Thoughts on Football: “Tanking”

“Tanking”– deliberately turning in a sub-par effort to put you higher in next year’s draft order. Each year there is buzz around this, especially when next year’s draft class has promising quarterbacks.

I feel like I say this every year, but the notion that anyone on a NFL sideline is “tanking” for some big-picture shot at a draft pick is absurd. Player contracts are terminated at ease with very little impact on teams relative to impact on the player. Non-superstars who don’t perform well every week are soon gone. This is true to a lesser extent for coaches. How many head coaches with 4-12 or worse seasons under their belt are around? The reputation and job security of coaches is built through wins — made even more difficult to obtain with league-enforced parity. Aside from all that, the math on “can’t-miss” draft prospects hardly suggests that title. About half are disappointments and all need a supporting cast. Just ask Alex Smith.

This of course is before we get into the pride and competitive nature of the players– the overwhelming majority of whom had to fight and scratch their way into the league. Does any cornerback want to be known as part of a defensive unit that surrendered the number of points necessary to put up a 2-14 win-loss record? I’ve never been anything close to a professional athlete, but I’m competitive enough as a person to find that idea abhorrent even in backyard football games. I can’t imagine how I’d feel with career success, a stadium full of people and a live TV audience in the equation.

Everyone is shocked the Jets aren’t tanking this year like the idiot sports writers thought they would. Who would want to “tank” so that the Johnson family will have another high draft pick to screw up– Coach Todd Bowles, already on the hot seat? QB Josh McCown, already nearly 40 and playing purely for the love of the game? WR Jermaine Kearse, looking for his first big contract? And those are the big names– what about the backups who could wash out by association with the rest? “Tanking” is something I’ll bet no one outside of the executives in the front office would find acceptable. It’s a horseshit concept for sports radio hosts and sports ‘journalists,’ most of whom have never played a down of football.


Attitude Adjustment in Action

“Make the best of a bad situation.” It sounds like solid advice– something we aspire to do when we wind up in uncomfortable circumstances. But there’s something I don’t like about that phrase. It admits defeat right away. Making the best of a bad situation sounds like fighting a rearguard action during a steady retreat: the battle has already been decided. It justifies a defeatist attitude about your circumstances. It can be hard to avoid when things out of your control come together to form an inconvenient scenario, but I don’t like to retreat. I want to look for the win, by ambush if necessary! I’m not always good at this, but let me explain what I mean.

This is my first year teaching in a new school district and new state. I have taught eight years of English Language Arts and history, going back and forth. I’ve got my undergraduate degree in history and my MA in English. Despite valid licensing for both in two different states and a very good evaluation record, I had a ridiculous time even getting an initial license in the state of Kansas. Because of a few technicalities in Kansas state law for number of years in a row taught for a single subject, the only license available to me was through my MA. The language for this license type is meant for people coming into teaching right out of grad school. In essence, according to the state of Kansas, I am a first year teacher and need to be treated like someone brand new to the profession.

As a result, I have to complete a two year mentoring program with an experienced teacher in my building. This requires professional meetings multiple times over the next two years while he checks up on me to make sure I’m “progressing”– so I need to devote precious plan time and take occasional half days off to accommodate my mentoring schedule. As we sat down for our first meeting, I quickly realized how awkward this was for him. We had met and chatted a few times before and the last thing he probably wanted was to be babysitting another experienced teacher– let alone one not even close to his subject area (he teaches math). We discussed the circumstances and he revealed another layer to me: by more bizarre technicalities, he couldn’t mentor a true brand-new teacher right on his hallway. As an alternate-route certification prospect, she isn’t even eligible for a mentor at all until she gets her “initial” license in two years!

