Saturday, December 24, 2016

Cleveland Browns: "We're Not the Worst NFL Team Ever"

Fans like to declare "We're Number One" but in the aftermath of the Cleveland Browns' 20-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers all that Browns fans can honestly say is "We're Not the Worst NFL Team Ever." The Browns started this season 0-14--and had lost a franchise-record 17 straight games prior to beating the Chargers--but the dubious distinction of worst NFL team ever probably still belongs to the 1976-77 Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that went 0-14 in the franchise's first year and then lost the first 12 games in the franchise's second year; those 26 straight losses are an NFL record that ranks among the sports records least likely to be broken (just think about how awful this Browns team is and then realize that they would have had to lose more than another half season's worth of games to match the Buccaneers' epic futility). Or, perhaps the 2008 Detroit Lions merit consideration, as they remain the only NFL team to lose every game in a season since the league expanded the schedule to 16 games in 1978. In any case, the 2016 Browns have elevated themselves out of that conversation, because one win is infinitely more than zero wins.

Browns versus Chargers was one of the most exciting Browns games I have ever watched, but the excitement was perverse, not joyous--kind of like watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion. Until the clock hit triple zeroes, I had no idea what would happen. Even as Josh Lambo's game-tying field goal attempt sailed wide right as time expired, I still was not convinced that the Browns had won; I first had to make sure that no Brown had thrown a helmet in celebration or jumped offsides or called timeout to ice the kicker or committed some other folly that I cannot even imagine or conceive.

It felt strange to become so emotionally invested in the possibility that an awful team might hang on to beat a pretty bad team but being a sports fan sometimes involves suspension of disbelief or logic. Let's be honest: the Browns did not win because they had a great game plan or because they played so well; the Browns won mainly because they were playing a sorry team featuring lame duck Coach Mike McCoy. San Diego's Philip Rivers is a talented quarterback but this season he is the most intercepted passer in the league and after he executed a crisp touchdown drive on the first series of the game he did not do much of note the rest of the way. His Cleveland counterpart, Robert Griffin III, is a marvelously talented athlete who cannot stay healthy or consistently throw the football accurately, two attributes that are rather important for long term success as an NFL quarterback. This was a typical Griffin performance: he ran well, played with heart/determination--and did not finish the game due to injury (he has now been entered into the NFL's concussion protocol and I hope that he is OK not just in a football sense but also as a human being).

Trailing by three points with less than two minutes remaining in the game, the Chargers raced downfield into field goal range with no timeouts because the Browns refused to double cover tight end Antonio Gates, San Diego's most dangerous offensive weapon. The Browns are the anti-New England Patriots; Patriot Coach Bill Belichick identifies the opposing team's best weapon and comes up with a plan to neutralize that weapon but Gates had eight catches for 94 yards and a touchdown against the Browns. After the game, the CBS studio crew (most notably Bill Cowher) gave credit to Browns Coach Hue Jackson because he is an upbeat person who supposedly inspired the Browns to play hard. Look, most of the Browns players are paid more money for one game than the average U.S. citizen earns in an entire calendar year; playing hard is the least that these players can do--not to mention the old cliche "the eye in the sky don't lie": everything a player does is filmed and the habits and techniques that a player demonstrates on film will go a long way toward determining whether or not that player has an NFL job next season.

A well coached team is disciplined and the players are always in the right position, even if the players lack the size, strength and/or speed to complete the play; the 2016 Browns are not just a bad team but they are a team that demonstrably lacks discipline and does not execute properly. CBS color commentator Solomon Wilcots repeatedly pointed out that the Browns should be double-teaming Gates. The coach is responsible for the product on the field; if Jackson is giving the right instructions but the players are not executing then he needs to put different players on the field: the bottom line is that whatever happens on the field has either been taught by the coach or is being permitted to happen by the coach. Remember Mike Singletary's rant about how he would rather play 10 on 11 than put a player on the field who does not buy into the game plan? A lot of people made fun of the way that Singletary delivered that message but his underlying thought process was right on the money.

Speaking of cultivating the right mentality, it should be noted that the problem with the Browns starts at the top and predates Jackson joining the team. Case in point: I did not catch this during the telecast, but apparently the Browns played Kool & the Gang's "Celebration" after the game. I am a lifelong Browns fan. I am happy when my team wins and I am disappointed when my team loses. I hate to quote Mike Tomlin, the coach of the hated Pittsburgh Steelers, but I love the attitude behind his oft-repeated statement, "The standard is the standard." Tomlin's Steelers expect to win any time, any place, regardless of injuries or circumstances. The Steelers are not going to play "Celebration" after one win against a bad team during a season that will not end in a playoff berth, let alone a Super Bowl title (that is the standard that the Steelers set for every season).

I would say that after a regular season victory the Browns should act like they have done this before but the problem is, the 2016 Browns had not done this before. The ownership group, front office and coaching staff have plunged a once-proud franchise to the lowest point in its long history--but they won one game and avoided being considered the worst team ever. "Celebration," indeed.

