Wednesday, May 9, 2012

It's Still a Game

Two recent injuries to high-profile athletes, in situations that could have easily been avoided, have caused some folks (me included) to examine the coaching decisions that played a role in the injuries, or more precisely in what could have been done to avoid them.

In the first, the Saturday before last, the Chicago Bulls' Derrick Rose (the reigning MVP of the NBA) tore the ACL in his left knee with 1:20 left in the game and his team up by 12 points in a win over the Philadelphia 76ers in the first game of their playoff match-up. Rose's presence in the game that was essentially wrapped up led some to question whether his coach, Tom Thibodeau, should have kept him in the game and risked any injury, let alone a season-ending one that will require surgery and months of rehabilitation.

A week later, Mariano Rivera, who is almost certainly the greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball, tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee while shagging balls pre-game last Thursday in Kansas City. Catching outfield flies before a game is not standard operating procedure for relief pitchers, let alone 42-year-old relief pitchers, and others have questioned the wisdom of his manager, Joe Girardi, in allowing Rivera to, well, act like a kid when he's now middle-aged.

As is too often the case these days, when sports opinionators (it's hard to call many of them "journalists") weigh in on every coaching decision, some have questioned whether Rose should have been in the game when he was, and whether Rivera should have ever been allowed to tempt fate by shagging balls in the outfield.

In response to the questions, Thibodeau, who has a well-earned reputation for exhaustive, even obsessive, preparation, replied that he thought that Rose, who has struggled through a number of injuries this season, needed to be on the court at the end of the game so that he could acclimate himself to finishing games if the need would arise (and it almost certainly would have) in a close game later in the playoffs.

The best defense of Rivera's actions came not from his manager but from former Yankee pitcher Ron Guidry, to whom Rivera was compared (or mirrored, since Rivera is right-handed and Guidry a lefty) when he first came to the Yankees two decades ago. Guidry shared with Rivera not only sneaky-fast stuff, but a longing to play the outfield. Guidry actually realized his dream, twice, while in a Yankee uniform.

Rivera never made an official appearance in the outfield for the Yankees, but, in a recent New York Times interview, Guidry expressed the belief that that dream, or at least allowing Rivera to foster it by catching flies in warm-up, may have extended rather than shortened Rivera's career. “We’re people, not just pitchers,” Guidry said. “If they didn’t let Mo enjoy the game, maybe he doesn’t pitch this long.”       

Rivera in action.

I'm with Thibodeau and especially Guidry on this one. Sometimes, coaches just have to let players be players. The word "player" itself has a connotation that we too often ignore. It is a game, and players play it. Sometimes coaches coach best when they let their players enjoy what it is they're doing. As long as it's not disrespectful of the other team, or designed solely to pad statistics, then players should be allowed, at least sometimes, to acknowledge that they should have some fun, to express themselves whether on the field of play or just preparing to play.

Perhaps there's a lesson there for businesses outside of the sports world as well. Too often management feels compelled to require employees and even executives to conform to their idea of what a position requires. Employees are required to dress as an account executive or administrative assistant "should" dress; to act like a like a manager or a agent "should" act, to express themselves as a salesperson or an lawyer "should" express themselves.

Once in a while, perhaps a square peg will fill a round hole, as long as it's not forced and there's a little elbow grease that eases the fit. Sometimes we should let employees be who they are, and by doing that let them enjoy more what they do. Understanding that there are certain situations that require particular behavior or even attire, employers ought to be willing, in general, to adapt to the way employees and even management can go about their business in the manner that is most appealing to them, as long as that business and that conduct aids the greater good.

Let players play.

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