After we got done laughing about that, I was at a crossroads. While I didn’t have a full professional teaching license in the state of Kansas, I definitely had a license for a shitty attitude at this point. There were so many reasons to dismiss this whole process: a result of typically Byzantine government regulations that don’t hold up to common sense, a waste of time for two professionals, a waste of district resources, a diversion of skilled guidance from where it was truly needed, etc. And my mentor clearly appreciated my situation. In fact, I could have easily “made the best of a bad situation” by getting the professional aspect of our conversation done as quickly as possible, maneuvering myself through the hoops with bare minimum of effort, and getting on to resuming pleasant personal conversation we’d already had about life and teaching.

But I had a flash of good thinking I wish I got more often in times like these. If I did those things, then the whole list of reasons to dismiss the process that I mentioned above would be irrevocably true! The battle would be lost; defeat admitted. Enjoy the rearguard action on a bad day. What purpose would that serve? Why accept that list? Why willingly participate in a waste of time? I couldn’t change the circumstances, but I certainly could change my approach to defy that list.

After all, I’m hardly done learning in this game. My mentor might not teach humanities– ok, so talking about lesson plans is probably not the best use of time. But what about best practices in execution? It doesn’t matter what you teach; many of those remain the same from classroom to classroom. This might not be my first year, but it’s my first year teaching English to high school kids and several inefficiencies and bad habits were already showing themselves.

I embraced my mentor’s questions about what wasn’t going well as a great opportunity to self-reflect and thought out loud about what they were. For one thing, I’ve been making my students do quite a bit of thinking and writing in longer form. My idealism told me that this was a far better way to get them working with critical thinking skills and great literature than, say, worksheets or multiple choice, but it requires timely feedback. The truth is after two months I was woefully behind in grading and providing feedback on writing. How can I expect my kids to improve when we’re ten moves further ahead by the time they get feedback on the first move?  I was committed to writing but had to speed up grading. I also was struggling to pace my lessons: at my old school, I had gotten used to 75 minute lessons. Now I had 45 minutes– a staggering difference in instructional time. This led to many other difficulties. I wasn’t consistently assessing my kids on skills according to my plans. One day’s skills would spill over into the next day, which would disrupt the procedures for learning the next thing, and so on. I didn’t know what I expected my kids to know by the end of any given day.


These were all things my mentor could appreciate. I got them down on a brief, bulleted list. Then we brainstormed about big picture fixes and little, day to day things that could solve some of the problems. Most importantly, these solutions had a measurable outcome that he could check with me on and get a simple answer. For example, I set arbitrary deadlines for grading writing: 48 hours for short prompts and 4 days for longer ones. As I send him brief details on when my kids are writing, he’ll be able to ask when we meet up if I’ve hit the deadlines- or he can simply look at the gradebook. I also set a reasonable goal of assessing at least three objectives per week. I anticipated that I would still struggle to assess every day. While that’s the ultimate goal, in at least some small way– I need to know what my kids learned– in the short term I still haven’t adjusted completely to 45 minute lessons and I need some solid wins. If I don’t make it one day, then that means there’s spillover to the next, making it difficult to assess another skill on that day with even less time. I don’t want to start immediately taking hits. If I can get three per week for now, that’s improvement!

By the end of our meeting, I had some concrete, achievable goals in my hand that are definitely going to impact student learning– the reason I’m in this game to begin with! I’ve got a great rapport with my mentor. I think he appreciated me being completely open to the process and reciprocated with ideas for how I could give him feedback on his mentoring questions and his approach. As I walked out to my car, I felt excited. I hadn’t wasted time at all. Who cares about the ridiculous things that brought that situation about? We imposed our will on it– snatching purpose from waste and victory from the jaws of defeatism.


Why I Train With Weights

I’ve been strength training with iron implements since I was 15 years old and I’ve met plenty of people in that time with an endless list of excuses for why they don’t do it. Most are such total horseshit that they don’t provoke much reflection on my part.

“I don’t have time.”