The Browns face the Steelers next week. As Wilcots noted, the Browns have no realistic chance to win that game. This is just not right. Browns-Steelers is supposed to be a rivalry game, not a stepping-stone for the Steelers to possibly improve their playoff position.

I am happy that the Browns won; it sure is better than the alternative--but Browns fans will really celebrate when they believe that they have the right owner, front office, coaching staff and quarterback to be successful in the long run and when Browns-Steelers is a competitive contest, not a foregone conclusion to punctuate the most forgettable and lamentable season in Browns' history.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Carlsen Retains World Chess Championship in Spectacular Style

Magnus Carlsen, the 16th linear World Chess Champion, retained his title by defeating challenger Sergey Karjakin 3-1 in a Rapid tiebreak match after the two competitors tied 6-6 in 12 games contested at a Classical time control. While Karjakin did not quite crack the Carlsen code, he pushed the Champion to the brink; Carlsen did not enjoy a lead in the title bout until he won the third game of the tiebreak match after the first two games were drawn. In game two of the tiebreak match, Karjakin displayed remarkable composure and grit as he held off the highest rated player of all-time to draw an endgame that was objectively lost.

The tiebreak match had extremely high entertainment value, culminating in the decisive move of the fourth game that compelled Karjakin's instant resignation: Carlsen's 50. Qh6+!, a beautiful Queen sacrifice that forces checkmate in all variations. While the climactic combination was not necessarily difficult for a player of Carlsen's caliber, it was still an impressive finish considering the stakes and the small amount of time that each player had remaining to complete the game.

However, from a chess purist's standpoint this was a terrible way to decide the World Chess Championship. As Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan pointed out, there are separate World Chess Championship titles for Classical, Rapid and Blitz time controls, so it make no sense to decide the Classical title with a tiebreak match using Rapid time controls. As he asked rhetorically, will the Rapid Championship now use a Classical time control if a tiebreak match is necessary?

Granted, even if the match conditions were decided purely on aesthetic and sporting considerations--which will never happen in the real world, when economics and logistics inevitably play a role in determining such things--there is no perfect format. An automatic rematch clause if the Champions loses--a perk enjoyed by Mikhail Botvinnik from 1948-63--is a huge advantage. Enabling the Champion to retain his title in the event of a tied match is also a significant advantage. In 1984-85, we saw the perils of a format that forces one player to win six games with draws not counting: Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov battled for 48 games before the match was suspended with Karpov leading 5-3.

All of that being understood, the 2016 format--a 12 game Classical match followed by (if necessary) a four game Rapid match, a two game Blitz match and a one game winner take all "Armageddon" battle with White having five minutes and Black having four minutes plus draw odds--leaves much to be desired. I agree with Grandmaster Seirawan's suggestion that an 18 game Classical match would lead to better play because one victory would not necessarily be decisive; in a 12 game match players tend to be cautious and steer toward the tiebreaks as opposed to fighting it out and possibly losing the one game that could spell overall defeat. The boring and quick draw in game 12 of the Carlsen-Karjakin match made a poor impression, no matter how understandable it was strategically given the circumstances.

In the 2016 World Chess Championship, Carlsen proved that he is a great Champion and Karjakin demonstrated that he is a worthy challenger who may very well wear the crown one day. I commend both players for their performances under great pressure. I just hope that in the future the World Chess Championship match will last longer than 12 games and will be contested entirely at a Classical time control.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Has Karjakin Cracked the Carlsen Code?

World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen is perceived/described as an imperturbable performer but perhaps that is not the case--or perhaps challenger Sergey Karjakin has thrown Carlsen off of his game. Karjakin successfully defended worse positions several times as the two players drew the first seven games of their 12 game title match. Did this trend favor Carlsen--who kept getting advantageous positions that he failed to convert--or was Karjakin's tenacity wearing Carlsen down?

We received at least a preliminary answer in game eight as Karjakin not only refuted Carlsen's overly aggressive attempts to win but completely turned the tables to post the first decisive result of the match. Karjakin now "only" needs four draws to dethrone Carlsen.
Chess is a unique combination of science, art and sport. Becoming a chess champion involves mastery of many different skills and traits, not the least of which is managing nerves at critical moments. Carlsen has been justifiably compared with all-time tennis great Bjorn Borg; both players have nerves of steel and made their names by outlasting their opponents as opposed to overpowering them. 

It has been striking to see Carlsen's nerves falter not only at the board--several Grandmasters have described Carlsen's game eight play as uncharacteristic, if not completely unrecognizable--but afterward as well, when he blew off the mandatory post-game press conference. That petulant act might cost Carlsen 10% of his share of the prize fund ($40,000 if he loses the match, $60,000 if he comes back to win the match).

An important part of being a champion is to--in the immortal words of Rudyard Kipling, prominently displayed at Wimbledon--"meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same." I will never forget when Scottie Pippen of the three-time defending NBA champion Chicago Bulls made a point of congratulating Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks on the court after the Knicks dethroned the Bulls by winning a hard fought seven game series in 1994. That was a devastating loss for Pippen but he displayed his class at that moment; he did not run and hide like a little child who did not get what he wants. 

