The Hangover of Champions, Part 1

 

The Defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins are off to a rough start this year.

There’s been a lot of talk about the “champion’s hangover” this fall, especially as it relates to the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins. Now, I’m not referring to what it must have been like for the Bruins the morning after they incurred their $156,000 bar tab at Foxwoods Casino after winning The Cup in June. Rather, I’m referring to the phenomenon that sometimes happens within sports when champions undergo a period of underperformance immediately after winning a big event or championship. While the Bruins may be the latest in the world of athletics to suffer this malady, they are hardly the first. The world of golf is littered with first time major winners, who, after capturing their first Major, have finished out their seasons in relative mediocrity (See also: Zack Johnson, Trevor Immelman). And the phenomenon extends to other sports, too.

Now, I’m not so much interested in the “what” of this phenomenon so much as the “why.” Going forward, the scientist in me thinks it’s important to point out that all of what I’m about to say is pure conjecture. I have neither researched the scholarly work on this (if it even exists), nor have I conducted any research myself. That said, the following are my initial impressions of what may contribute to this phenomenon, and how one might avoid it moving forward. In the interest of time, I’ll split my comments into 2 parts. The first being my impressions of what causes the hangover, and the second by my impressions of how to alleviate some of the effects.

Culture: In looking at this problem from a cultural point of view, there seem to be two main types as it relates to the “hangover.” First, there are those who strive for success and then, having achieved it, relax. They look around, enjoy the air on the top of the mountain and revel in their newfound success. And why not? Isn’t the whole point of what they’ve been doing to reach this very moment? At the same time, there are those who, having achieved the summit, yearn immediately for more. They enjoy the achievement, sure, but take less time to enjoy it, since they are already focused on their next conquest. Efforts are redoubled, and the success is simply more fuel to the competitive fire. Either one of the above traits can be attributed to both individuals and organizations, but this difference may contribute to the length and severity of a hangover insofar as one stays content with what one has done. I think in the end, all champions come around to wanting to taste more victory, but, especially for first time winners, this may take a while before the post-victory glow wears off and the drive to climb the mountain begins once again. 

Overconfidence: Having spent the immediate aftermath of a championship being lauded as heroes both at home and abroad and (rightfully) being hailed as “the best (team/individual) in (insert sport here)”, its hard not to get a big head. Work ethic may stay the same, but there’s the possibility that a change to one’s approach to competition, however subtle, can have a large effect on the ultimate outcomes. Perhaps a golfer gets too cavalier about a difficult course. A hockey team might underestimate a retooled opponent from last year. A tennis player may take a bit too much time signing autographs or giving interviews, rather than warming up. All of these things can lead to problems when the rubber hits the road. 

Routines: As humans, we are creatures of habit. We like to do things a certain way, and any disruption to that can be very unsettling, whether we are conscious of it or not. Especially in the case of first time champions, but more generally in the case of all champions, reaching the apex of one’s sport necessarily involves a great deal more attention than one may have ever gotten before becoming a champion. Parades, talk show appearances, guest spots on SNL, while fun, can often have the effect of distracting one from the job at hand – that is, winning again. Not only that, but the increased attention and commitments necessarily leave less time for training, travelling, and relaxing. 

Visibility: No longer just another player on the field, a championship also brings a certain level of visibility (and notoriety) among one’s competition. All of a sudden you are the one to beat. And your competition will do everything they can at every turn to do just that. Champions are no longer a team to play or an individual to face; they become circled dates on calendars, marquis match-ups, and “games of the week.” The champion’s attitude may not change, but you can bet the competition wants to make a name for themselves as “the one who beat the champ.” 

Now having said all that, the really important question is – if you’re an aspiring champion (or a current one), how do you keep your foot on the accelerator after you win, rather than falling into the many traps that have just been laid out? More on that in Part 2. Stay tuned!!

Informed Consent Isn’t Just for Academics

 

Brooks Laich of the Washington Captials says he would like to stop having people babysit him.

There has been a lot of talk these last few weeks regarding head injuries and fighting in the NHL. Some people are talking about head hits and what the NHL is doing to prevent them. Some people are talking about concussions and the best way to treat them. Others are talking about the cognitive dissonance shown by those in a league that, while claiming to be “cracking down on headshots,” still allows bare-knuckle fighting within the rules of the game. All are valid discussions, and all are a long way from being resolved, one way or the other.