Bullshit. In this American day and age, we have time for what’s important to us– end of story. Anyone with a standard job or less has plenty of time to train. Even with more than standard, and sometimes far more, there is time to train if you engage in a little sacrifice. As a KIPP teacher, I spent 60 hours per week working and nearly 7 hours per week commuting, made time to read books, cook all of my food, hang out with friends, and develop/enjoy an awesome relationship. After all of that, I was still training 4 days per week with separate outdoor running. I simply wasn’t spending a lot of time on my phone or the internet and no time at all on TV.

“But I have kids” doesn’t fly, either. I had a newborn baby last year. I certainly had to make plenty of sacrifices, but since I regard training as an integral part of my physical and mental health, I simply let everything else in the former list suffer. I didn’t like it, but it was what I had to do. Sometimes I had to get up before dawn (and the baby) if I wanted that to work– I got used to it.

“I don’t have time” is insulting to me. What someone is implying when they say such a thing is that I have all of this idle time available to my own vanity whereas normal people like them aren’t so lucky. Exercise is unquestionably valuable to everything about the human body. To not engage in it is to devalue oneself. This is also true for those Americans who can legitimately say they are working 80-100 hours per week in some building somewhere, and thus quite literally don’t have time. There isn’t a person alive today in this country who needs to work that many hours just to survive. To take on that many hours is a CHOICE. I understand this can be done in service of a larger goal and I respect that– but people need to own that it is at least a short term self-destructive choice they are making, and the longer they persist in it, the more destructive it is.

Where things get interesting, however, is when I get someone who questions the value of strength training with weights as a choice for exercise. I had a guy do that pretty well over a decade ago and it stuck with me. “Weights are boring and impersonal… it’s numbers on a bar. What has that got to do with life? I’d rather be working outside or playing a sport.”

Boom. That’s pretty good. I’ve got to respect that.

Ever since that conversation, there are times when I’ve been in some commercial gym, air conditioned, surrounded by people going through the motions, and I think to myself: what the hell are we all DOING here? Are we a bunch of gerbils? Why not build a house? Why not learn a hand trade and acquire a usable skill that could also get us in motion in a more practical way? Isn’t this all very artificial?

It is… but I would argue its artificial nature is good. If we train in the right way for results, we are pushing to our physical limit and beyond. The “iron,” to reference the great personal essay on the subject by none other than Henry Rollins, gives us a way to measurably establish where that limit is and slowly push it higher. If you want the science for why this is good, google “progressive overload” for about 5 billion sources on this provably excellent effect on mind and body. “Real life” and recreational sport rarely offers this opportunity in a safe and consistent way. We don’t need to take advantage of that to get beneficial exercise, but it’s a part of what I like about it.

Then there are personal reasons for me. I like to get better every day, month, and year. I want to learn new skills, become a better dad, know more about the world– and I want to do it in a measurable way. Life can just slip by without any clear idea of how you are compared to how you were, or can present you with so many variables that it’s difficult to know what part you played in your own success or failure. When I learned to smoke meat, I wanted to see people go for seconds. When I taught history, I wanted to see my kids shred the state history test–without once teaching to the test itself! When I get my wife a birthday or Christmas gift, I want to see her face light up! I want the “wins!”

Training with iron weights allows me to go in and get a win every single day. With my long term program and some simple notations in a small pad, I can hit my prescribed targets for number of sets, repetitions, and with what amount of weight and over time, I can see how much stronger I am now than I was a week, month, or year ago. I enjoy that immensely, and with the kind of exercises I choose– the squat, deadlift, power clean, etc. I can be confident in plenty of real-world carry-over for that strength as well. When our extended family needs somebody to move a wheel-barrow full of heavy crap all day, or someone to take the bottom end of a huge hide-a-bed down a flight of stairs, I can confidently raise my hand and take the real-life pleasure of being useful in a way not many others can. To me, that’s worth occasionally feeling like a gerbil!

Ultimately people need to choose the exercise that works best for them, but for my people out there that have ever been under those too-bright lights and looked past the bro pulling his shirt up in front of the mirror— to the rack full of dumbbells— and thought: “Man, what IS the point?!”

