Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Skill Differences

You don’t have to read this article to continue with this blog post, though it’s interesting.

I’ll summarize it for you; one high-school football team in Texas beat another team ninety one points to zero and that’s like, kind of a lot.  But what’s interesting was the response.

The players and the coach all sat down and felt pretty badly, but the guys feeling badly about it were the winners.  I’m sure the losing team didn’t feel too peachy either, but what interests me is that you would normally expect the people who won, especially by such a large margin, to feel pretty good about themselves.

It turns out, the coach felt the opposite.  “I don’t like it," he said. "I sit there the whole third and fourth quarter and try to think how I can keep us from scoring.”

And then a report gets filed against his team for bullying.  Not because his players taunted anybody.  Not because they were ex-Marines who sneaked themselves into a game with high-schoolers so they could flaunt how strong they were.  But because they won too hard.

I wanted to dismiss it as ridiculous.  And it is ridiculous to cry bully, because--according to the article above--there’s zero evidence that the Aledo team did anything to rub the victory in anybody’s faces.  They didn’t cheat or use underhanded tactics to gain the win, and won with no malicious intent; that means that a charge of “bullying” is right out.  For what it’s worth, the losing team’s coach didn’t file the charge.  It appears to have been done by an unhappy parent who didn't want their kid feeling bad.  But it did get me thinking a bit.

There is a reason that we create leagues, circuits, and divisions.  Besides elements of physical safety (in the case of age groups), it’s done to try and keep the competition closer.  It is frustrating to play somebody a few light-years out of your league.  You barely have the opportunity to learn because they crush you quickly and decisively.  You have to imagine that it’s not much fun for the winner either (unless they really like easy victories).  It’s tough to learn from experience when your participation in the game is damn near negligible.  You can do your best--heck, some of my most motivational matches have been overwhelming losses--but if somebody really is that much better than you, you have to ask “what are you even doing here?”

Now, this particular case is interesting because it highlights lots of ideas I write about.

Where to start?  These kids aren’t professionals.  They’re another high-school team.  This means that the #1 NFL team didn’t drop into town just to slaughter some little kids.  This is an ostensibly even playing field, in terms of age and experience.  So one of the most important things we have to address is “how do you respond when you lose?”  Do you complain that your opponent was too good to be playing you?  Even when they’re just a rival high-school that’s your age?

I’ve seen it happen.  People want a higher placing in a tournament, so they worry about when they play the best players.  To them, it’s all about “who will I beat, who will I lose to, and what order will I play them in?”  And though I think it’s cool to try and get the highest placing you can, but it feels like something’s off.  Because the goal should be getting better, not making sure that you get 7th rather than 9th at a local event.  If you want a higher place, beat more people.  If you get seeded against the best player early, try and beat them!  Measure your performance against them and see if you play better, not if you place better.

In this particular context, this idea should go like this: if you have another group of high-schoolers, and they are that far ahead of the competition, your first question should be “what are they doing to win and how can I do it too?”  That’s assuming that you care about winning and improving (and since it’s Texas high-school football, the answer is yes, you do care).  What drills do they use?  Is it pure athleticism or teamwork that’s giving them an edge?  Is it both?  How do they train those skills?  Can these skills be emulated?  Is the coach incredible and making amazing calls during the game?  Are they just cheating?  What’s the big secret?

This is where you start to realize what your actual standpoint is.  From this series of questions, I can foresee a few different outcomes.

--It’s discovered that Aledo has an intense and rigorous physical training regimen far above what most high-schoolers are willing to endure.  Parents then accuse them of being too Spartan and that they should tone it down.  This makes you ask, “you mean that you care enough about who wins the football game to file a bullying report, but you don’t care enough to have your kids work harder?”

This seems painfully possible to me.  And it lends itself to a mindset that many people seem to have, which is this: even though difficulty and competition are relative, success is absolute.  You can’t fail without sucking and being garbage.  So this twists into a corollary, something even more counterintuitive and ridiculous; if losing makes you bad, then you can become good by getting the people who beat you not to play.  No improvement necessary!  The spirit of competition lives on in a hideous grotesquerie of its former self.

I don’t know if I’ve ever stated it explicitly before, but “the best” does not equal “good” and “the worst” does not equal “bad.”  They imply one another, but are not equal.  Sometimes the best player is just the least awful.  If your game ever dies out, and only five devotees remain and all are nearly perfect, then a nearly-perfect fifth place is still technically the worst.  Keep these things in mind the next time you obsess over winning without thinking about how well you’re doing.

--Aledo just teaches the kids skills more efficiently.  The parents demand that their own coaches be fired and replaced, which is sad because even coaches can learn too.  Or they demand that Aledo’s coach reveal his secrets and training methods, because is unfair for his players to have a coach so head-and-shoulders above everybody else.