With all of these discussions, what has interested me is the most is that very little has been heard from the men who actually PLAY the game at its highest level. Where do they weigh in on these subjects? While the media has been up in arms with the latest round of “we need to ban fighting in the NHL” hoopla, the players have been largely silent on the matter. That is, they had been, up until this past Friday (Oct 14). Then, following a game between Pittsburgh and Washington (in which the already belaboured debate surrounding the Asham-Beagle fight began) Brooks Laich, a member of the Washington Capitals (and coincidentally, also the team’s NHLPA rep) was quoted as saying the following (via Chuk Gormley of CSN Washington)

I really don’t care about that awareness crap. To be honest, I’m sick of hearing all this talk about concussions and about the quiet room. This is what we love to do. Guys love to play, they love to compete, they want to be on the ice. How do you take that away from someone? We accept that there’s going to be dangers when we play this game. We know that every time we get dressed. I don’t know, sometimes it just feels like we’re being babysat a little too much. We’re grown men and we should have a say in what we want to do.

At the time, Laich was referring to the NHL’s concussion protocols that were introduced last year in an attempt to prevent players from reinjuring (or further injuring) themselves after sustaining a head injury. That said, what struck me about this statement wasn’t Laich’s stance on the concussion protocols, but rather his attitude toward the risks that he and every player in the NHL assumes when stepping on the ice. Basically he was saying “I’m a grown man. I know there are risks involved in what I do. But I’m making a conscious choice in taking those risks. The consequences are my responsibility.” In essence he was claiming that he and every player who laces up skates in the NHL gives their informed consent to take certain risks with their health when they step on the ice.

One part of me wholeheartedly agrees with Laich. He’s a grown man and he openly acknowledges and accepts that there are risks (some of them serious) associated with what he does for a living. Besides, professional hockey players are not the only professionals in this world who take risks with their health (both in the short- and long-term) in the execution of their jobs. Coal miners risk cave-ins and black lung. Fisherman risk drowning. Lumberjacks risk disfigurement and death from falling trees and heavy machinery. This past weekend we even saw the worst case scenario unfold during the Vegas 300 Indy race when Dan Wheldon was tragically killed in a mid-race crash. All of these individuals know the risks of their respective professions, and still choose to take part. Some do it for love, some do it for money, but all make a conscious choice. Why should hockey players be any different?

And yet there is another part of me that seems to think that, while Laich is right to a point – he is a grown man making his own decisions – his information is incomplete. Many sources define informed consent as when an individual has a clear appreciation and understanding of the facts, implications, and future consequences of an action. But long term brain injury is a serious health risk, and there is still a great deal about concussions that is unknown, even to doctors researching the phenomenon. So if neurologists are still grappling with the problem, how does a professional hockey player really expect to be fully informed about the risks, with a “clear appreciation and understanding of the facts?” Besides, if the precautions mean he misses a shift or two in the “quiet room,” that seems a small price to pay in the name of preserving his long term neurological health.

As with any issue as complex as this, there are no easy answers. There are no “perfect” solutions. But one of the biggest questions I find myself asking – and that I feel may underscore all of these debates – is this: What constitutes “informed” consent? Especially when it comes to an injury that may impair one’s decision making capability, at what point are we able to draw the line, sit back and say “You’ve been warned. Continue at your own peril.”?

Sportsnet Magazine: My Initial Thoughts…

 

Recently, Rogers Media in Canada released its newest offering – Sportsnet Magazine. According to Rogers, the aim of this new offering is to take on Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine, but with a decidedly Canadian perspective. I recently got my hands on the inaugural issue of Sportsnet Magazine, and below are some of my initial thoughts.

The Good. Content-wise, this magazine is a homerun. Pretty much from front to back all of the writing is engaging, relevant, and well informed. One of my favorite aspects of all the writing is the trademark Canadian sense of humour that has found its way onto the pages of this magazine. Not only from Bob McCown, from whom such is to be expected, but pretty much from front to back, there is a sense of humour found within the pages that is just not to be found in any other publications of this kind.

Sportsnet Magazine's Premier issue lacked the visual "pop" I was hoping for...

The Bad. I understand that the release of this magazine came as a fresh NHL season was about to start. I also understand that hockey is about as Canadian an institution as the Mounties’ red coats. But I put this magazine down feeling as though I’d just finished a copy of The Hockey News. It would be a real tragedy if this magazine simply reverted to the cliché of the hockey obsessed Canadian to promote itself as “Canadian.” There is so much more to the athletic landscape of Canada than hockey. Earlier in September and the first half of October the Rugby World Cup was being contested in New Zealand, and Canada was represented by a fine squad. Yet there was only a single photo of this event, with no related content. The President’s cup is around the corner, with several Canadian golfers set to be included. Again, nothing. The upcoming NLL season? Nope. Build up to the Pan Am games? Nada. Canadian College sports preview? Nothing. Only future issues will reveal if this magazine can truly give a Canadian perspective on sports, rather than simply falling back on old clichés to fill its pages.