The image of Carlsen bolting from the press conference after game eight is equally indelible. At that moment he looked like anything but a great champion, even though he has not yet been dethroned. It is important to remember that previous title holders have bounced back from even more dire circumstances to retain the crown (perhaps most notably, Garry Kasparov won a must-win final game with black against Anatoly Karpov in 1987). If Carlsen wins this match, perhaps game eight and its aftermath will just be a footnote in chess history, but if Karjakin prevails while Carlsen crumbles on and off of the board then we may have to reassess Carlsen's place in the chess Pantheon. Is Carlsen--the highest rated player of all-time--really worthy of being mentioned with Morphy, Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Fischer and Kasparov or is Carlsen's high rating the product of rating inflation? If Carlsen's reign as World Champion lasts for just three years--with only victories against an aging Viswanathan Anand to his credit--then it may be reasonable to question how Carlsen would have fared against the all-time greats in a hypothetical match played under equal conditions.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Initial Impressions of the First Truly Post-Kasparov Era World Chess Championship Match

Although Garry Kasparov has not been World Chess Champion since 2000 and has not played in a top level rated tournament since 2005, the World Chess Championship match currently being contested in New York is the first such match to feature two players who both reached their primes after Kasparov retired. The 25 year old World Champion Magnus Carlsen, who won the World Chess Championship in 2013 and retained the crown by defeating former World Champion Viswanathan Anand in 2014, is facing 26 year old challenger Sergey Karjakin, who still holds the record for being the youngest player to attain the Grandmaster title (12 years, seven months). This is the "youngest" World Chess Championship ever in terms of the combined ages of the two combatants.

World Chess Championship matches traditionally have been held in a best out of 24 games format (with a win counting as one point and a draw counting as a half point) but economic and promotional considerations have led to the shortening of such matches to best out of 12. Obviously, the shorter the match the more likely an upset, so in that sense the change is unfortunate for those of us who would prefer that randomness be removed from the championship equation as much as possible. The shorter format also tends to lead to more conservative and less imaginative play, because one mistake could result in not just the loss of a game but very possibly the loss of the match.

After four games, the Carlsen-Karjakin match is knotted at 2-2, with neither player scoring a victory yet. Carlsen has pushed Karjakin to the brink of defeat in the last two games but Karjakin has defended tenaciously to salvage positions that most chess players could not hold against a regular Master, much less the highest rated player in the game's history. If an action movie were made about Karjakin, the tagline (delivered in classic movie announcer promo voice) would be "Sergey Karjakin is hard to kill."

Chess games and chess matches are as much about nerves and resolve as they are about brain power. Before the match, I expected a 6.5-4.5 result in Carlsen's favor (which is roughly what one would predict based on the rating differential between the players) but it will be interesting to see how these first four games are "spun" based on the final outcome. If Carlsen wins, the story will be that he put relentless pressure on Karjakin, who finally cracked after being worn down from repeatedly defending difficult positions--but if Karjakin pulls off the upset, then the story will be that Karjakin gained confidence (and Carlsen lost confidence) after he proved that he could withstand Carlsen's best shot, something that few other Grandmasters have been able to do in recent years.

Carlsen generally seems imperturbable but the reality is that under the pressure of World Championship match play he has blundered before; Anand missed a golden opportunity after Carlsen made a ghastly mistake in game six of their 2014 match and had Anand been more alert he could have made the score 3.5-2.5 in his favor at that critical juncture--but Anand, who never could overcome Kasparov when they were both in their primes, perhaps at some level did not truly believe that he could beat a powerful opponent who was barely half his age. In chess, if you believe that your opponent is better than you then you often do not "trust" that he can blunder. I suspect that Karjakin will not be so forgiving if Carlsen makes a mistake against him and that psychological dynamic should make the rest of this match very dramatic and intriguing.

Vladimir Kramnik was the only player of Kasparov's era to beat Kasparov in a World Chess Championship match in no small part because Kramnik was the only player from that era who truly believed that Kasparov could be beaten. I don't think that Karjakin fears Carlsen the way that other players of their generation do and that is perhaps the most compelling aspect of this battle of the young titans.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Zennis: A Zen Approach to Tennis--and Life

Peter Spang played on the ATP Tour in the early 1980s--peaking at #302 in the world in singles--before embarking on a career as a tennis coach, writer and management consultant. In his 1998 book Zennis, Spang writes, "I am not trying to bring Zen into tennis. To me, Zen is in tennis already. There is no need to bring it. To experience silent and blissful moments while playing tennis is Zen, and to carry the flavor of these moments into ordinary life is an easy and natural consequence."

Spang explains how he incorporated a different kind of thinking into his tennis teaching (p.27):
More and more, I was able to see the limitations of the conventional teacher-student relationship with its accompanying belief system that there's only one right way to play tennis. The truth is there are many right ways--just like life.

