Saturday, February 27, 2010

Canadian Women Behaving Badly?

On Thursday night, the Canadian women's hockey team took the gold medal after beating the US 2-0 in the final round. After they accepted their gold medals and thanked the cheering crowd, the women returned to the locker room and began their post-game victory celebration.

After about 30 minutes, the Canadian women took their celebration from the locker room back out onto the ice. The athletes were photographed drinking beer and champagne and smoking cigars, smiling and joking with each other - all the while, wearing their gold medals. One athlete, Rebecca Johnston even tried to drive the zamboni around the rink.

When photos of the victory celebration surfaced, many were offended, or at least mildly irritated with the women's display of exuberance. The IOC is now investigating the matter to determine whether any rules were violated. Gilbert Felli, executive director of the Games stated: ""I don't think it's a good promotion of sport values," he said. "If they celebrate in the changing room, that's one thing, but not in public. We will investigate what happened."

For it's part, the team released a statement apologizing for the incident, saying: "The members of Team Canada apologize if their on-ice celebrations, after fans had left the building, have offended anyone," the statement said. "In the excitement of the moment, the celebration left the confines of our dressing room and shouldn't have. The team regrets that its gold medal celebration may have caused the IOC or COC any embarrassment."

Does this moment really warrant that much outrage, however? Male teams celebrate exuberantly all of the time with champagne, beer, and cigars. Granted, much of these celebrations take place in the locker room, but it is not as if the women accepted their gold medals with with alcohol flowing and cigars already lit.

If this was a male team's celebration, would it get the same amount of outcry from the IOC and the media, or would we just look at it as another instance of "boys being boys?" Are we uncomfortable with the images of women celebrating in a way that is loud and perhaps not as mannered as we're used to? Are we upset that the exuberant participants are Canadian and not American?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Power of Positive Touch: How Kevin Garnett Can Improve Your Relationships

I often compare working a shift to being part of a team. My husband and I also consider, and often refer to, ourselves as a team or “being on the same team.” I realize that I am not going to be taking the field or the court with my coworkers or Eric anytime soon, but thinking of my relationships in terms of a team has always been a helpful analogy.

In fact, new evidence suggests that team behavior - particularly positive touches such as high fives or hugs – can actually be beneficial to interpersonal relationships.

An article in the New York Times reported that researchers at UC Berkeley have found that positive human touch (a high five, a hug, a pound) correlates with improvements in human performance. In conducting their study, the group, led by Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology, chose to analyze the actions of players in the NBA. At first, it seems as though the actions of professional basketball players have little to do with the interactions of couples or coworkers. In fact, professional basketball is one of the most physical sports, and a great forum to study the effects of “touchiness.”

To study the effects of positive touch, the scientists observed the behavior of players on each NBA team in a single game. They coded each touch that one player gave another. In order to rule out the possibility that players gave positive touches because they were winning, the researchers used a complex system of analysis that included, “how efficiently players and teams managed the ball — their ratio of assists to giveaways, for example.”

What the researchers found was that, “good teams tended to be touchier than bad ones. The most touch-bonded teams were the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers … at the bottom were the mediocre Sacramento Kings and Charlotte Bobcats.” They also found correlations between touch and individual performance: “The touchiest player was Kevin Garnett, the Celtics’ star big man, followed by star forwards Chris Bosh of the Toronto Raptors and Carlos Boozer of the Utah Jazz.” Ultimately,

“Players who made contact with teammates most consistently and longest tended to rate highest on measures of performance, and the teams with those players seemed to get the most out of their talent.”

These findings apply to our everyday lives as well. What the study concluded was that the positive touch from person to person sends a signal to the brain that essentially means, “‘I’ll share the load.’” The sensation of positive touch also seems to correlate with the body’s release of the hormone, oxytocin, which, “helps create a sensation of trust, and to reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.” The reduction of stress and the feeling of trust helps to “free” the brain up to “solve problems,” instead of worrying.

