Monday, June 14, 2010

Oregon's Experiment

Ok, I lied. The next post after this one is going to be about the finals. This one is going to be about spirit of the game. Lost in all the hullabaloo about the travesty of the men's final was what happened in the women's final. Do you know how many calls went to the observers? Zero. It takes two teams to make that happen and UCSB certainly has proven themselves to be a great and spirited team. I'd like to explain a little about what Oregon did this year regarding spirit of the game.

Before I go much further, I had better put a personal disclaimer in here. Those of yall who knew me as a player will justifiably question my credentials to speak on spirit of the game. Fair enough. But I know better than most the cost and consequences of poor behavior....

At the beginning of the season, we decided two things. First, that spirit of the game was important to us and that we wanted to be a spirited team. Second, that we weren't as spirited as we thought we were. I made the case that spirit is about much more than making the right call. You can always make the right call and still be entirely unspirited. Spirit is about respect for your opponent. So to build this respect we made a rule: no contest.

Rather than assess each call and each player for correctness, fairness, advantage we would extend to everyone we played the respect that they were spirited and trying to do the right thing. The team and I were a little skeptical about how it was going to work, but they were willing to try it and so we implemented it at Bellingham Invite and Prez Day.

It worked far better than we had anticipated. Our games were fast, fun, pleasant and we walked away from them feeling good about our opponents. It wasn't without hiccups. We had a couple moments here and there when we got drawn into old habits of arguing or making snide comments, but over the course of the season, this happened only two or three times. In fact, it was such a positive thing for us that we decided to make it an on-going part of our team policy.

We ended up facing two unusual challenges: observers and teams we didn't respect.
It was odd, but our spirit was actually worse in games with observers. I think we had set a pretty high standard for ourselves and that standard extended full respect to the other team. With observers, you have the option to abdicate responsibility to a third party. The goal of our experiment was to take full responsibility to do the right thing, so observers undermined what we were trying to achieve. Our observed games actually felt chippier than our other games, just because the observers were there.
Where we really struggled was when we played a team we didn't respect. (Not their skill, but their spirit.) We played a team who we felt made calls to their advantage, made marginal calls and manufactured fouls to maintain possession. As the season went on and we saw this happen again and again, it became harder and harder for us to hold on to the core of what we were trying to achieve: respect for the other team. In the end, we had to settle for pretending. We said, "Go out and do the right thing. Go to the observer if you need to, but never argue. Be polite and respectful. Smile, check it in and play."

We weren't perfect. We continued to work on our spirit all the way up to and through the finals. We will continue to work on our spirit next year, maybe in this way, maybe in another. I was reluctant to discuss publicly what had been an internal team philosophy, but spirit is an integral part of our sport and it needs public as well as private support.


  1. This is absolutely amazing. I am very happy to hear that people are ACTIVELY working on how to respect the other team. This is the kind of thing all teams, especially high level teams need to think about.

    I've got a question for you: do you notice as I do, that it seems some people get hung up on the phrase "Spirit of the Game"? If it was "Sportsmanship" or just "Respect for the Opponent", I think we might see a big improvement in "spirited play". To some, SOTG is a turn off.

  2. Thanks a lot for sharing your team's approach to improving spirit. It's an inspiration to try the same thing at one's team, too.

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