Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cliffs Notes and Cliches

This is a strange time of year for college football fans. On one hand, there’s a sense of relief that comes from having survived the drought of the offseason. Teams are practicing, media coverage is ramping up and before you know it, Brent Musberger will be telling us at what, exactly, we are looking live.

On the other hand, we’re not there quite yet, and it’s often those last few steps that’ll kill you. We still find ourselves languishing in this limbo that is equal parts excitement and frustration. As a semi, sometimes observant Jew, it reminds me of walking out of synagogue at the end of Yom Kippur – you’ve made it through the hard part, but until you’ve got some food in your mouth, the fast isn’t actually over.

And so we wait, our game day gear cleaned and pressed but still hanging in the closet, desperate for something – anything – to fill that void between now and kickoff. And the only thing there is to fill it with is talk. Talk from media days. Talk from preseason press conferences. Talk from post-practice interviews. Coaches across the country are stepping behind microphones and loading up reporters’ notebooks with quote after quote, and they’re all singing a similar tune – that their team has never worked harder, has never been stronger and has never been more prepared to take the field. And we, in turn, are digesting, dissecting and discussing every last bit of it as if it’s gospel.

The only problem is that it’s anything but.

Like preseason polls and zip codes, it’s all meaningless – not that that is some sort of groundbreaking revelation. After all, the term “coach-speak” has been around ever since the first coach gave his first interview and gave birth to the first set of clichés. It’s what coaches do, and rationally, we don’t expect anything different from them. We understand that they’re not going to throw their guys under the bus or declare a season dead before a down is played. What would be the point? The (monumental) risk for being honest and revealing simply isn’t worth the (nonexistent) reward.

But as someone who watches countless press conferences and reads countless quotes, I am still struck by how the exact same stuff is said year after year after year. I mean, the exact same stuff. It’s honestly a little uncanny, and I can’t help wondering if coaches are just taking the path of least resistance, or if they could actually be driven by some other deep-seeded motivation.

Beyond basic political correctness, could there really be something more to coach-speak?

The life of a football coach can’t be easy. Granted, they’re paid an out-of-balance salary for their non-planet-altering troubles, but that exorbitant paycheck does come with an exorbitant amount of responsibilities – many of which are for things that are completely out of their control. From their players’ girl problems to the unpredictable nature of the game to their star linebacker turning an apartment complex into his own personal drive-thru, they are often at the mercy of the bounce of the proverbial ball, all the while being under constant duress from the school’s administration, its alumni base and the message board crowds to produce unrealistic results.

So to borrow one of their favorite clichés, the only way to survive this chaos is to simply focus on controlling what they can control – their preparation, their perseverance, their work ethic, their foresight to land a new job before their current program gets slammed for the violations they themselves committed.

But most importantly, they have to control their thinking.

Success, on any playing field, is as dependent upon our mental and emotional acuity as it is anything else. You have to – cliché alert! – believe in yourself, you have to believe in the people around you, and you have to believe that you can figure out a way to get the job done. And the outcomes we achieve are almost always a direct reflection of our level of belief in each of those.

And because our brains are such a fickle phenomenon, managing all of the thoughts and feelings that go into that can be an awfully big challenge.

When I picture the human mind, I picture a set of architectural blueprints for a house. You’ve got an assortment of rooms, some big and some small, each dedicated to serving all of our different needs and desires. There’s the kitchen for anything food or hunger related. There’s the bedroom for rest and relaxation. There’s the study where we go when we need to focus on getting things done. There’s the “Man Cave” that’s all about sports, girls, and big screen TVs that broadcast sports and girls.

And somewhere, there’s also a space that’s dedicated to storing all of our emotional baggage – our fears, our doubts, our battle scars. Maybe it’s the attic, maybe it’s a utility closet, or maybe it’s the entire west wing of the complex. But regardless of size, and regardless of how healthy we (think we) may be, we all have one. It’s just part of the human condition.

What matters, though, and what often defines who we are, is how we manage that room. How much time do we spend in there? How strong is the lock on its door? Do we use what lives in there as a teacher, as a reminder and motivator to learn and get better, or do we succumb to those demons and let them have free run throughout the rest of the house?

If you’re a nobody like I am, there’s not much riding on the answers to those questions. But if you’re a football coach at a big time university, and you don’t want a sea of “For Sale” signs filling up your front yard, there’s a lot more at stake, so you better figure out how to keep that door closed. You better deadbolt that thing and shove a chair underneath the handle and lean all of your weight into it to make sure it stays shut. Because the second it cracks open – even just a little – and you indulge in the slightest bit of pessimism or negativity, you might not ever be able to get it closed again.  

And that’s where coach-speak comes in.

It’s a method to survive the madness. It’s a hypnosis of sorts, a means for coaches to convince themselves that everything is okay, that things are going according to plan, that with the right attitude and approach, their 2-10 roster can find a way to go 10-2. It’s a way to keep the door secured and sealed.

In some respects, it’s not all that different from what goes on in romantic relationships. When a couple first gets together, they desperately want to make things work. Even as red flags pop up, they do their best to rationalize or outright ignore the warning signs, because they know if they pay that stuff any attention, the whole thing may come unraveled.

My guess is that if you interviewed a couple that’s been together for a month or so, they’d sound a lot like a coach preparing for the season:

“Things are going really well. The chemistry around here is great. We’re taking it one day at a time, and we’re really excited about where we’re headed. We’re just sticking together and moving forward. We’re going to continue to focus on expanding our package and finding new ways to score.”

Interview that same couple once those red flags have turned into deal breakers, and you’ll get a much different answer. They’ll talk about how they should’ve seen it coming, how they can’t believe they were so delusional, how, deep down, they knew all along that it was never going to work.

We’ll probably never get that level of honesty from a football coach, because as they like to say, talk is cheap, and even if it weren’t, they’d still prefer to do their talking on the field. They’ll all get their chance soon, though, and we’ll all get our chance to see who has been telling the truth, and who has just been fooling themselves.

Mercifully, it’s almost time to break the fast, and I’m starving.

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?