Approach, lift, go to failure, and enjoy those endorphins with confidence!

To Blog Or Not to Blog

I like to write from time to time. The way things normally go is I’ll have a slow drip of thoughts about something for weeks at a time, then gradually I’ll put it all together and write a personal essay about it– my own substandard tribute to the great Victorian essayists like Matthew Arnold and Cardinal Newman. Five or six people read it and that’s ok. I write for myself mainly and there’s some long lead time for my brain to cook it up and then for me to sit down and execute it. Normally if any of those five or six people actually get something out of it, I think of it as bonus points.

But then I wonder: is that really worth the time? People who want to read about the stuff I think can dig up far sharper and more well-informed stuff on those subjects than what I put out. Maybe I could plan my writing a little better, do some more research, and get it up to the level of that other stuff, but to what purpose? I’m not a professional and I have a hard enough time putting the hours together to write about it in the first place. There are so many things I love to do, and that’s before we talk about the time I like to spend with my beautiful wife and little kid.

My wife suggests shorter, simpler blogs about my life. There are training, cooking, teaching, and adventure blogs out there that are basically online diaries for public view. It wasn’t clear to me until recently how many people enjoy blogs about training that include a little big-picture planning and consistent execution alongside an interesting life. That makes me think: “Shit, I’ve been training my ass off for years and I think I lead a pretty badass life. I’m thinking of training for a really tough endurance event over the next year alongside my teaching and BBQ plans. Should I write about that?”

But then I think: isn’t that banal? Training to me is automatic. I can’t imagine wanting to read about someone else’s training all the time. Why would anyone want to read about mine? Or my cooking? Or teaching? Or adventure? These are choices anyone can make with their time in this country. Isn’t writing a public journal sort of presuming you’re special? I went on an incredible hiking trip in the Tetons and Yellowstone: so have thousands of people before me. Literally everything I’ve done has been done millions of times over and written about, with great skill, thousands of times over. Maybe than rather than write about it, I should just continue doing it, because ultimately, who really cares?

Who even SHOULD care?

Maybe it’s just my post-modern education talking.

Art With Impact: Hurricane Katrina and “Over the Under”

With Harvey coming ashore, I’ve been thinking about this album a lot. Art can reflect life beautifully (even in sludge metal) and this album connected me with this band and the city of New Orleans in a way I couldn’t have imagined. Katrina hit these guys hard, and through their experience, I’ve come to think quite a bit about the people in the path of Harvey and its broken wake.


I love how art can connect us with something so much bigger than ourselves. It’s been ten years since Hurricane Katrina; I can vaguely remember following the news, especially in the aftermath, and feeling so disconnected from what the people of New Orleans were feeling and going through. I was in Austin at the time, in the middle of a scorching hot, dry summer, and had never been touched by natural disaster in any meaningful way. It was easy to sympathize, of course, but much harder to empathize, which I think is far more important.

One of my favorite bands changed that for me in a pretty unexpected way. Down started in 1995 as a bunch of dudes who had grown up around each other in New Orleans and now each had their own self-sustaining metal bands. Pepper Keenan had been the face and chief songwriter for Corrosion of Conformity…

View original post 544 more words

Football Thoughts: The Proven Loser

I tuned in to the Giants/Steelers preseason game last night and got treated to a microcosm of something I’ve observed in a big way over my years as a football fan. Geno Smith was under center for the Giants, and the game announcers were discussing how much more calm and in command of the offense he looked than their other backup, Josh Johnson. Up to that point, it was true. Then, to the surprise of no one who has watched Geno Smith play over the years, he rolled left under no great pressure and threw an inexplicably stupid interception that put the Steelers in scoring position. Any good work he had done was snuffed out in an instant.