I encouraged my students to understand that when the coach is silent, it doesn't mean he's not doing his job or that he's losing interest. Rather, the opposite is true: He's intentionally creating a space in which the student can explore, experiment, and play freely.
Spang's journey to a Zen mindset began with his realization that meditation is not a separate activity from day to day living (pp. 29-30):
A lot of people have the idea that meditation is separate from ordinary daily activity, something that you do by sitting down in a quiet room, crossing your legs in the lotus position, closing your eyes, and going inside...

The beauty of the Zen approach to meditation is that it is all-inclusive. It takes ordinary activities and turns them into opportunities for meditation, like drinking tea, washing rice, arranging flowers, sweeping the floor...or playing tennis. With any activity, you can be as silent and and as conscious as if you were sitting alone in a cave in the Himalayas.
Spang notes that in order to play tennis most effectively it is important to have the correct physical form, which he terms "being grounded." This form provides the maximum opportunity for an athlete to be agile and flexible. This concept is similar to what Julius "Dr. J" Erving called a "position of readiness" in his 1987 video "Dr. J's Basketball Stuff" and could also be described as a triple threat position for a basketball player: as Spang describes the form, it involves bending your knees slightly, relaxing your belly, having your shoulders/arms hanging loosely, placing the soles of your feet firmly on the ground and breathing through your chest into your belly. This correct physical form--which Spang calls "The Zennis Form"--is the basis for a number of tennis-specific exercises that Spang describes in chapter three.

In chapter four, Spang lists "seven unusual exercises for Zennis." These exercises are designed to enable a tennis player to transition toward the Zen state known as "No Mind," when a person is not distracted or plagued by continuous, conscious mental activity and is instead at one with his present activity (which could be not only tennis but any other activity as well).

One such exercise involves practicing tennis by hitting the ball while holding the racquet with one's non-dominant hand. Spang believes that this enables a player to relax and engage both sides of the brain in the process of playing tennis. Though it may seem paradoxical, Spang insists that players who spend time practicing with their non-dominant hand improve their ability to accurately hit the ball with their dominant hand more so than players who only practice hitting the ball with their dominant hand.

Another exercise is to have a practice partner throw or hit 10 tennis balls at you, one at a time. Instead of trying to hit the ball back, you intentionally just miss the ball with your racket. Spang believes that sometimes we can become so focused on outcomes that we lose track of process and of just having fun. He calls this "a Zen paradox: If you let go of results, you end up with the results you want" (p. 74). By realizing that it is not the end of the world to miss the ball, you can achieve a more relaxed state of mind on the tennis court.

The ability to effectively control/manage emotions is critically important not just in a tennis match but in life itself. Spang devotes two entire chapters to this subject. He notes that some players--particularly Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Boris Becker--are able to channel their anger to create energy that heightens their performance level. Of course, anger can easily have the opposite effect, whether you are processing your own anger or dealing with an opponent like Connors, McEnroe or Becker who is clearly using anger as fuel. Spang concludes that "emotional power...can drive or destroy your game" (p. 84).

Spang believes that if you do not recognize and deal with emotion on the tennis court then "the unexpressed energy is going to turn against you and eat you alive, sucking your vitality, making you collapse" (p. 87). He adds that this issue extends well beyond the tennis court: "Most people have had this kind of experience at some point in their lives, becoming so affected emotionally that they don't know what to say anymore. They become tongue-tied, as if all intelligence has left their brains, as if they no longer have a will of their own. They feel as if all energy has suddenly drained out of their bodies" (p. 87).

There is some value in going through such experiences, processing them and learning how to better manage them in the future--but an athlete does not have the luxury of taking such a long term view of personal development. As Spang puts it, "as a sporting warrior, looking back is rather like attending your own autopsy. As far as combat is concerned, your head has already been cut off" (p. 87). This is reminiscent of a line from Frank Herbert's Dune when Gurney Halleck is training young Paul Atreides in the art of combat. Atreides complained that he was not in the mood to spar that day and Halleck barked, "What has mood to do with it? You fight when the necessity arises--no matter the mood! Mood's a thing for cattle or making love or playing the baliset. It's not for fighting." Similarly, when you are battling on the tennis court--or in life--you have to be ready to manage your emotions at all times, not just when you are in the mood to do so.

Spang laments "there is very little guidance or training available to help players deal creatively with this important aspect of their game" (p. 88). Perhaps the most common method employed is the "mental toughness approach," which is based on the acceptance that "you cannot control your opponent, you cannot control the score, but you can control your own attitude, behavior and emotions" (pp. 88-89). An important, ongoing aspect of my life journey is understanding and accepting the limits of what I can control.

Spang finds value in mental toughness but he also believes that at times mental toughness--or the supposed lack thereof--is used to explain results that can be better explained by faulty tennis technique. For instance, Spang suggests that Goran Ivanisevic's inability to ascend to the absolute highest level of tennis is not because of deficiencies in mental toughness but rather because of flaws in some of Ivanisevic's tennis fundamentals. Any player who lacks correct technique will be more apt to become frustrated and lose focus during a match. If you have a solid, broad base of fundamentals to rely upon then you are less likely to be swayed by the emotional ups and downs of a match; you will just see the ball and hit the ball.

