THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
I Wonder Why There's A Shortage
By Jack Furlong
Founder, President & CEO
This is a true story that happened recently.
After already booking a tee time for a Sunday afternoon, I was asked the night before to cover a game in the early evening. Aware of the global shortage of officials, I took the game, aware that I would not play all 18 holes the next day. Tired, hot, frustrated, and hungry, I walked onto a field to umpire a baseball game between nine-year-old kids by myself. Hoping vulnerability would be my ally, I opened up to both coaches during our pregame conference.
“Guys,” I said, “I’m going to be honest with you. I was pulled off the golf course to cover this game by myself. I’m tired, hot, and hungry, and my golf game is absolutely terrible, but I know someone must cover this game since there is a shortage of officials. I ask that everybody play with good sportsmanship. And above all, please treat me kindly.” My wry smile was met with a chuckle, as both coaches were jealous that I had gotten onto the golf course.
Within two outs being recorded after the first pitch, the coach from the visiting team was complaining about the strike zone.
In the top of the second inning with two outs, a batter from the visiting team smoked a fly ball to left field. The left fielder made a fabulous catch to end the inning, causing the batter to begin to cry.
Is it childish to cry over this? Certainly. But the kid was also nine. If anyone is going to cry over this, a child would be the one to do it. However, the same visiting coach in question didn’t see it that way. He was having no luck calming the kid down, so he did what came natural: he fanned the flames and made it worse. “Stop crying, you baby!” he said.
Of course, this made the kid cry more. Now the kid refused to go out to center field out of protest. The coach sent a substitute to center field while making it worse. “You know what you are? You’re a quitter!”
Now the kid was sobbing.
The first pitch of the bottom of the second inning was popped up to center field. The new center fielder camped under it, only to have it go off his glove and fall to the ground. The coach turned back to the crying kid. “That’s on you for being a quitter!” he shouted.
Then I had to make a call at third base while standing behind home plate. “He’s out!” I shouted.
That same coach was now arguing from the third base coach’s box. “He dropped the ball!” he shouted.
I looked everywhere and could not see the ball on the ground. I stood by my call.
“The third baseman had to reach with his bare hand between the legs of the runner to pick up the ball! How can you not see that?” he argued.
“Look at where I am when I have to make that call,” I explained. “I can’t see that, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
The coach had a few more choice words not suitable for print media, then he walked back to the dugout in disgust.
The first batter of the next half-inning smoked a line drive to right-center field. I hustled from behind the plate for a potential play at second base, but the kid took a turn and headed for third. I jogged to my left and positioned myself properly. The runner slid under the tag. “Safe!” I declared.
Now the coach was irate. He and his assistants created a cacophony of complaints, causing me to become irate as well. “That’s enough!” I shouted back.
One assistant coach didn’t stop, though. I ejected him.
With my blood sugar dropping and significant fatigue settling in, I desperately tried to stop shaking and calm down. My skin was slightly burnt. I was out of water. And I wanted to get out of there badly.
That’s when a foul ball hit my collarbone.
Nothing was broken, and I was able to continue the game after a medical delay to make sure I was okay, but insult was clearly added to injury…or maybe injury was added to insult.
The visiting team, complete with crying kids and complaining coaches, ended up winning.
I hobbled to my car when the umpire assignor and the ejected coach approached me. The coach was nice enough to apologize, although it had to be accompanied by a statement that he had never been ejected prior and he didn’t think what he said warranted an ejection.
I took a deep breath, still in throbbing pain from the blow to my collarbone. “Look,” I began. “I’ve been doing this for fifteen years. I’ve worked many levels, from young kids through college. I’ve befriended professional umpires. I’ve studied the rule book. I’ve tried to understand human psychology as it pertains to competition.”
Both men stared intently at me, as if they knew what I was going to say next.
“This, gentlemen,” I said, “is the type of game that makes me want to quit umpiring.”
There was a brief silence. In that moment, I couldn’t hold back my vulnerable opinion.
