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Sandpaper gate. Enough articles and coverage concerning Australian cricketers Steven Smith and Cameron Bancroft have been circulated over the last few days, without adding wood to an already roaring fire.
The fire in question shows little sign of respite as it plunders through integrity and honour across various industries underpinned by the “win at all costs” mantra once coined by Vince Lombardi. One only needs to look at the Russian Olympic athlete scandal in recent times, coupled with their alleged involvement with their own political voting system, not to mention the suspected involvement with a certain Mr Trump’s ascension to the oval office. Oh, and let’s not forget the corruption from Sepp Blatter and FIFA in the lead up to Qatar being awarded this summer’s World Cup, or whatever mystery package GB Cycling delivered to Bradley Wiggins which I genuinely hope is not what it appears.
It seems that the term marginal gains has been stretched, twisted and in some cases completely disregarded in the pursuit of the ultimate goal of winning. The same could be said of player conduct and ‘sportsmanship’ on the verge of becoming extinct in some sports. Not so long ago Tottenham Hotspur and England footballer Dele Alli was caught gesticulating inappropriately, supposedly towards teammate Kyle Walker (if you can believe that). Arguably worse than the offence itself, was Gareth Southgate’s public defence of the incident, merely citing that Alli and Walker “have a strange way of communicating” with each other. No mention that the gesture was inappropriate considering they are role models for millions of youngsters worldwide, no mention of his own disapproval for it; nothing – and that is precisely the problem. Of course, one can only imagine the pressures that come with being a Head Coach or Manager, tasked with global followership and financial ramifications in the millions, but surely that does not mean that basic principles, and values of human conduct and decency can be so easily ignored.
Which brings me back to ‘Sandpaper Gate’ and one comment in particular that really stood out scrolling through the many condemnations. That was, “Bancroft had the world at his feet. Smith was moving towards a group which included Bradman and Lara. He’s now in one with Armstrong and Maradona.” It really struck home that you only need to make one mistake to potentially ruin a world class career. All the years of graft, all the sacrifices both personally and from significant others in the support network, and the words people associate with you are “cheat” and “disgrace”. I think we all agree that this is not ‘winning’ even if the law or cameras have taken a while to catch up with you.
So isn’t it time we re-defined what ‘winning’ is? Surely winning is to do a Roger Federer – that being an outstanding athlete in their own right but most importantly never in the press or in the match referee’s room post-game for poor conduct. Much as it pains me to say it being a Liverpool fan, but isn’t winning doing a Paul Scholes – a humble character who never attracted attention of the wrong sort, preferring instead to just get on and do his job without feeling the need to assume the identity of a prima-donna at regular intervals. Isn’t winning trying your very best at something and, regardless of the outcome, being able to come out of the other side having been the best possible version of yourself?
Under these definitions ‘winning’ has to assume greater priority among sportspeople at the highest level which includes governing bodies and coaches. I’m sure Eva Carneiro, Chelsea FC’s former physio would testify to that after her encounter with Jose Mourinho. Don’t get me wrong even the All Blacks, renowned for their “no d***’s” philosophy don’t get it right all the time (Dan Carter has some skeletons in his closet for one) but the best sides ensure that the rule book is seldom, if never fully thrown at them. Fundamentally though, sport in general needs to step up to the plate in a big way. So much education these days is about the holistic approach to youth development, incorporating the person to have a positive impact on their skill and athletic development. That is great, but where is the evidence of this being upheld and applied in the upper echelons of the game? Where is Gareth Southgate reprimanding Dele Alli for a stupid and unnecessary gesture? Where are our coaches being transparent enough to criticise their players when they are effing and blinding at officials? Being able to play the game you love as hard as possible, whilst maintaining credibility, respect and humility is the message that we should be conveying to the next generation. Instead the current message still seems to be one of Lombardianism and “we’ll do anything to win”, which is deeply concerning.
Ask yourself as a coach, which would you rather do? Enjoy outstanding results on the field regardless of your players’ conduct; or perhaps sacrifice some of that success and replace it with the best values and conduct you can conjure and cultivate. If you’re leaning towards the former then have a long, hard think about the youngsters you are sending into society. Think about the group you want them associated with in later life – the legendary Bradman’s or the disgraced Armstrong’s? Your choice is as simple as that, because the real world is cut throat as some Australian cricketers are about to find out.