Spang believes that emotions should not be ignored but instead they should be acknowledged and contained. All tennis professionals must deal with the reality that in a 128 player draw there will be one winner and 127 losers. This reality creates a lot of pressure to perform and that pressure is heightened as one's ranking increases, because it is a failure for a top ranked player to not at least advance several rounds. Spang proposes that to achieve maximum success/fulfillment, a tennis player must learn how to switch his focus from "the outer reality" (the score of the match, the possibility of losing) to "your inner reality" where you can simultaneously acknowledge emotions and yet be detached from those emotions. That was the point of the exercise during which you intentionally miss 10 tennis balls; the possibility of failure generates negative emotions but the reality is that even if you miss a ball (or lose a match) the world has not ended. This could also be described as "flow" or "being in the zone."

Spang suggests that through the practice of meditation we can learn how to recognize our emotions, acknowledge them and channel them into positive energy. In chapter six ("Transforming Emotional Energy") he describes a series of exercises and meditation techniques designed to bring out one's inner child. Children feel free to express their emotions as they feel them, while as adults we learn--or are forced--to suppress and deny our emotions. Spang states that when you identify with a particular emotion--such as anger--this emotion can consume you and rule you; this is why the societal convention is for adults to suppress such powerful feelings, but Spang proposes that a better approach is to feel the anger but let the emotion pass through you without letting it sweep you away. Again, a Dune quote comes to mind, specifically the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear: "I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." What is true of fear is also true of anger, jealousy and other negative emotions that can be energy-draining if not properly channeled.

Chapter seven describes four mental pitfalls that must be avoided: Perfectionism, self-criticism, boredom and expectation. My favorite quote about perfectionism comes from five-time NFL champion Coach Vince Lombardi: "Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can ever attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence."

Regarding tennis perfectionism, Spang notes that the strategy for a five set match can be much different than the strategy for a three set match. Spang cites a 1996 French Open match pitting Pete Sampras against two-time French Open champion Sergei Bruguera. Spang believes that after Sampras took the lead in the fifth set he adopted a tactic of conserving energy during Burguera's service games in order to focus on closing out the match by holding his own serve. This was not tennis perfection but it was the right tactic when both players were tired and Sampras knew that his biggest advantage at that moment was his serve.

Spang adds that such a tactic would not be optimal in a three set match but that one must tailor one's tactics to fit the situation because the goal is to win the match, not to play some hypothetically perfect brand of tennis. What is most important is "your ability to respond intelligently to the challenge of the moment" (p. 123).

Self-criticism goes hand in hand with perfectionism. Spang's comments about self-criticism are balanced, if not contradictory. On the one hand, the ability to objectively evaluate one's performance is an essential tool for reaching one's goals. Successful people tend to be self-critical to some extent. On the other hand, too much self-criticism can be harmful and can rob one of the ability to feel any sense of joy/accomplishment. I would argue that a distinction should be made between objective self-criticism--which is necessary and good--and self-flagellation, which is bad. If you know that you did not perform up to your capabilities in a given situation then it is important to recognize this and have a plan to improve--but if you did as well as could be reasonably be expected under the circumstances then it is counterproductive and unhealthy to focus on the negative.

Spang says that boredom can be a sign of intelligence, because people are not machines who just mindlessly do the same things over and over. The key to conquering boredom is acknowledging its existence and then focusing on "the here and now, where boredom cannot exist" because you are so engaged in and energized by the task at hand.

Expectation is tricky. If you have no expectation and no goal then you are unlikely to achieve very much but if you become too focused on the expectation/goal instead of the process then you lose track of what you have to do in the moment.

The recurring theme of Zennis is that success is fostered by living in the moment and not being distracted by what has happened or what might happen. Of course, this is much easier said than done.

Chapter eight discusses fear. Spang cites specific examples when he believes fear negatively affected the play of Jana Novotna and Michael Stich. Fear is related to expectation, to letting others down (your fans, your country, your teammates if this is a team event like Davis Cup) and to the consequences of losing. Of course, expectations, the feelings of others and the consequences of losing are not productive things to think about in the heat of competition! The difficult task, as alluded to above, is to focus on the task at hand. Again, this is where technical mastery is important, because if your technique is good and you know it is good then you can become so absorbed in technique that you have no mental or emotional space left over for worries or fears.

In chapter nine, Spang offers "four jewels" that can help a player reach his full potential. One "jewel" in particular caught my attention: staying in the middle. Spang cites Pete Sampras as a great example of a player who does not get too high after wins or too low after defeats. In other sports, Tim Duncan and Bill Belichick are examples of this trait. Sampras, Duncan and Belichick never became media darlings, because they never supplied juicy quotes that make for great headlines--but Sampras, Duncan and Belichick won championships and sustained excellence for long periods of time because they did not overreact to wins or losses. They did not care if the media or fans considered them to be "boring."

