Victor Oladipo, who plays for the NBA Indiana Pacers, a couple of weeks ago scored 32 points to leads his team to victory in a first-round playoff game with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Afterward he was reminded that Dan Gilbert, who owns the Cavs, was quoted as saying the Pacers “could have done better” than getting young Oladipo in an off-season trade that involved the established star Paul George going to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Asked after the contest if recalling Gilbert’s comment had motivated his performance, Oladipo agreed. “You could say it added fuel to the fire, I guess you could say,” he elliptically told a reporter for the ESPN website.
To which I thought, Huh? Here’s a player who excelled in the hectic atmosphere of the NBA playoffs while stewing over an off-hand remark an old-guy team owner had made six months before? If that were true it was a miracle he didn’t trip over his own shoelaces.
Indeed, of all sports-page clichés, which are far too numerous to begin to recount here, the most irksome to me is the one that portrays an athlete or team as angry over some criticism and striving to succeed in order to “show” the critic—to set things straight, as it were. Invoking it is a crutch for sportswriters too lazy to seek a better description of what transpired during a game and an easy way for an athlete to get out of an interview. The differences between winning or losing on our most-exalted fields of play are many and complex, often defying explanation. Those involved seem to agree that it’s better to fob off a quick-and-dirty answer than to explore further.
The seductive thing about the “showing ‘em” cliché is that it applies to just about every performer. The guy who was picked No. 2 in his sport’s annual draft can be portrayed as seething that he wasn’t No. 1; the No. 6 guy can be pissed off at Nos. 1 through 5. If Joe Jock wasn’t a first-round pick he has a right to be upset with every team in his league for passing him over, including his own. By that reasoning Tom Brady’s quest for six NFL title rings can be explained by his sixth-round draft position.
Coaches—or, at least, those lacking in motivational skills—feed the resentment theme by maintaining bulletin boards on which to post every published comment on their team or its players that isn’t fulsome praise. Champion teams do it, too—hey!, everybody’s got critics. It’s even okay if the naysayers are not only nameless but also unnamable-- they’re “the doubters,” whomever they may be. The sports world seems to be filled by Rodney Dangerfields, straightening their neckties and muttering about how they “don’t get no respect.”
The late Vince Lombardi, the NFL’s guiding spirit, said “there’s nothing that stokes the fire like hate,” and, certainly, genuine animosity can arise between teams that bump heads often, like his Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. On the collegiate level, ancient rivalries such as Ohio State-Michigan and Alabama-Auburn can stir the blood both on and off the field and hike the victory stakes. But I don’t think St. Vince had remarks like that of the above-mentioned Mr. Gilbert in mind when he spake as he did. Not nearly.
The springs of athletic motivation begin very simply with the satisfaction of winning and the pain of losing. I daresay that every weekend warrior can attest to this; the guy across the net might be your best friend in the world but when the ball is in play you want to kick his butt. I’m sure it works similarly among elite athletes, with the pain side usually outweighing the elation one; biographies of champions reveal that not wanting to lose is an especially potent motivator.
Among professional athletes or pros-to-be the lure of fame and riches kick in. In his post-diamond days as a coach Ernie Banks said “I like my players to be married and in debt. That’s the way you motivate them.” Today’s pros pull down salaries so far above the subsistence level that the line about having to “feed the family” is ludicrous, but the principle still holds. The money that top performers make today is so large that the figures often are abstractions even to their recipients, but athletes know pretty much what their teammates and competitors earn and the desire to move up on this most-basic scoreboard is an excellent reason to run the extra sprint or do more weight-room reps.
The most-telling point to make on this subject is the growing body of knowledge that holds that athletes do their best when they are the least self-conscious, when thoughts of revenge or self-justification disappear and are replaced by a laser-like concentration on the job at hand.
The psychologist Andrew Cooper, who has written extensively about this, coined the phrase “in the zone” to describe it. It’s a Zen-like place where limitations are forgotten, extraneous sights and sounds vanish, time seems to slow and the game takes on a life of its own.
If this sounds like airy-fairy theorizing, it isn’t. Recall if you will the first game of the 1992 NBA finals playoffs pitting the Chicago Bulls against the Portland Trail Blazers, when the Bulls’ Michael Jordan scored 35 first-half points composed mostly of the six-straight three-point shots he sank. After the last of those three-pointers Jordan, who never lacked for ego, turned toward the scorer’s table, raised his eyebrows and shrugged in genuine dismay, as if to ask “Did I do that?”
The game has been known since as the “Shrug Game.” It stands as Youtube testimony to what an athlete can do when he ain’t hardly tryin’.