Geno Smith is a talented guy and even though plenty of people knew the Jets had bungled yet another QB draft gamble and taken him too early in the draft as a rookie, plenty of people could also see promise in the kid. But what became clear pretty quickly and remains clear to this day is that Smith makes dumb decisions with the football. Most of the time, he looks better than  an awful lot of QBs in the league, but once every two or three games, he’s going to throw an interception like that– a game-changing, momentum-shifting, utterly horrible interception. He may win some ball games, but he also absolutely will LOSE some ballgames, practically by himself. Quarterback is one of the few positions on the field with that ability. Frankly, despite his obvious talent, I don’t understand why he has a job. He’s what I like to call a proven game-loser–“just good enough to get you beat.”

I don’t understand why anyone would want a proven loser on their roster, even if he does look better than the other guys most of the time. Smith isn’t alone: years ago, I started calling this phenomenon the “Rex Grossman effect.” Matt Schaub and Mark Sanchez are other good recent examples. Both of them have almost single-handedly destroyed seasons for their franchises with back-breaking turnovers. If a middling or mediocre QB struggles to move the offense and is only good for 10-14 points per game, there is at least a chance that the rest of the team can make up for the effort in some way: an opportunistic defense can force turnovers, running the ball can get you to a few field goals, etc. The game can remain close, especially in this age of league parity with free agency and the salary cap.

Given league parity, it’s far more difficult to overcome, say, a pick six. It’s not just that you’ve given the other team an easy six points and possibly altered the way the offensive game plan can now work. Momentum and morale matter a great deal, too. You can observe the psychological effect on an entire defense when a quarterback repeatedly puts them in a position of having to give up no ground at all to avoid surrendering points, or simply gives the other team touchdowns. It’s deflating. A star defensive end, by contrast, has more leverage to be “boom or bust.” Bruce Smith could badly miss on stuffing runs a few times a game, and the effect was rarely decisive. Matt Schaub throwing two pick sixes in one game as a Houston Texan was absolutely decisive. It destroyed the collective effort of the entire rest of the team over the entire rest of the game. Yet Matt Schaub made millions of additional dollars as a QB after that game.

Give me guys like Colt McCoy or Cody Kessler any day of the week over these players. Neither are impressive talents who can take over a game, but neither has repeatedly shown he’ll stick a dagger into his own team. Bring on Matt McGloin– a frequent sports news punchline. I also am reminded of how the Steelers use Landry Jones when they need him. These players will never take you to the Super Bowl without an absolutely dominant defense and other skill position guys, but they’re not going to derail a Super Bowl run, either. I’m no GM, but when those guys are taking snaps, I’m not wondering when they’re going to blow the game with two or three bad decisions. I was wondering that very thing as I watched Geno Smith– and you know what? He delivered. Doesn’t this count for something beyond the regular statistics? Proven losers need to find another job.



Peace Trauma

I’ve finished a couple of books (the recently published Tribe and the years-old War) by Sebastian Junger, a former embedded war correspondent for Vanity Fair. He analyzes (among a LOT of other things) the experiences and psychology of war veterans and active-duty soldiers, using examples from which we can understand humanity in general. It’s really fascinating stuff. He synthesizes a lot of research from different fields while staying concise and accessible– judge that synthesis for yourself, of course; I don’t claim to be an expert– but a lot of his conclusions are worth considering.

He’s ruffled more than a few feathers over the last several years by implying that the spike in veteran PTSD cases is not ‘legitimate’ in the way we understand it. Beyond the small number of vets who ‘play the system,’ the greater problem (and I’m paraphrasing here) is our well-intentioned promotion of a victim mentality for many of these soldiers. In our deference to soldiers who have suffered war trauma, too often we create the idea that the combat veteran is permanently different from the rest of us in a way that’s broken them and requires a total “fixing.” We ‘understand’ that they can no longer fit in among ‘regular’ people. Thus we can inadvertently exacerbate the REAL problem many veterans have: not so much acute, devastating trauma as simply returning to a “normal” life among civilians.

