Friday, April 8, 2011

On Bad Games

Last Saturday I was at a Boston Blazers game at the Garden. The Boston Blazers play professional indoor lacrosse, a strange game that mixes aspects of regular outdoor lacrosse, with professional hockey to create something that manages to look both familiar (I played lacrosse in high school) and foreign (but that lacrosse never involved brawls and boards). It's fun and the tickets are cheap (especially for the Boston area) and abundant so I usually get a couple of games as Christmas and/or birthday presents. Unfortunately, Saturday was a bad game.

They were playing the Rochester Knighthawks, whose jerseys would suggest a lineage that dates back to the 1993-4 teal invasion. The game got away from the Blazers pretty quickly. Their top offensive player and captain, “Dangerous” Dan Dawson, never got his game going. He missed a lot of shots and the ones that were on net were right into the goalie's chest. The offense in general was sluggish, while the defense was absolutely porous. The Blazers goalie, All-Star Anthony Cosmo, couldn't seem to get his game going either, and whatever plays the Knighthawks were running, the Blazers were either ill-prepared for or just athletically unable to keep up with them. Every time the Blazers looked like they might be able to claw themselves back into the game the Knighthawks would score a quick goal (or 3). It was, unequivocally, a bad game.

This made me wonder, can I over-intellectualize the “bad game?” Of course, I can. It's what I'm best at.

Everything gains complexity under scrutiny. Though I could sub-divide and hyper-categorize, at the moment, I'll only identify three different types of bad games; frustrating, humiliating, and “ah, screw it.”

Frustrating bad games happen when the team isn't playing badly, isn't really making any mistakes, isn't really doing anything out of the ordinary, but still ends up losing, sometimes by a lot. Of course, in these games, you never really do anything right either. You might not make any terrible plays but you don't make any great ones. My senior year high school hockey was a team that would “play to the level of their opponents,” which is not good when you're a favorite to win the championship, as we were. One team, Falmouth perhaps, beat Lewiston for the first time in school history that year. We didn't play badly that game, but, well. Fans of the Bruins will be familiar with this kind of bad loss as so many of their bad games are hair-losingly frustrating. In some ways, this is the hardest kind of bad game to recover from because it's so difficult to learn something from the loss. You can't correct mistakes that don't happen. (If I hear “get our legs going” or its equivalent one more time from the Claude Julien coaching staff, I'll, I don't know, whine about it on the Internet.)

In a humiliating bad game, the opposing team is better than yours in every possible aspect of the game. I'm pretty sure that's what we saw at the Blazers game. The most recent Bruins and Canadians game, with the Bruins winning 7-0, was certainly a humiliating bad game for the Canadians. The thing about humiliating games is they can sometimes be the easiest bad games to recover from. Whether it's your team's incompetence or the other team's excellence, there is something to coach from in these bad games. The thing about humiliating games is they can sometimes be the hardest bad games to recover from. Knowing you can be beat so badly, makes you wonder if you can ever really win, and if you play that team again, you come into it with a horrifying mix of thirst for revenge and debilitating fear. About the worst emotional state possible for making good decisions.

Then there's the “ah, screw it,” bad game In some games, for reasons no one will every surmise, everything goes the worst way possible. No matter what you do, it ends up being the worst thing to do at that moment. Games like this can be frustrating and humiliating, but there's a point at which they become, oddly, freeing. If the universe has decided there's no way on this green earth that you will win this game, it's hard to be upset about not winning the game. No matter what the final score is, this type of bad game is the easiest to recover from. You can displace the badness into the realm of mystery surrounding all sports. You can say things like, “We just didn't have it today,” or “Today is just one game,” or whatever, and actually mean it. Then, it's like the game never happened.

I stayed through to the end of that Blazers game, long after it was clear they were not capable of a miracle comeback, long past the point where the game stopped being entertaining, long past the dramatic diminishing of the rest of the crowd. I'm a firm believer in staying till the very end of a game, no matter what the score is. Part of that is because I don't go to many games and want to get as much out of them as possible. Part of it is because I believe it's important to show a minimum level of respect to the athletes, by staying till the final horn and offering at least a modicum of applause for the their effort. But it's also because our lives are filled with their own equivalent of “bad games,” and how we deal with them will go along way in determining what we achieve (or don't). Frankly, I'd rather practice dealing with frustration in a situation where nobody's job is going to be threatened if I deal with it poorly. Often when sports are presented as methods for developing life skills, it is exclusively in the context of playing the sport, but I think there's an opportunity to everyone involved to gain from watching sport, whether your team wins, loses, or frustratingly, humiliatingly, ah-screw-itingly loses.

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