Zennis was published nearly 20 years ago, so the specific examples that Spang cites are dated--but that does not matter, because the core content of the book is timeless and provides insight about how a person can gain mastery through introspection. I recommend this book to those who are seeking the ultimate understanding: understanding oneself.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Lilly King's Public Stance Against PED Cheaters is Commendable

U.S. swimmer Lilly King not only won the 2016 Olympic gold medal in the 100 meter breaststroke but she made a powerful statement against athletes who tarnish sports by using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). King literally and figuratively wagged her finger at Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova--who was permitted to return to the sport after serving a 16 month suspension for using PEDs--and King declared, "I think it's unfortunate that we have to deal with these things in this sport. A level playing field would be preferred."

King publicly stated that cheaters like Efimova should be banned for life and King did not back down when asked what she thought of American Olympic athletes who had been caught cheating in the past (including sprinter Justin Gatlin): "Do I think people who have been caught should be on the team? They shouldn't. It's unfortunate we have to see that."

Olympic legend Michael Phelps publicly supported King's position: "I think people should be speaking out more. I think (she) is right. I think something needs to be done."

One reason that Major League Baseball's PED problem became so pervasive is that too many of the players who were not cheating turned a blind eye to what was happening instead of publicly speaking out about it the way that King is doing. It is important for the clean athletes to speak out and to let their voices be heard about how the cheaters are damaging their sports.

When the baseball players failed to speak out, some media members, "stat gurus" and sports economists attempted to fill the void, despite knowing little to nothing about sports or medicine. These commentators tried to justify PED use by arguing (1) PEDs are not proven to work so the issue does not matter or (2) athletes should be permitted to use whatever means they are willing to try/risk in order to maximize their performance. The first point is, frankly, idiotic: the drugs are called "performance-enhancing" precisely because they enhance performance and that is why athletes risk their careers (and their health) to take these drugs. King's suggestion that PED cheaters should be banned for life is well-taken not only from a legal/moral standpoint but also from a scientific standpoint, because research suggests that there are long-lasting performance-enhancing effects from PED use that persist even after such use has been stopped. The second point is reflective of an anarchistic way of thinking: anything should go and let the strongest survive. Such is not the foundation for a stable society; there have to be rules in place to preserve health and to preserve fair competition. PEDs have serious side effects and athletes who use them gain an unfair advantage.

I have been lamenting the PED crisis for many years and I have previously advocated lifetime bans for MLB cheaters such as Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez but King's clarion call will hopefully resonate far and wide because her life and career have been directly impacted by PED cheaters. King did not turn this into an American versus Russian political issue but rather made it clear that all cheaters--even her own teammates--should be banned for life. That is quite a statement from a 19 year old Olympian and it would have been nice to witness similar courage from the teammates of Rodriguez, Braun and the many other MLB cheaters of the past two or three decades.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Rest in Peace, Viktor Korchnoi

It once seemed like the indomitable Viktor Korchnoi would play chess forever. After thrice battling Anatoly Karpov for the World Chess Championship (once in the 1974 Candidates Finals that turned into a de facto title bout after the reigning World Champion Bobby Fischer forfeited his title in 1975 and then in official championship matches in 1978 and 1981), Korchnoi continued to play high level chess for several more decades. Korchnoi reached the Candidates round in 1985, 1988 and 1991 before winning the World Senior Championship in 2006.

Korchnoi retained a child-like enthusiasm for chess throughout his life. He played with great energy and tenacity.

He is on the short list of candidates for the title of "Greatest Player to Never Win the World Chess Championship," a subject that I explored in a 2009 article titled Uncrowned Champion: Viktor Korchnoi.

Korchnoi battled against six generations of chess players, as early in his career he faced opponents born in the late 19th century while more recently he battled against players born post-2000. He survived both World War II and the efforts of the Soviet establishment to crush his individuality and break his spirit by holding his wife and son hostage after he defected.

I have yet to see any public comment by Karpov about Korchnoi's passing. Karpov and Korchnoi were bitter rivals but one would hope that Karpov would have enough class, dignity and respect to say something positive about Korchnoi's significant role in chess history.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Muhammad Ali's Wit and Wisdom

It is difficult to say something about Muhammad Ali that has not already been said. His death is a loss felt by the entire world, yet the memory of his words and deeds will live forever. I am too young to remember Ali's prime but I am old enough to remember when he was still heavyweight champion of the world. One of my earliest Ali memories is reading a chapter about him in a sports book for kids when I was seven or eight years old. What stuck with me is that Ali talked about training for his rematch with Leon Spinks by saying that when his trainers told him to run, he ran, and when they told him to spar, he sparred, because he wanted to do everything possible to make sure that he regained the title; if he lost, it would not be because he failed to put in the work. That message has stayed with me my entire life.