“I don’t understand how coaches can abuse these kids verbally by calling them quitters. I don’t understand how you can’t see that we have a global shortage of officials because of this behavior. Nobody wants to come out here and endure this kind of behavior for $50. It is ludicrous.”
I honestly felt guilt and shame for expressing my opinion. “Coach your kids however you want,” I concluded. “But without people like me, you have no games.”
By Mark Gola
VP of Marketing & Publicity
There are many different forms of poor sportsmanship. Most instances are fueled by negativity, an undesirable result, or uncontrolled criticism. However, there are times when adults believe they are helping, only to truly be hurting the athletes, coaches, and team.
It’s tough for parents to avoid shouting out what they see and feel during a sporting event, but coaching from the sidelines or behind the fence is a form of poor sportsmanship. This does not include reinforcing what the coaches are preaching, such as a helpful reminder to an athlete ("Keep boxing out!") or words of encouragement (“Shake that one off and get the next one!”). What we’re addressing are adults who holler directives with no regard for the coaches, the athletes, and the consequences of their actions.
You’re undermining the coaching staff. Whether you agree with them or not, the coaches are in charge of the team. They decide who is playing when and where, what game strategy shall be used, and what style of play is best. Yelling out instructions that conflict with what the staff is coaching is exceptionally damaging. It puts the athlete in a difficult position – "Who should I listen to? My coach or my parent?" It can generate doubt amongst other parents who would otherwise not think to partake in the same behavior. It can also cause strife between teammates. If the quality of the coaching staff is in question, address it in a parent meeting or after the season is over.
You’re not allowing the athletes to think for themselves. Telling an athlete what to do, when to do it, where to stand, and when to move is fastening shackles on their ability to develop instinct and creativity. Yes, it is painful to watch young athletes make mistakes, but it’s how they learn. Discuss teaching points with them before the game, after the game, or out in the backyard. But during the game, it’s their time to play. We’ve had our time.
You’re sending a message that listening to the person in charge is optional. This is a bad message to send on and off the field. It basically says, “Respect authority, but only if you agree with them. If not, don’t listen.” That will not work out long-term in sports or in life.
Most don’t want to hear what you have to say. Every parent who watches their sons and daughters compete have thoughts, opinions, and emotions. It’s completely normal. The need to verbalize those thoughts, opinions, and emotions becomes the issue. When a spectator constantly complains, yells, or coaches throughout the contest, it’s downright irritating. It takes away from spectator enjoyment.
If you’re a parent who has difficulty keeping your thoughts to yourself, remove yourself. Stand down in the corner or in the outfield to give yourself the freedom to react (within reason). If that’s too much to ask, you should ask yourself why.
It’s understood that not every coach in charge is the best. Some have great personalities but lack knowledge. Others can teach the sport but lack composure. If you’re a parent that has a lot to offer to young athletes, take the appropriate steps to become a coach yourself. But until then, enjoy the sporting event as a spectator.
A Powerful Tool
By Jack Furlong
Founder, President & CEO
If there’s one thing I’ve learned since March 2020, it’s that fear is one of the most, if not the most, powerful tool in the woodshed.
The concept of fear is rooted in our human ability to sense danger and to avoid it. Ancient man would fear predators in the wilderness for the sake of survival. Presently, we can use fear in more conventional ways, like when we feel uncomfortable around the possibility of skydiving. It’s quite a reasonable barometer in these contexts.
Fear usually encompasses the unknown: we fear what we don’t know. What will happen if I approach this predator? Could I sustain injury if I skydive? Even in situations where we have reasonable security that we can predict the outcome of actions, we’re never one hundred percent sure. A parent may naturally fear his or her child going away to college due to the unknown that awaits ahead, but the parent usually comes to terms with this, perhaps drawing on his or her own experiences, and understands that, although there is no absolute guarantee of safety, the odds are that the child will be okay.
On a simpler scale, fear of the unknown may be the motivating factor for a child to resist trying a new food. Young minds may default to not liking something simply because there is no experience of it yet. If we have yet to understand something, we tend to default to a dislike of it or a fear of it.
