THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
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.
By Katelyn Mulligan
COO & VP of Community Relations
The 2022 Olympic Winter Games inspired me to reflect on a sportsmanship situation we encountered a few years ago.
While manning a table at a local town fair, a woman approached us and became combative (in front of children, no less), expressing her opinion that she did not see a need for OSIP to exist, claiming OSIP is another form of a participation trophy.
This couldn't be further from the truth.
For some background, OSIP's mission statement is:
We would love nothing more than to not have to exist, but as it stands now, there are lots of eyes that can greatly benefit from being opened on the subject. Sportsmanship exists beyond athletic settings; it goes with us on the journey we call life. Competition plays a role in politics, the workplace, and many other facets and situations. Participation trophies do nothing to help young minds learn how to handle these scenarios. Winning isn’t everything (though the desire to win and give it “your all” on the field is celebrated); being able to lose and accept it with dignity is just as important than winning (if not more so). Learning how to lose in organized sports is an important lesson just as it is when you’re in the running for a job, an election, or any other related capacity.
“Participation trophies actually take away from the concept of sportsmanship,” said OSIP Chairperson Sean Ryan. “The process of winning and losing and how to accept those situations gracefully is a life lesson. Failing is learning while winning should be humbling. Participation trophies, depending on their context, can represent winning without trying. To truly experience winning, we first must experience losing and what it feels like. This way, outcomes are more appreciated and accepted.”
“How exactly would the Brian Stow incident or a young athlete yelling at umpires relate to a participation trophy?” asks OSIP Vice-Chairperson Sean Gough. “Were violence and whining the trophies? Seems telling, too, that those who bash from afar often stereotype by invoking participation trophies. Aside from the lack of originality, the confusion of decency with coddling already suggests a problem with their conceptions of sportsmanship.”
So, once the pandemic storm calms, if you see us at a community event, please stop by, say hi, and help us spread the good word. Heck, we will even sweeten the deal with some giveaway candy.
There is so much more to be said about this topic, more than I can muster in this blog post. But if you’ve made it this far: rock on! Please don’t let me bring your interest to an abrupt stop here.
Allow me to introduce you to “On Sportsmanship: A Critical Reader and Handbook,” available in paperback, hardcover, and Kindle formats from Amazon. Happy reading, and happy good-sportsman-ing!
OSIP is always looking for more people who would like to get involved. Visit www.osipfoundation.org for more information. (Although, since we already have three people named Sean, if your name happens to be Sean, we may need to lovingly assign you a new alias.)
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?
By Mark Gola
VP of Marketing and Publicity
There are moments in nearly every sporting event when a player, coach, or fan encounters a fork in the road. Do I take the path that allows my emotions to get the best of me and fall victim to a display of poor sportsmanship? Or do I take the path of discipline and show poise?
There are so many elements surrounding athletic events that we don’t control. Demonstrating good sportsmanship is a component that lies 100 percent within our control. When confronted with a situation riddled with turmoil, every coach, player, and parent gets to determine how they will handle their actions.
Let’s take a simple example of when an athlete encounters a fork in the road. Consider a baseball game where a batter is at the plate with the bases loaded and one out. It’s late in the game and the batter's team is down by one run. With a 2-2 count, the batter takes a called strike three. In that moment, the batter has a decision to make:
Listen, it’s not easy. Competitive juices are flowing; an opportunity to have a big moment was missed, composed with failure in front of everyone in attendance. But one must work at it, just like other aspects of the game. Further, any successful athlete will tell you that the most important play is the next play. If emotions can't be kept in check, the ability to focus on the next play will suffer.
Teammates will notice. Opponents will notice. Coaches will notice. Game officials will notice. Recruiters will notice.
Make the decision to become exceptional at sportsmanship. You’ll not only choose the right path at each fork you encounter, but you’ll begin to take others with you.
Topics like this and more are discussed regularly on How You Play The Game, the official podcast of OSIP. On January 1, OSIP founder Jack Furlong and chairperson Sean Ryan will produce their 100th episode of the program. Dale Scott will join them on the podcast, and Furlong will announce the release of his highly anticipated book, On Sportsmanship: A Critical Reader and Handbook. The mission of the book is to “reveal the steps to ensuring that each person does their best at treating others with respect in sports and competition.”
Tune in to listen to the podcast and also learn more about OSIP at osipfoundation.org.
Remember playing "King of the Mountain" as a kid? If you never did, here's how it works: one person stands at the top of a large hill to defend it while other kids try to climb it and knock the kid at the top down the hill. Then, whoever knocks the kid down stands at the top and defends the territory like the original kid did. Frankly, it wouldn't be allowed today because it can get too physical, but you know there are kids playing it somewhere...