Ali the boxer was remarkable in three distinct phases of his career: (1) The young champion who was so swift and nimble that opposing fighters could literally barely touch him, (2) The slightly past his prime Ali who came back after being banned from boxing for draft evasion (an unjust decision overturned by a Supreme Court verdict) who proved that he could win not just with superior physical tools but also with guile and guts and (3) The clearly past his prime Ali who became the first heavyweight champion to regain the title for the third time.

A fourth phase that we never saw will forever be a source of speculation: What would Ali have accomplished in the late 1960s if he had not been banned from the sport?

As for the fifth and final phase, the less said about the Holmes and Berbick bouts, the better. Those two fights that should have never happened certainly contributed to, if not caused, many of the ailments that plagued Ali for the final decades of his life.

I am not a boxing expert but from what I know of the sport I do believe that Ali was the greatest boxer of all-time or at the very least the greatest heavyweight. His best assets were his mind and his toughness. He analyzed his opponents and himself and he figured out what he had to do to win. Young Ali relied on speed and physical gifts but if those things were all that he had then he never would have beaten Joe Frazier twice or toppled George Foreman when Foreman was considered invincible.

Ali's toughness ultimately proved to be his undoing, because the ability to take punishment may be an asset in the ring but there is a heavy price to be paid later in life. Frazier, who resented Ali's taunts, often cruelly bragged that anyone who wants to know who really won their fights need only look at how rapidly Ali deteriorated physically.

Boxing is a cruel sport but one that rewards cunning, guile and bravery, three qualities that Ali possessed in abundance.

Ali will be remembered as much for his words as his actions. Here are some of my favorite Ali quotes:

1) "I hated every minute of training, but I said, 'Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.'"

2) "Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing."

3) "Live everyday as if it were your last because someday you're going to be right."

4) "I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me."

5) "The fight is won or lost far away from the witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights."

One more for the road: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Your hands can't hit what your eyes can't see. Rumble young man, rumble."

Rest in Peace, Muhammad Ali. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Quick Takes on Brady, Manning, Sharapova

The wheels of justice turn exceedingly slowly and sometimes they roll off the road completely. Just ask Tom Brady. The NFL has presented no evidence showing that Tom Brady either deflated footballs or had knowledge that footballs were being deflated. The NFL has presented no evidence that any advantage can be gained by deflating footballs. The NFL has not even presented any evidence that footballs actually were deflated (the "science" in the Wells Report is not credible, to say the least).

Despite all of the evidence that the NFL has not presented, Brady's name has been dragged through the mud, his team has been penalized $1 million plus multiple draft picks and it is possible that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit will ultimately reinstate Brady's four game suspension that was sensibly thrown out by a U.S. District Court. The U.S. Court of Appeals seems to be much more interested in Brady's destruction of an old cell phone--which is not the "crime" for which Brady was punished--than in whether or not NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had the authority to discipline Brady in the manner and to the extent that he did.

Anyone who cheats in the NFL (or anywhere else) should be punished (see the final section of this article)--but the NFL cannot prove that Brady cheated and cannot demonstrate that he gained any advantage even if he did what he was alleged to have done. At most, the NFL should have resolved this matter by fining the Patriots a token amount and by tightening up the procedures governing how the footballs are maintained prior to and during the games, because that is the larger issue: if the officials had done their job properly, the alleged deflation could not have taken place.

The whole fake controversy takes attention away from the concussion issue, though. Do you think that is a coincidence? What would the NFL rather talk about, footballs being deflated or NFL players suffering brain damage from routine plays?


Depending on how you look at it, Peyton Manning either retired on a high note or he left town just before the posse arrived. Manning's body failed him during the final several games of his career and he captured his second Super Bowl title as a Trent Dilfer-like caretaker for a moribund offense that was carried to victory by one of the greatest defenses of all-time (no offense meant to Dilfer, who was a solid quarterback but will not be remembered in quite the same way as Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks like Bradshaw, Montana and Brady). Leaving as a champion is obviously the best way to go and few great athletes have the opportunity to do so--and even fewer take advantage of that opportunity, for the lure of one more ring (or piles of more cash) can be hard to resist. Michael Jordan had the perfect ending, nailing the game/championship-clinching jumper versus Utah in 1998, but then he came back to limp around as a Washington Wizard and provide glimpses of what he used to be. Jordan's comeback was a testament to his mental and physical fortitude but it was hardly a storybook ending.

Manning leaves the NFL as a role player on a championship team but as memories fade beneath the magnitude of his career numbers the perception will be that he left on top, even if the reality is that if he stuck around for another season there is likely not one team that would employ his as a starting quarterback.

Manning retired before giving NFL teams a chance to say, "Thanks for the memories and don't let the door hit you on the way to the broadcast booth/front office."

There is also the matter of the dark clouds swirling around Manning, clouds that could have become more publicized if he kept playing but now will likely be ignored.