Sometimes, fear comes from trauma. If we are bitten by a dog when we have our first experience with one, the pain caused by the physical bite may cause us to fear dogs for the remainder of our lives if we do not work to overcome the fear. If fear can manifest from both the the unknown and the experience of trauma, we can see why fear is so powerful.
Where fear becomes abusive is when our human behavior is altered beyond reason for abnormal motives, such as control, revenge, or wealth. When fear controls us, we are the prime audience for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s quote: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
When the tool of fear falls into the wrong hands, it can be used in acts of poor sportsmanship. Sports teams can use fear to psychologically intimidate opponents, perhaps through embarrassment or threat of injury. Parents can use fear to try to control the actions of their children, causing the children to fear the repercussions if they do not do as the parents say. Coaches may fear their future when their job is on the line. Officials may fear the possibility of a player or coach arguing with them. The list of possibilities is endless.
If we consider the six roles discussed in my book, “On Sportsmanship: A Critical Reader and Handbook” (available now on Amazon for Kindle and in both paperback and hardcover), that encompass the first part of the text, we can see from the above examples that players, coaches, fans, parents, and officials can be affected by fear. What about the media, though?
The fact of the matter is that the media can manipulate the public through fear very easily, and that is an act of poor sportsmanship. These entities have the power to dictate to us how to feel based on what is reported, regardless of whether it is fact or not. If we are told that sports officials are bad by the media, then we can subconsciously begin to believe this. If we are told that our team’s archrival is the enemy, we may see them as opponents in a theater of war rather than on a field, court, rink, or pitch.
Not all media outlets are bad, and not all journalists are nefarious. Further, we can be our own worst enemy in terms of fear, hearing and believing only what we want and refusing to use the concepts of critical thinking and analysis to formulate new breakthrough thoughts.
Consider the path of fear that has traversed the public during this pandemic. We defaulted to fear because the virus was novel; without prior information or evidence, we assumed the worst rather than waiting to examine evidence and compare data. We feared what could happen to us if we left our homes: we didn’t know what might happen if we contracted the virus, so we forced ourselves to stay safe, especially without a cure or vaccine. We convinced ourselves that wearing multiple face coverings and social distancing would stop the virus while we diligently worked for a vaccine. What’s worse, though, is that we convinced ourselves that anything reported to us with a twist of fear had to be fact and, thus, feared.
Before the warmer weather of 2021 and the distribution of vaccines, plausible arguments could be made to support any claim on how to combat this threat; there was reasonable doubt and a lack of supporting evidence that allowed our fear to maintain its hold on us. In fact, fear spread quicker and did more damage than the virus could ever do, harming our mental states in ways that will stay with us for years, if not decades, after this story has run its course. However, we now live in a time and an environment where we have a choice. We have reached the fork in the road, to call back to our post from last month!
One path leads us to sanity. We will come to understand that we have the tools to live normal lives without fear of this virus. We have vaccines that work when we receive our full dosage and booster (not to mention that will continue to be studied since they were expedited without the examination of long-term data). If you’re not a fan of vaccines, we still have plenty of other things to help protect us, such as using good hygienic practices (washing our hands, not touching our face, etc.) and staying home when we’re sick. And we also have the medical tools to help us feel better when we are sick, either via at-home remedies or in medical facilities. We can take off the masks, throw them away, ditch the mandates, and be ourselves.
The other path leads us back to irrational fear. We can sit at home and not live our normal lives, afraid that the virus will get us if we leave the four walls that surround us. We can think that contact with anyone could lead to contracting the virus. We can think that the vaccine and all other methods of prevention and cure are simply not enough, perhaps tainted by other entities such as the government. We can wear multiple masks, believing that this piece of magic cloth has the power to prevent all illness and is the key to preserving what remains of life in this apocalyptic existence. We can never go back to the way our lives were because the fear of what if will keep us safe and prevent anything bad from happening. (Spoiler alert: said fear will not prevent bad things from happening.)
One path teaches us to fight fear the same way we fight poor sportsmanship: leading by example, empowering those who support the same ideals, and being beacons of good morals. The other path encourages fear and poor sportsmanship, promoting its growth and spread like a virus.