This is a little overreactionary, but at least it’s less self-damning.  They want the kids to get better, and if there’s a method of improvement, shouldn’t it be public so everybody can get better?  Doesn’t that raise the level of competition?  Doesn’t that give every kid a fair shot to test their mettle?  After all, it’s really crummy if one team is worse, not because of a lack of dedication or talent, but because they can only train on old and busted equipment.  That’s a pre-game resource imbalance, which destroys the idea of “fair competition.”  Life is luck-based enough as is; do we want to keep testing your fortune?  Is a criteria for winning “be lucky to have Aledo’s coach for your own”?  In the context of teaching (and not in-game shotcalling) don’t coaches just constitute an informational and motivational resource?  Arguments can be made on this score.  They’re not even super terrible arguments, either.

Although I think interfering parents who start making demands on behalf of their children are a bit silly one way or the other, I am almost always on the side of knowledge-sharing.  So if I am a coach with magical teaching techniques, I will gladly share them.  I will sit and teach somebody a matchup that I am about to play against them in tournament if they ask me.  Why?

Two reasons.  First, I want to be better than the other person.  Secret knowledge and facts feel more like “secret-club” passwords than anything else to me.  I want my opponent to be as good as possible.  I want to outthink them and trick them in the heat of the moment, not abuse their lack of knowledge.  Not only does that teach me bad habits and undermine my improvement, it feels crummy.  “Well, would I have been able to beat him if he knew X?”  Maybe not.  Maybe it was the only thing keeping me in the game.  In which case I could have (and maybe should have) been better.  So I’ll make somebody as good as possible, because that forces me to be better.  Then again, I don’t really go the extra mile to tell somebody how to play better mid-set, because I wouldn’t expect them to do it for me.  It’s kind of weird.

The other reason I share my secrets is because I’m pretty confident most people won’t actually listen.  People generally find a lot of reasons to stay as they are.  Tell somebody why they’re losing, and they’ll tell you they “have” to play that way for some reason.  They will tell you that your advice can’t possibly work, which is interesting since they sought it in the first place.

From a different article on the same subject:

“Aledo ISD Superintendent Derek Citty said this is not Aledo-versus-Fort Worth.  ‘We want their kids to succeed, just like we want our kids to succeed,” he said.

Take two seconds to play a quick game of “spot the contradiction.”  Winning a competition means that somebody else loses that competition.  That’s the point.

In this case, the superintendent is one of three things.  1) He’s in PR damage control and spewing nonsense to make people feel better.  2) He understands that, in this case, success means “gets to have a meaningful competition involving effort, challenge, and growth.”  3) He honestly feels both teams can actually win a game of football and is therefore spewing nonsense.

Number one is understandable for people in a public position.  Number two is a healthy attitude for all of us to have, particularly in the world of sports and games.  It’s the attitude that leads you to investigate yourself, to better yourself, to learn and grow and all that good stuff.  Coincidentally, if you do those things, you will usually find yourself playing better and winning more games.

But not all players can win.  In a tournament, one player or team gets to walk home saying proudly, “I’m the winner.”  Nobody else can.  So if we love competition so much, is it because we want everybody who isn’t that person (or team) to feel crappy?  No.  It’s because there’s more to sports, games, and competing in simulations than winning.

I try not to enter Smash events when the competition level isn’t high enough.  It’s not fun for me, and it’s really lame for the low level players that crash into me early.  They want to compete and prove themselves and see how they stack up.  But we know the outcome when they play me.  It doesn’t look like a match, it looks like an execution.  Sometimes the only difference between a player’s skill from one year to the next is how likely it is that I’ll four-stock them.  Congratulations!  This year I could only totally obliterate you seven matches out of ten.  You’ve gotten better.  Still won’t win though.

Does that mean you should be miserable?  Does it make me better than you?  Have you wasted your time if you aren’t the best?  Or at least the best at something?  No!  But we might as well put a better matched player against you in the bracket, particularly when the purpose of this contest is not money--which is where my kindhearted benevolence ends--or seeding points for a bigger event--where the absolute measure of skill across all players is required--but for fun and friendly competition.  In that case it’s about something else entirely.

We can both succeed at the aim of self-improvement and having a meaningful competition, even if we both can’t win the game.  With that as the real goal, keep it in mind before you talk about whether somebody is too good, or whether they need to give others a fair chance.

Thanks for reading.

1 comment:

  1. This gets even more double edged when there's an advantage to how badly you beat your opponent. In fencing, for instance, the bracket seeding is not based on just wins, but also by the number of points you got minus the times you were hit. This seems sometimes like a bad thing, because it makes the worst get mercilessly destroyed (can be good), but mostly it's that they don't have a chance to learn.

    The best, on the other hand, is disadvantaged when he fences normally and without trying to crush everyone (say by giving away a point to the new, much worse opponents in small competitions), so it's really a pretty bad cycle. It is fair numerically, but psychologically there are flaws.

    Smash is nice because you can sandbag and play whoever you want as long as you win, you aren't punished for not absolutely crushing weaker opponents.