I’m sure you can understand right away why that’s a pretty controversial thing to say– and I hope I’m getting it right in the summary. I certainly can’t speak for veterans and their experience overseas or how it affects them psychologically. Where this all gets fascinating for me is in Junger’s time embedded in places like the notorious Korengal Valley (Afghanistan) and his observations of the contrast between the combat service member’s community in places like that and our civilian communities here in America.

In the Korengal, the soldier’s life was reduced to a very short list of priorities, and each one of those priorities assumed life-or-death importance for both the individual and his comrades. Life was spartan: bland rations, filth, no human contact outside the outpost, no activities beyond watching, waiting, and patrolling. Small routines like carrying water and cleaning weapons were vital. Get heatstroke on patrol and not only are you in serous trouble, your small unit is badly compromised: they’re down a man and they have to get you out. A jammed gun not only leaves you helpless; you can’t cover your buddies, a serious matter in a war of counter-insurgency dominated by small maneuvers rather than big strategic operations. Stripped of choice and freedom and bound entirely to small choices on the group and individual level that daily make the difference between surviving and being killed; to the average person, it sounds terrible.

Except when you listen to many veterans who have lived that life, what you find is that they actually miss it. Junger observes this in his interviews frequently, and he’s hardly alone. I’ve observed this in other war memoirs across cultures, in podcasts, and in conversation. There is almost beautiful simplicity in a life in which each day is a fight for survival and the individual is part of a tightly-knit group that are all willing to die for each other. That’s another theme reaching across combat memoirs: that with time, the soldier fights not for his country or the cause anywhere near as much as his friends that are living it with him. It’s a deeply fraternal bond.

What makes books like War and Tribe so penetrating is the contrast they draw between that life and the one the average 21st century American civilian lives. In place of a small list of possible choices, each one imbued with fatal significance, is nearly unlimited choice, much of which is completely meaningless. Instead of a small handful of people held together by a sense of selfless brotherhood, we experience the “community” of modern America, in which you can have 1000 social media contacts that don’t amount to a single real friendship, or life in a city of 1 million people in which you somehow feel completely alone.

Tribe in particular deals with this void in which survival is mostly assured and no one has a life or death bond, as well as the erosion of ancient community ties and customs because of the lack of apparent need for them. Even as early as the 1700s, Junger points out, white colonial society had a problem noted by none other than Ben Franklin himself: despite the technological convenience, greater relative ease, and predictable, more peaceful life white colonial life offered, many people chose to run away to join the “savage” Indians. Life was harder and hardship was harsher, communities were smaller and more exposed…but tighter. When recaptured, these white citizens demonstrated a devastating level of trauma. Some never re-acclimated, even when their entry into a tribal community had come by kidnapping and bloodshed, like Cynthia Ann Parker. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to run back to her “home” tribe, Parker descended into depression and an untimely death.

Should we be thinking not only of war trauma, but the trauma of this American peace? So many of us grow up, move constantly to follow larger paychecks, separate from family, become removed from any traditional communal bond beyond, possibly, marriage– which fails at an absurdly high rate. We stare at thousands of distractions on tiny screens with every free minute we have. We enjoy the highest standard of living, even among our poor, that has ever been known in world history, by a long shot, and yet we aren’t even close to one of the happiest countries in the world. Drug addiction, suicide, and depression exist at high levels in a place the ancient Egyptians would have considered the home of the gods. I look around and see a culture in which so many problems of survival have been solved, but I know very few truly happy and content people.

Perhaps returning war fighters feel very acutely what many of us feel in a subtle way– what does any of this great stuff matter if we don’t truly, absolutely have EACH OTHER with us in the confusion of life? Maybe they have to experience in an intensely personal way what we “normal” people slowly, impersonally, and almost imperceptibly lost over many generations. Perhaps the traumatic experiences of war can teach us about something we’ve been missing in peace.