I know which path I’m taking. Which will you choose?
Cool It, Everyone Else
We recently talked about asking parents to chill out when it comes to their behavior at sporting events. Let's pull the lens back and look at it a bit more.
Ed Clendaniel penned an op-ed for the Bay Area News Group during the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year about his new goal of not yelling at officials. He cited a few specific incidents and statistics that help support his new goal, noting a call in four different sporting events over four days that went against the home team in each game.
But the best part is where he started asking the questions we at OSIP have been asking for some time: does yelling at officials actually provide you (or your team) with an advantage? And the answer is a resounding no.
An interview with Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance, sums it up nicely. The culture starts with the coaches and has to be set that way (specifically at the younger, more impressionable levels). Thompson points out a very important note: he guarantees there is going to be a bad call during the game that affects his team, but if the goal is to honor the game, then the responsibility of all participants (players, coaches, fans, etc.) is to be absolutely quiet and let the head coach handle it in a way that respects the game.
Thompson's Positive Coaching Alliance took it even further in a separate article. An interview with former minor league ballplayer Jake Wald shows Wald, after joining PCA, promoting the notion that the relationship players have with officials as absolutely critical. Respectful questions that take an interest in how officials work and show an understanding for the hard work they do is not just acceptable, but welcome!
Speaking as an official and ballplayer myself, I couldn't agree more. Talk to me. Work with me.
You Didn't Blow It
We hear it all the time, whether it is in the media, from fans, or even coaches and parents yelling it at officials: one controversial call, and that official blew the game for a team.
News flash: that's false.
It's easy to pinpoint one call in a game that is the turning point and can decide the outcome of a contest. But when we do that, we are no longer admiring the proverbial forest for the trees. We delineate an entire competition down to one moment, which makes for fantastic drama, but seldom represents reality. (In fact, maybe Hollywood could learn another lesson on how to not poison us moving forward...)
Anytime there is a close call in the later stages of a game, an official has to make a split second decision, which will usually please half of the people present and upset the other half. It's not a situation that is enviable by most, including the official. After all, it's not like the official could have avoided trouble if he or she had made the opposite call: the roles would just be reversed with the upset half now happy and the happy half now upset.
But what happens when replays show us a blown call that can't be changed? Or what happens when a coach or parent (or even player) sees it one way and the official sees it differently? The common conclusion is that the official was clearly wrong and is the sole culprit for the outcome of the contest. However, the truth is the exact opposite.
During the course of any sporting event, a multitude of action will occur that can alter the balance of power defined as who is "winning." Baseball changes with each pitch. Football changes with each play from scrimmage. Tennis changes with each serve. The list goes on. Seldom does anyone realize that every single one of these actions can affect the course of a game an equal or greater amount than the call of one official at a moment that is slightly highlighted. In short, every time a coach tells me the one call I made cost his team the game, I remind myself that the team had ample opportunities to prevent me from even having to make that call. Although I take responsibility for the call, I'm not the reason that team lost.
Further, there's an even greater notion at stake that people fail to recall in these situations: great teams overcome bad calls.
The teams that win are the ones that don't stop to argue about the bad calls. The teams that win are the ones that shrug them off and overcome them to the point where the bad call didn't matter.
When a marathon runner trips during the marathon, does he or she stop to examine the spot where he or she fell? Does the runner complain to anyone and everyone about how it is the fault of the ground for causing the runner to lose time? No! The runner gets up and hurries along to make up for the lost time!
The same goes for great teams and great athletes.
The snow in New Jersey throughout March kept me from most of my baseball scrimmages, leaving me all of two games (only one behind the plate) to be ready for the regular season. However, one play during my final game proved a very important point.
With a runner on first base, the pitcher, while in the stretch, did not come to a complete stop. My partner correctly ruled it a balk as the pitch was delivered. The batter, however, swung and lined a base hit through the left side of the infield. Immediately, I came out from behind the plate and yelled, "TIME! DEAD BALL!" The first base coach, however, was already disagreeing with me. "You have to play that out! A balk is not a dead ball!"
