Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Papi and Price

I met up with some college buddies this past weekend. While together at one point we all asked each other what the other was up to. When it was my turn I told them that when I was on the clock I was researching the relationship between sports and communication.

Sports communication is a new area within the discipline of Communication Studies. Even inside the academic departments and associations people are not familiar with what the phrase means.  Even those who focus on communication and sport within the association don't have a unified notion of sports communication.

There were six of us around the table when I started to respond. A lawyer, real estate executive, health care executive, retired teacher, and a college dean in student affairs. All educated folks who, for very understandable reasons, did not know specifically what I was talking about.  They started guessing, "you mean PR for teams; spin doctors when there is a crisis of some sort; sports information directors; sports writing; tv broadcasters?

Sports communication actually deals with all these issues and others.  One of the key areas though and one not initially considered when I talk about this, relates to internal communication within teams.  Interactions between players and coaches, and communications between players themselves.

There are at least two fundamental ways one can look at communication. One the transmission perspective--the most common way-- is to consider communication to be the process by which a message gets from point A to point B.  When you study communication from this perspective your goal, as a researcher or just someone who wants to improve communication, is to identify the factors that can affect getting the message from point A to point B.  The analogy often used is to think about someone trying to haul a bucket of water from here to there.  If the water is retained when it gets to its destination, there is success. If there is some spillage or pollution en route, then there is a lack of success. 

The transmission process is far more complex than it may seem on the surface. Let's say, in a sports context, the coach does not speak well, or a player has a superiority complex or an inferiority complex. Let's say the coach uses e-mail and not face to face methods. Let's say the coach is a screamer or asks assistant coaches to relay the messages and somehow it gets skewed. Let's say there is racial tension.  Maybe players want to communicate with a coach and she or he is inaccessible. There are many reasons why the bucket might not be filled with the same kind of water when it arrives. When this occurs messages are not received accurately. Consequently the team may not perform as it should.  

A basic example: A basketball coach who has the team playing a zone defense tells a player to make sure to defend opponent X. The player thinks the coach means to play a man to man on player X. What the coach may have meant is to make sure to pay close attention to opponent X when X is in the zone area.   However, the player having received the incorrect message chases opponent X away from his zone responsibility. Another opponent in the vacated zone takes a pass and makes an uncontested three point shot. There has been a breakdown. Hardly an international crisis but an example of how when messages are not received accurately, there could be a negative consequence.

But there is another vital way to look at communication that is not about transmission.  This is not so much a different way but a complementary perspective and it is crucial.   Think of communication as a factor that creates an organizational culture. Think of communication as something that can shape and form relationships.  In a team context these relationships are very important.   

No matter where you have worked, if you examine the culture of the organization and really studied how it had been formed, you would notice two things. One, the culture was formed because of how and what was communicated in the organization.  Two, the culture could, in and of itself, advance or retard the organization's chances of success.

And this brings me to what happened a few days ago between David--Big Papi--Ortiz and David Price two baseball players for the Boston Red Sox. Price was a free agent this year and signed with the Red Sox. Ortiz is a long standing star of the Red Sox. Prior to this year the two, when on different teams, did not get along. There had been a feud that was not minor.  

Price got to Spring Training and he was admittedly nervous about his first meeting with Ortiz.  When Ortiz arrived he went right up to Price and gave him a big hug.  He told him that he had "his back." It seemed genuine. Price was relieved. There were photos of the two of them smiling and practicing together.  

That act, coming in and hugging his adversary, will have a dramatic effect on how the team performs. Sure, Ortiz will have to hit 25 homers and Price will have to win 15 games or the team will be weak hugs or not. But the communication between Ortiz and Price at their first encounter removed a potential obstacle to success that could have infected the entire organization. That bit of communication beyond the transmission was a seed that will affect the team's culture and success.


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