The Ugly. For all that the publishers did right with regards to quality content, they dropped the ball horribly from a graphical point of view. One of the things that sets Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine apart is that they are visually spectacular. From the covers to the photos that each publishes, each brings a unique, stylish, and ultimately engaging graphical element to their magazines that draw the reader in. Sportsnet Magazine simple lacks any kind of “pop” from a visual standpoint. Had I not been looking for it specifically, it would have simply melted into the newsstand like so many other publications.

If they really want to promote sports from a Canadian point of view, they have a great opportunity not just to promote Canadian athletes, but also to foster the next generation of Canadian sport photographers. Admittedly this is a subject of which I am horribly ignorant – for all I know they are already doing this – but my ignorance may be due to their neglect. I would love to see a short piece each month about the work of specific Canadian sports photographers. After all, sports magazines are as much about the photos as they are about the articles. They are the images that young athletes insert themselves into, imagining future glories.

Overall I did enjoy the initial offering of Sportnet Magazine, but obviously feel they have some work to do if they are to be successful in taking on the Sports Illustrated’s of the world.

Brendan Shanahan: Making the NHL’s Hardest Job Just a Bit Easier

 

Brendan Shanahan looks to be as effective in his role with the NHL as he was on the ice during his craeer.

The NHL season starts tomorrow, but already we have seen a flurry of activity within the league. Most notable among the goings on have been the record number of suspensions handed down by the NHL’s newly appointed VP of Player Safety, Brendan Shanahan.

In addition to being the face of the NHL’s new “tough on head shots” policy, Shanahan has not only been making waves for the number of suspensions he’s handed down thus far, but also for the manner in which he’s doing it. No longer content to rely on a press release outlining the player, infraction, and discipline applied, Shanahan is taking to the internet, and has produced a small video explanation of every single disciplinary action that has come to his attention. These videos include a short clip of the incident(s) in question (from multiple angles and slow motion), a citation of the applicable rules, what, if any discipline has been decided upon, and, most importantly, his reasoning behind why or why not a certain decision was reached (The videos can be found on the NHL’s website, in the video section under the Player Safety channel).

One of the things I most remember about the discipline handed out by Colin Campbell (Shanahan’s predecessor) is a total lack of transparency. He would make an announcement that a certain player was under review, then shortly thereafter issue a decision via press release, often with little to no explanation to how he applied the rules in making his decision. Often times these press releases were criticized in the media for failing to set guidelines for players and coaches that were easy to follow, and that Campbell’s discipline was often inconsistent and arbitrary. This often set up a very acrimonious relationship between the players and the NHL as an organization, since there was such a perceived lack of clarity or consistency in the application of discipline.

In my opinion, part of what makes Shanahan’s new approach with these video such a great idea is that Shanahan is announcing that his tenure will be much different from that of Campbell’s without openly criticizing his predecessor. By showing the exact play, quoting the exact rule, and clearly outlining his decision making process, Shanahan has put himself in a much different light that those who have held his role before him. In many ways he has announced his presence, in addition to the dawning of a new era in the NHL with regards to headshots, in a very clever way. Not only that, but he has put himself in a better position with regards to the league, the players, and the media since he has preempted any attempts to call his judgment into question. Players, coaches, and teams may disagree with his decisions, but he has set up a system that is easy to defend and is accessible to all.

Most importantly, in my opinion, the transparency that he has introduced into this aspect of professional sports is a stroke of genius. It has so many potential benefits, and relatively few drawbacks. Among the ways that this approach can be beneficial, some of the following are what appeal to me:

1 – Trust. One of the biggest things that these videos do is instill a sense of trust that anyone appearing before Shanahan’s desk will receive a fair shake. By clearly outlining what his criteria are for legal and illegal plays, he is setting a bar that is equal across the league. Gone are the days of “you’re suspended because we said so.” Players, coaches, and teams may not agree with Shanahan’s decisions, but at least they are able to see how he came to a decision.

2 – Clarity. One of the factors that can erode relationships within a group faster than anything else is a lack of clarity. A lack of clarity of roles, of rules, and of repercussions can often lead to frustration amongst everyone involved. By showing a clear decision making process, Shanahan is allowing the rest of the league to buy-in to his process, as well as giving crystal clear examples of what types of plays will and will not result in suspensions.

3 – Consistency. In addition to holding players to set guidelines with regards to their play, the other thing that Shanahan has done is very subtly set himself a set of guidelines. Players will be able to judge how consistent Shanahan is in applying discipline based on his previous decisions – a fact of which I am almost positive Shanahan must have been aware of when he made the decision to release his rulings via video. By allowing himself to be held to certain standards, he once again is  building the relationship between the NHL and the players employed therein.

All of these really contribute to the players’ understanding his decision making process, as well as having the added benefit of building a more cooperative relationship between Shanahan’s office and the players under his purview.