An aspect of the study I found most interesting was not only that touch, itself, could be positively influential, but that individuals can be responsible for spreading positive feelings. Anyone who has seen Garnett play knows how involved in the game he gets. Even when he was injured and could not play in the 2009 NBA Playoffs, he was a constant presence on the Celtic bench. Garnett has an active verbal and physical relationship with his teammates, and, if the findings of the study are any evidence, seems to be a definite factor in their success. One stat I found interesting from the Berkley analysis of the Celtic game was that, “within 600 milliseconds of shooting a free throw, Garnet [had] reached out and touched four guys.” His involvement on the team is both powerful and palpable.

Whether or not you believe KG is the reason (or one of them) for the Celtics’ success during the past four years, it is clear that his interaction with his teammates has some influence on their attitudes and performance. Can you be a “KG” in your interactions? Absolutely. The next time you interact with your spouse or coworkers, remember the power of positive touch. A high-five, backslap, or hug (where appropriate! J) is all it takes to affect the mood and behavior of another. Now, go be the difference-maker on your team!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sports Movie Reviews - "Big Fan"

One of my customers recommended “Big Fan” to me after hearing me talk about my favorite football team, the Eagles.

“It’s got Patton Oswalt in it.”

“So, it’s funny, then?”

“Not really. It’s more of a dark comedy than a truly funny movie.”

A few weeks ago, Eric and I happened to see it listed as one of the “instant-play” movies on Netflix, and we watched it.

Written and directed by Robert D. Siegel ("The Wrestler"), the film centers on Paul Aufiero (played by Patton Oswalt), a parking garage attendant in Staten Island, New York. Paul is in his thirties and still lives with his mother in his childhood room. Though being a parking attendant is how Paul makes his living, what he lives for is the New York Giants. He and his best friend Sal never miss a game, and even attend home games, where they watch the game on a jerry rigged television in the parking lot - stadium tickets being beyond their monetary reach. Paul’s clothing is mostly Giants gear, and his room is full of Giants memorabilia, including a giant poster of his favorite wide receiver: Quantrell Bishop.

Paul is also an avid listener of sports talk radio, particularly “Sports Dogg,” the nighttime radio show. During his evening shifts in the parking garage, Paul listens to the show and drafts his comments in a notebook. When he arrives home at the end of the night, Paul calls into the show and becomes “Paul from Staten Island,” reading a seemingly improvised monologue about the Giants team and their successes. Paul from Staten Island directs most of his taunts towards the Philadelphia Eagles and one of their fans, “Philadelphia Phil” (played by Michael Rapaport), who also calls into “Sports Dogg” each night.

In the early part of the film, Paul is content with his life – watching Giants games, working at the parking garage, and trading insults with Philadelphia Phil. Though his mother and siblings pressure him to find a “real job,” a wife, and move to a home of his own, Paul stubbornly insists that he is happy. Paul’s life takes a turn, however, on the night he and Sal see Quantrell Bishop filling up at a Staten Island gas station. The two decide to follow Quantrell, and eventually end up sitting across from his VIP lounge at a Manhattan strip club. Paul screws up the courage to approach his idol and tell Quantrell how much of a fan he is. The conversation between the two goes well until Quantrell hears that Paul has been following him for most of the night. Quantrell becomes angry, then violent. Days later, Paul wakes up to find he is in the hospital, having been viciously beaten by his favorite player.

The rest of the film centers on the fallout from this incident. Paul has to deal with the events he has set in motion, involving, not only himself and Quantrell, but an assault investigation and the Giants’ season as a whole – all of which are now constantly talked about on the “Sports Dogg.”