The first dark cloud is the accusation that Manning used the performance-enhancing drug (PED) human growth hormone (HGH), receiving the banned substance in his wife Ashley's name in an attempt to avoid detection. While the media provided wall to wall, 24-7 coverage of the alleged deflated football scandal as soon as word about it became public--and the media continues to breathlessly report about this story from every conceivable angle--Manning's friends in the media made sure that scarcely anything was mentioned about HGH during Denver's Super Bowl run. Did Manning use HGH? No one, least of all "protector of the NFL shield" Roger Goodell, seems particularly interested to find out. No one is paying Ted Wells millions of dollars to get to the bottom of this issue, that's for sure.

The second dark cloud dates back two decades to when he was a star quarterback for the University of Tennessee. At that time, Manning either (1) sexually harassed the female team trainer, (2) acted in a juvenile manner by mooning a teammate or (3) did something somewhere in between (1) and (2). We likely will never know what really happened, because while Manning's denials and snide verbal attacks against his accuser are not quite convincing his accuser comes across in some accounts as perhaps not the best person to be carrying the torch for Title IX enforcement.

All we know for sure is that an injustice has occurred that will never be quite made right: either Manning has gotten away largely unscathed with sexually harassing someone who had no power to effectively confront the team's star player or Manning's name is being tarnished by someone over an immature act that was stupid but not unforgivable.

The media and the public have largely sided with Manning all along. Manning ran some early morning laps as punishment by the school and he later paid an undisclosed settlement to his accuser but he has hardly been significantly damaged by the situation. Manning admits to at least acting immaturely at the time, so the gracious thing for him to do at this point when the subject is raised would be to say something like this (in his own words and with his trademark Southern drawl): "I regret the way I acted on that day. It was foolish and childish and not the way that I was raised. I learned from that incident and have not acted that way again. I am sorry about the pain and embarrassment my actions caused to all parties concerned." Manning would not be in legal or public relations jeopardy after making such a statement.

If Manning had truly done nothing and was a victim of a completely false accusation, then I could understand him being angry and defiant and refusing to apologize--but he has admitted that he did something that was at least inappropriate and the gracious thing to do would be to apologize to that extent as opposed to making unfunny jokes about the situation or quips at his accuser's expense.

In other words, rise above the fray and be the bigger person in the situation. During my law school studies, one thing that I have learned about negotiated settlements of litigation is that many times a matter can resolved by a simple apology; one party feels as if his or her feelings/personhood have been attacked/demeaned and that party simply wants the offending party to acknowledge this.


How many PED cheaters or "recreational" drug abusers just admit to their wrongdoing after being caught red-handed? I don't have any hard and fast numbers on the subject but my subjective impression/recollection is that it is very rare for an athlete to just say something like, "Yeah, you caught me. I did it and I was wrong. I need help for my problem, I am going to get that help and I am going to return after my suspension as a better person and athlete." Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones come to mind as athletes who literally issued bold faced lies when they were first accused of being cheaters.

The most recent elite level athlete to be caught using a banned substance is five-time Grand Slam tennis champion Maria Sharapova. Sharapova tested positive for a banned substance that, frankly, I had never heard of before (meldonium); apparently, meldonium can enhance performance by increasing stamina and endurance, two qualities that would be rather useful for a professional tennis player.

Watching sports is fun because you see competitors on a level playing field pushing themselves mentally, physically and emotionally to be the best within a framework of fair rules. I firmly disagree with the notion that because cheating can be hard to detect there should be no rules; that is like saying that many murders are unsolved so let's legalize murder. Without laws, society would descend into barbarism and without rules sports would have no meaning. Cheating is hard to detect and it is a sad reality that some cheaters will prosper but having rules in place backed by effective enforcement means that many cheaters will be caught and many potential cheaters will be dissuaded by the possibility of being caught.

I also think that the records/statistics of convicted cheaters should be marked in some way by a literal or symbolic asterisk. We don't know when Sharapova started cheating or if this is the only kind of cheating she has done, so to my mind all of her records and statistics are suspect. I think that honors that are awarded by vote should be stripped away from cheaters and given to the non-cheater who received the most votes. For instance, if a baseball player is suspended for PED use at any time in his career then if he won an MVP that MVP should be given to the next player in the voting. Maybe that sounds draconian but I think that it would be a more powerful deterrent to cheating than just about anything else.

In an individual sport like tennis or some track and field events, trophies/medals should be stripped from cheaters.

Team sports are more complicated. While individual honors can and should be taken away as stipulated above, if one player on the 45 man roster of a Super Bowl champion is caught using PEDs, it does not seem fair to punish the whole team; that player should receive a lengthy suspension and a stiff financial penalty. However, if a certain percentage of players from a championship team were found guilty of cheating, I think that it might be reasonable to strip that team of a championship.

The NCAA has "vacated" wins and championships achieved by schools that cheated, which in essence means imposing collective punishment on the innocent and guilty alike.

Harsh penalties are the best way to encourage internal policing within an organization. If an NFL player sees his teammate cheating but knows that the cheating might help the team win and will not have a negative impact on his career then he may look the other way--but if that player knows that widespread cheating could lead to collective punishment then he will be more likely to speak up.