"Yes it is, coach," I said. "In NFHS (high school) baseball, a balk is an immediate dead ball."
He immediately dropped his argument, which was amazing, in my opinion. But my partner took the time to explain it to him. The runner from first base was advanced to second, and the batter resumed his at-bat.
The conflict that arose is that, in OBR (official baseball rules, which is what MLB uses, as do many other forms of baseball), a balk is a delayed dead ball. That is, you wait for the play to be over before deciding to enforce the balk. In the case above, we would have let the play go, then given the offense the option of taking the balk penalty or the result of the play. However, high school rules do not allow this: they clearly state that the ball is dead immediately and the balk is enforced. It's an odd shame when something good happens, though...what if the batter hit a home run? You guessed it: I become the bad guy and have to nullify the home run to award the balk penalty.
Sometimes these rules don't make sense. But it's not my job, as the umpire, to debate the rules. I just have to enforce them. Further, the coaches should probably take the time to understand these rules as well. When offered a high school coaching job, it's not as simple as just teaching the game and leading the team. You have to understand that there are MAJOR DIFFERENCES between high school sports and other levels of those same sports.
As much as officials do their homework to know these odd rules, coaches need to do the same. After all, high school athletics are an extension of the classroom. They are another opportunity to educate student athletes on valuable life lessons. We, as coaches and officials, owe it to the kids to get it right.
The Family Tree
If you look at the coaching tree that sprouts from Bill Walsh and Mike Holmgren within the confines of the NFL, you'll see a lot of recognizable names.
One thing you may not know, however, is a pretty interesting thought passed from Walsh to Holmgren regarding how to properly coach your team.
Walsh made it a point to tell Holmgren about the importance of moral as it flows from the coach to the player(s). You can spend all of practice yelling at your team, but when practice is over, the most important thing a coach can do is to make sure you tell each player something good about them. The players need to walk off the field with a good feeling, knowing that their coaches support them and that all the work from practice will be worth it.
The sad part is that this type of love is not always remembered by a large chunk of coaches, especially at younger or lesser levels. How many high school coaches berate their kids in order to try to guarantee that championship? How many college coaches run their kids into the ground because they think the sport is more important than the studies? How many minor league coaches use it as a way to weed out the pure professionals?
This is just another testament to the importance of psychology in sports. This isn't to say that practice shouldn't be tough or demanding, but players (especially younger players) need to know that their superiors recognize their hard work. If more players felt this kind of love, imagine how positive the results could be on game day!
A Great Checklist
If you get a chance, check out the web page of Janis Meredith at www.jbmthinks.com; she writes a sports blog for parents, and the content is quite applicable to the message we try to portray in our mission.
Meredith wrote an article last year about how to tell if you're taking youth sports too seriously. Her checklist included 13 great points:
Consider these points seriously, and if any apply to you, don't be ashamed that you fell into the trap! Use positive energy to determine to escape these traits, rather than look back and examine your mistake.
The worst thing you can do is be in denial that any of these apply to you, and unfortunately, that's what happens more often than not. The people who need these words of wisdom (whether they be from Janis or from OSIP) are the ones who will never listen. It's an unfortunate paradox, but rather than focus on the bad, let's empower the good.
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
In my opinion, it's pretty annoying when players, fans, and anyone else have to say or do something to "psyche" themselves up for what might be considered a big game. What's worse is when it backfires.
At the beginning of May, the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros met for the first time in the baseball season. The Rangers and Astros are both inter-state and inter-division rivals, playing in the American League West. So there is already a bit of juice to the series.
So why did Astros third baseman Alex Bregman decide to fire off a Tweet to fire people up and tick off the Rangers? Your guess is as good as mine.
Bregman has been in the big leagues for all of five minutes. He played for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, only to ride the bench in favor of other established stars. He is certainly not the established leader of the team. When he Tweeted an obscene (but coded) battle cry to intimidate and beat Texas, the Rangers decided to print copies of it and put them up all over their clubhouse as motivation.
