Stereotypes and sports

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco - The Philippine Star

Older people are slower, more frail, and can’t keep up with those born of succeeding generations. They are more loyal and prefer to stay in the working environment longer. They are sticklers for the rules and prefer more structured, linear leadership. It is harder for them to be convinced to change.

Younger people have unrealistic expectations, are better at adapting to technology, and like to bend the rules to get things done. They abhor criticism and insist on being praised. They are also self-centered, and would leave a job wherein they are treated well if they are offered better pay and more perks. And, at the bottom of it all, they are self-centered, and narcissistic.

Even if you have doubts in your mind about some of the statements above, you would tend to accept them as fact. In actuality, all of these are stereotypes which limit us in our perception of others. Simply put, a stereotype is the human tendency to judge an individual based on a generalization about the group to which that person may belong. In some cases, we have preconceived notions about somebody based on their age, gender, even the province where they’re from. A lot of our biases are based on experiences we didn’t even have, but impressions that were passed down to us by others.

In team dynamics, these perceptions can be quite damaging. One of the reasons why sports teams become successful is that they are able to overcome their pre-conceived notions of how success is achieved. John Wooden’s coaching philosophy and supposedly conservative beliefs made UCLA an exemplar of college basketball. Tex Winter’s design and Phil Jackson’s execution of the triple-post offense redefined basketball around the world, even if many superstar basketball players initially resisted sharing the ball. Billy Beane’s philosophy about focusing primarily on hits by his players changed baseball, and was used by Boston Red Sox to break a generations-long drought. The “Fosbury flop” literally caused high jumpers to reverse their thinking about how to make their approach to a jump. Prior to his Olympic gold medal triumph in 1968, American athlete Dick Fosbury was laughed at for jumping over the bar face up. Nobody believed it was a better alternative to the known practice of jumping face down.

Having stereotypes, particularly about individuals on the same team, cripples the whole unit. There is a gradual decay of a few individuals’ capabilities, until eventually the entire team starts to weaken. Research shows that among its negative effects are weakened relationships, poor collaboration, increased tension, loss of productivity, damage to confidence and self-esteem, and reduced engagement. In fact, one study even shows that a person’s memory can be damaged by believing in stereotypes about himself. Though the research was originally designed for the work environment, the data applies to teams of all kinds.

In new research explained by sales expert Daniel Pink, there are universal needs that all people share, whether or not they are the same age or demographic. Finding this commonality is a basic tool of coaches (on and off the playing court) in building teamwork. The first need is to feel competent or good at something. Initially, this may mean one particular skill that brings value to the team, but may eventually be expanded to a whole list of talents.

The second universal need is a sense of belonging. In previous eras, players were more likely to stay with one team, city or coach because a sense of belonging was fostered. In the record-setting run of the Boston Celtics from the late 1950’s to the 1960’s, other teams were constantly trying to poach their second unit, without success. Red Auerbach had created an atmosphere of belonging, of shared pride in being a Celtic, and an established system of succession. Even players who were traded away during those times rarely bore any ill will towards the Celts.

The third need was the need for autonomy, of being independent within the team concept. This was prevalent in many successful professional football, baseball and basketball teams in both the US and the Philippines. At the time, coaches would be more inclined to give general instructions, and let their players run on their instincts and experience. Of course, times change, but players still feel untrusted and slightly overwhelmed when every move they make has to be done by the book.

Now, going back to those age stereotypes at the beginning of this piece. The fact of the matter is that that data was based on very limited sampling. A sample from research done by the University of Kentucky says that “Much prior generational research is based on samples limited to college-bound adolescents, college students or white-collar workers...claims of generational differences have been limited by sample selection and other factors, leaving broad judgments about entire generations, open to skepticism and criticism.

For example, when the original standards for IQ were determined, the samples were from very skewed sectors, and appeared to make non-Americans seem less intelligent than Americans. The terms used (in order of descending intelligence) were “normal”, “moron”, “idiot” and “imbecile”. It appeared that everybody else fell into the lower three categories. This was greatly disproved beginning in the 1960’s, as more and more Asian students gained entry into prestigious American universities and dominated scholastic achievements.

What the latest information shows is that there is no difference in work ethic or any other important barometer of performance based on age. Performance and desire are still among the undeniable indicators of potential and success. Age is just another stereotype that we can throw out the window.


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