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I do try to encourage good behaviour and sportsmanship. Not win at any cost
It's interesting reading this as an ultimate frisbee coach. Our sport is self-refereed, even at the highest level, so win-at-all-costs isn't even a possible goal. Any team could win any game simply by calling spurious fouls on the opposition all the time, so the game simply doesn't work if teams ignore the spirit of the game and play to win-at-all-costs. It wouldn't be fun to win games like that, you couldn't take any pride in it; so it doesn't happen. That's not to say that some teams aren't more physical than others, or people don't sometimes breach rules in the heat of the moment. But a full win-at-all-costs attitude simply isn't possible - no one would ever play against you, and even if they did you couldn't take any pride in winning that way. By making cheating so easy that there is literally nothing to stop you winning any game you like, we end up with much LESS cheating than any other invasion sport i ever saw. If you haven't tried ultimate, go check it out. And if you're really bored, go check out the long discussions about refereeing that are always going on in our sport. There are currently 4 different things going on, with most of the world using only the first two.1) Most games, even at National championship level, are fully refereed by the players2) At World Championship level, some (not all) games are assisted by Game Advisors, who provide a third party perspective on any disputes bu who cannot overrule the players. You could still disagree with your opponent and with the advisor and make any spurious foul calls you like.And then, over in North America only:3) The Observer system (for some games at major events). Players call their own fouls, but observers are empowered to make binding judgements. They also make some active calls (in/out of bounds etc). So players are still the only ones who stop the game for a foul, but now it is no longer possible for one person to cheat as much as they like - the observer can overrule them. 4) Referees. There is a professional league in the US with actual referees (and some inevitable rule changes to make it work). This is not yet the highest level of ultimate, and many top club players don't participate, but it inevitably has significant reach in the media etcThere is constant chat about all these options, and some really good case studies about what win at all costs might mean, what spirit of the game really is, and how sports can work differently. The biggest thing that stands out to those who see the community from the outside is the incredible respect and camaraderie between teams - without referees, both teams have to have a basic respect for the other, and to believe that they aren't trying to cheat, or the game won't work; and this translates into the kind of atmosphere we'd all like to see, particularly in youth sports.
Matt, your excellently argued post has hit a loud and resounding note with me, especially your question “where is the evidence of this being upheld and applied in the upper echelons of the game?”.As an 8-year-old I fell in love with the Beautiful Game on the 30th July 1966. Some 31 years later, as a long playing career in grassroots football was coming towards its end, my 7 year-old-son’s interest drew me into youth coaching. Another 21 seasons later I now find that grassroots football is no longer the game that I got so much enjoyment from over those many decades. At the end of this season I have announced that I will step down from coaching 4-6 year olds and mentoring new coaches.My experience as a spectator has brought me to this water-shed. The way that grassroots football is administered, managed, coached, officiated and played takes away all possible enjoyment for the spectator who wants to watch the game itself. Indeed it goes beyond the dominance of the win-at-all-costs mentality: many participants are not interested in the result. They just want to have their fill of aggro – physical as well as verbal – and if their intimidation of opposition and officials also produces a win – that is the bonus that further goes to justify their behaviour. I hear horror stories from other youth coaches, but my first-hand experience is with adult football in the county league premier division. For example, a player told a referee that he was going to punch his opponent AGAIN, only for the referee to ask him not to, and leave the actual punch unpunished except for the award of a free kick. In the same game a club linesman was allowed to officiate whilst openly smoking cannabis. When these and other incidents in that game were reported to a league committee member, his off-the-record response was that “you have to expect these things when playing against that club”. Go figure!Once I realised that my enjoyment of grassroots football has been destroyed by the behaviour of its participants and the lack of desire from administrators to address the demise of their sport, I could only conclude that my continued participation as a coach who espouses the ‘Paul Scholes’ style of winning to launch children and their parents into the game would be nothing short of hypocritical. The game that I have been so passionate about for five decades no longer exists, so I cannot pretend with new participants that it will be different.So as of this summer, my Saturday mornings are free. I have already changed my Saturday afternoons away from watching football, and I feel much happier for doing so. Some weekends I have switched to watching rugby union (I never thought I would ever say that!). I might not understand the finer points of the game but clearly ‘the game’ and sportsmanship are the only things that matter. Therefore there is nothing about the experience of being there that can spoil the spectator’s experience.As for coaching – all is not lost – I can close on a truly positive note. I will still be coaching the Beautiful Game by maintaining my role with a pan-disability group. In fact, I want to expand our Club’s provision from the current teenage group to start a pre-teen session. How do I square this with my conscience? Easy. All that has destroyed the game itself in grassroots football is absent from this sector. Winning doesn’t matter at all: only participation is important. Coaching takes on a real meaning when it hugely enriches that quality of life of its participants. Even though I should be thinking about retirement now I am in my 60s, I will find it very hard to walk away from that.
Reading that back, I should have started the last paragraph: All that has destroyed the SPORT itself in grassroots football is absent from this sector.
Robin, apologies for delay in response. Glad it seems to have resonated and disappointed to hear of your negative experiences and enjoyment has got to the point it has. Depending on where you’re based (Cricket takes us all over the country) I wonder if a conversation could bring you back?!
Matt, thanks for the concern. My main point was that "win at any cost" in grassroots football has been allowed by its participants, officials and administrators - and, yes, coaches - to pay the ultimate cost and destroy a sport. I will not be the only 'good guy' to walk away, but I will be one of a very small minority to say anything about it in public - most will just go, leaving the thugs, bullies, and yobs to slug it out. My other point was that the coaching instinct does not go away, and will survive strong where the sport is still a sport and is bringing a real benefit to its participants. Hence I will still be working with a disabled participant group and even looking to expand the age groups to which our club offers this service. As to switching sports ... I can't see that happening as a coach, but as a spectator I am enjoying the experience of rugby union, watching my son (a good footballer - captained the county league reps team this season), who, at 28, is switching sports as a player for all the same reasons that I listed about my disenchantment with grassroots football. I have been to a handful of games and there is still a lot I just don't understand about the game, but absolutely nothing has happened to spoil my Saturday afternoon. I'm afraid cricket won't get a look-in for me - an experience at school 47 years ago put me off, but that's another (amusing) story, suffice to say that I went out on a high, scoring a winning run off the last ball of the match! :-)
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