What I loved about “Big Fan” was how genuine it was in all of its aspects. I felt that those involved in the creation and filming of the movie really explored the culture, not just of sports teams, which is easy, but of the people who follow them. For many people like Paul, sports and the teams they follow are the best part of their lives. I also appreciated how accurately sports radio was portrayed. Listening to “Sports Dogg” reminded me of the hosts and callers on ESPN 1000 – the Chicago radio station I like to listen to. Though the film’s humor is very black, I appreciated that the writer and director did not take the easy path and aim all of the jokes at the character of Paul. Though Paul is what many people would call a loser and his life seems bleak, he is at least involved in a passionate community of sports fans. Sports radio is not a mainstream element of the culture, but Paul seems to have found a fulfilling life, nonetheless. In fact, the lives of Paul’s siblings and their spouses seem even bleaker, despite being more conventional.

“Big Fan” is not an uplifting or inspirational film. But it is accurate, wry, and well worth a look. I bet it will remind you of more than a few sports fans you know.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Learning to Love the Off-Season

My last serious race of 2009 was a 15K at the end of October. This was the final run in a season that had begun in February 2009 with an indoor triathlon and had included a September half marathon – my longest race to date, and my goal race for 2009. I had been training, in effect, for eight or nine months.

I remember sitting in a restaurant with my husband/coach and my running buddies, thinking about the run I’d just had, and trying to decide what to do next. And then I realized – there was nothing new on the horizon. No races, no fun runs, no clinics. Just weeks and weeks of blank space. As some of you who know me are acutely aware, I’m a planner. My life is mapped, not just in weeks or days, but often in hours. So the prospect of an empty November, December, January, and February was a bleak one. Yet I was also incredibly tired. Not merely from the race I’d just finished, but from the months of training for various races. I’d experienced the cycle of focused build-up to a race, putting all I had into the completion of that race, and then resting and readying for another race repeatedly for months. My desire to race had mostly disappeared, but I didn’t know how to function as an athlete without constantly being in training for something.

A few days later, I sat down with my coach and asked him what I should be training for next. “Nothing,” he replied, “This is your off-season.”

“Off-season? So then how many miles a week should I be running?”

“Well, to start with, none. Your legs need a break, first. Then we need to start working on changing your stride. You’ll have to build back up to running long distances again.”

NONE?! No running? For how long? Why am I being punished like this?

I couldn’t believe it and I didn’t understand it. Immediately, I became resistant. The winter months stretched before me punctuated by the major holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years – harbingers of overwork, overeating and overspending. Running had been my release valve for much of that stress, and now it was being taken away from me.

During November, I ignored the off-season. I continued to run at the same mileage I had been running in September and October. I pushed past niggling shin pain into December, determined to run the holidays away, to make it to spring unscathed. Finally, three days before I was supposed to drive down to see my family for a week during the Christmas holiday, my legs forced me to slow down. The pain in my shins was now apparent with each step, and a trainer told me that I was headed down the road to another stress fracture if I didn’t take a break. So I did. Because I had to.

I realized that, whether I liked taking a break or not, my body needed to rest. Since I couldn’t run for a few weeks, I began to work on the muscles that would be used when I began running again. I took time during each workout to stretch and strengthen those areas. The break from running also gave my mind a chance to rest and than reflect on the season I’d had. I began to pick out trends, both in my races and my training. Recurring injuries or setbacks became more apparent, as did areas of improvement. When I took my first run again, in early January, not only did my legs feel fresh, but my mind was relaxed and open.

I had been seeing running in terms of calendar boxes – a checkmark by the date, the number of miles written in the top corner, the race day circled in red at the end of the month. I’d forgotten the infinitely unfurling path, the unbounded horizon, the personal potential – the inner motivators.

What the off-season has done is make me remember the aspects of running that are pushed aside in the heat of training; that, frankly, have to be pushed aside to make room for intensity and ambition. From a physical standpoint, the off-season is necessary for the athlete so that they can make the mechanical adjustments that will improve their performance during the training months.

So, if the idea of an off-season, or even a break from your sport due to injury fills you with dread, remember that time off is not only a beneficial part of an athlete’s season – it is a necessary part.

It’s not indefinite, either. Last week, my coach told me that we’d be starting up spring workouts in the next few weeks. When my response to this was, “Aw, really? So soon?” I knew the off-season had rested me enough. It was time to get back to work before I got too comfortable.