?