Competition is no different. When we reach the pinnacle of the mountain, there is always a target on our back. For teams that win championships, that target is known as "next year." The defending champions have a very small amount of time to enjoy their championship before they have to defend it. So our self-esteem might go up when we win, but it doesn't last long because we have to validate it again through the next competition.
Why, then, do we attach self-esteem to competition if we know that there will be a dip in it when the next season starts? Why do we allow our self-esteem to go up when we win if we know we have to defend it from going down again?
There was a large chunk of my early high school years spent in front of a television with my Nintendo 64 powered up for too many consecutive hours while my friends and I became almost numb to what it took to play each game, regardless of what it was. Eyes were glazed over; thumbs and other fingers were calloused; and bodies were thankfully still young enough not to feel the effects of being in the same position for too long, so long as the stimulation in our brains was at maximum speed.
Out of all the games we played, the one that dominated the first two years of high school for us was GoldenEye 007.
This game was revolutionary for the industry. I'm not sure I would say it was ahead of its time, but the impact it had on how future games were developed and produced was outmatched only by the staying power it had to capture people and bring them back to the game years later, regardless that graphics had advanced significantly beyond mere polygons.
Beyond the ability to bring friends together for hours of entertainment, the single-player mode was equally as enthralling, and not just for the regular game-play. There was something else that fueled our fire: cheats.
Cheats were not negative in this sense. Normally, in dealing with sportsmanship, we hear the word "cheat" and we renounce it. However, in this case, cheats were unlockable modes that altered the coding in the game purely for entertainment purposes. They included Paintball Mode (where every gunshot produced a paintball splatter), Fast/Slow Animation (where the non-playable characters would move at different speeds), and All Guns (which unlocked all the guns for you to use in each level).
Cheats were unlocked via a time trial. So if you finished a level on a certain difficulty setting under a specific time, you would unlock that cheat. And there were two cheats that probably drove most players crazy in trying to unlock them: Invisibility and Invincibility.
Invisibility required you to complete the Archives level on the hardest difficulty level in under 1 minute 20 seconds, whereas Invincibility required you to complete the Facility level on the hardest difficulty level in under 2 minutes 5 seconds. To say my friends and I discussed and debated and tested everything under the sun regarding how to achieve these feats is an understatement. In fact, I'm quite surprised we didn't have laboratories set up with white boards and corresponding diagrams to help show the amount of brain power we used for this. However, in hindsight, it definitely makes me wish we had done this and provided significant evidence of doing this in order to earn some sort of advanced college credit while still in high school...seriously, we should have written multiple dissertations.
So much of my free time would be spent trying to beat each level under the required times. I'd restart levels immediately if I screwed up. I'd yell at the television if I missed it by one second. I would cripple with anxiety in my gut as I waited to see if I had finally achieved my goal, only to crumple in disappointment each time I would be significantly short. I imagine many of my teachers would have wished I spent more time doing other things...seriously, can you imagine where I would be if I used all those hours practicing music or taking extra swings in the batting cage?
The point here, however, is that this leisurely recreational activity that took so many hours proved a very important point: there was no need for significant competition with another person to ensure entertainment.
In Alfie Kohn's book "No Contest," which presents various arguments against competition, one section is dedicated to the idea that competition is needed to ensure entertainment. In other words, how can we have fun without competing? And is fun only had if we win? When I read this section, my experiences with GoldenEye came to mind immediately because it checked every box:
Ultimately, although Kohn's book is clearly to the extreme side against competition, one wonders if the objective is more so to get the reader to meet the extremist in the middle and compromise on some of the ideas regarding competition. That's where I find myself: understanding that competition needs to be viewed in an almost omniscient point of view, rather than being so invested in it that it is easy to lose sight of reality.
Oh, how easy it is to forget this while so invested in GoldenEye! But the lesson is easily learned: there are infinite ways to find entertainment without the vicious requirement of cutthroat competition.
A media piece earlier this year submitted by Today/The Today Show finally provided some statistical data we suspected all along: we're losing a significant amount of youth sports officials at a rapid rate.
According to the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS, the governing board overseeing high school athletics), 80% of high school sports officials quit before their third year. The most common reasons are always the verbal and physical abuse from coaches and parents. In fact, many states are facing the crisis of having to postpone athletic events due to a lack of officials.
Fanning these flames are the threats of social media, where one call can go viral very quickly thanks to the recording capabilities on phones and other devices. Verbal abuse doesn't just occur on the field anymore: it's online.
The obvious solution is for people (players, coaches, parents, fans) to behave better. High school sports are an extension of the classroom. If you wouldn't act a certain way inside a school, don't act that way while at the field.
But another solution? If you think you could do better as an official, there is a class waiting for you! There are cadet courses always looking for more officials. Why don't you sign up and show everyone your skills?
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.
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!
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.