So what did Texas do? Pitcher Andrew Cashner hit two batters, including Jose Altuve to start off the bottom of the first inning. So Houston's pitcher, Lance McCullers, then threw behind the back of the Rangers' Mike Napoli. That's when the benches cleared and everyone congregated in a pushing and shoving match.
These attempts to "fire up your squad" are nothing more than pep rallies, which are pointless from the get-go; if you need to motivate people with some "pep," rather than assume they will find the motivation themselves, then there is a bigger concern at hand.
Is it done to try to scare or intimidate the opponent? Do you honestly think that this type of behavior will psychologically affect other competitors?
But consider the outcomes of these attempts to intimidate opponents as if they were categorized like Descartes' Wager:
-If your opponent cowers in fear from the intimidation attempts and you beat them, did you really beat them fair and square? Did you really need to give your all to win over a compromised opponent? It doesn't seem very satisfying.
-If your opponent cowers in fear but still beats you, then you look like an idiot.
-If your opponent gets angry and fights harder but you win, why did you make it harder on yourself? I'm sure it's nice to be able to achieve victory by raising your game to immense levels, but was it worth the risk?
-If your opponent gets angry and fights harder and beats you, then you look like an idiot.
There's really no victory worthy of trying to intimidate your opponent. The cost/benefit ratio is absurd. Your best bet is to keep your mouth shut and just go do your job.
But the worst part of all this is not that it happened between the Astros and Rangers. Rather, the problem is that this type of behavior is practiced with our youth as described in pep rallies and other types of scenarios. Rivalries between high schools and colleges do nothing more than endanger our impressionable youth by exposing them to practices and traditions that do nothing more than cause detriment rather than teach good sportsmanship and morals and focus on the good experience of the game instead of the need to win.
Remind your young ones that it's about the good experience of playing the game, not about demeaning or defeating someone else.
The Yelling Doesn't Help
An article published in Referee magazine at the end of 2016 made some rounds in early 2017 again, discussing the topic of why coaches yell, specifically at officials.
Ironically, one of the reasons the article gave regarding why coaches yell at officials is simply because the coach is often significantly far away from the official, ergo requiring raising his/her voice just to get the attention of the official. To that, I must say, "Thank you, Captain Obvious."
But the article went on to discuss other more logical reasons why coaches yell. The problem is that the reasons and examples provided as to why the coaches yell were not fully acceptable or morally sound, even if they happen to be the truth.
First, the article mentions one of the reasons being that coaches have multiple responsibilities on a team, thereby not being able to follow the game as closely as an official may. That may be true, such as tending to injured players, determining when substitutes need to be deployed, or discussing strategy. But to play devil's advocate, is that really an acceptable excuse? Doesn't a good coach have the ability to follow the game and do all these other things?
A second reason, and one more damning and popularly used (especially at professional levels, which means lower levels mimic it), is to inspire a team. Many stories have been passed down that a large majority of arguments between managers and umpires in baseball are not actually about a disagreement over a call, but as a tactic to inspire a team to perform better. A coach who comes storming out of a dugout and starts going ballistic may actually be asking the umpire about where his dinner reservations are for that evening.
There are two problems with this method. First, it rarely works, especially at youth levels. Younger athletes tend to crawl back into a shell when this type of behavior is exhibited; they begin to play in fear of getting yelled at in a similar measure. Second, why does the official have to be subject to a misnomer from onlookers? The manager or coach may not actually be mad at the official, but the fans certainly can be deceived by this action. "If the manager of my team is mad, that gives me, the fan, the right to be mad!" Or, "Perhaps I should be mad too!"
One thing that is never acceptable is when a coach uses this method in a derogatory way against an official. It's bad enough when a coach puts on a mad display when he's not actually yelling at the official; but if the coach is actually criticizing the official to motivate his team, then that's grounds for ejection.
It comes down to this: officials shouldn't have to take abuse from coaches or anyone else. If a coach has to yell just to get the attention of the official due to physical distance, that's fine. But it makes zero sense to yell at an official for any other reason. And if you are someone who still wants to yell at an official, be prepared to face the consequences.
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.