Last night I officially finished my first class of the semester, a seminar entitled "Rhetoric and Political Order", when I turned in my final paper. We could propose our own final paper topic, and after hearing my professor briefly mention during a conversation earlier in the year, "I've always been interested in the rhetoric of sports..." I decided to write on the rhetoric of sports motivation. It's rather long (10 pages double-spaced), and I don't pretend that everyone would want to read all of it, which is why I'm putting the important YouTube clips (which I reference in the paper) right at the beginning.
Bear Bryant's Locker Room Speech to Incoming Freshmen
Knute Rockne's Pregame Speech
Herb Brooks (portrayed by Kurt Russel) before 1980 Winter Olympics Semi-final match between U.S.A. and U.S.S.R.
The Rhetoric of Sports Motivation
Taped unseemly to the wall of my room, immediately next to the light switch, hangs a crooked newspaper clipping from the Yale Daily News with a headline that reads, “Van Deventer ’11 explodes at Heps.” A picture takes up most of the page, revealing Johnny Van Deventer, a teammate of mine on the track team, running mid-stride with a baton in his hand just moments before crossing the finish line at the 2011 Heps indoor track meet. In the Distance Medley Relay, one of the final events of the meet, Johnny received the baton ten to fifteen meters behind the lead pack, which included runners from Harvard, Brown, and Princeton, to begin his 1600 meter anchor leg. Having been injured for nearly his entire running career at Yale, and still running with a painful right foot, Johnny did not train like other milers, who ran upwards of 80 miles per week in order to build strength and endurance. Instead, Johnny hobbled through 15-20 miles of training on good weeks and spent hours aqua-jogging in the pool to reduce impact on his foot. But by the time this picture was taken, with a Harvard jersey less than a foot behind Johnny off his right shoulder, and a Brown runner meters back in the distance, Johnny had nearly completed 1600 meters in four minutes and two seconds, roughly ten seconds faster than he had ever run before. The question I ask myself whenever I leave my room is, “how did he do it?”
As a rather intuitive theory of sports, ignoring for a moment the caprices of chance, the success of any team or individual will be determined by two distinct factors. First is the team’s physical ability: its strength, fitness, and skill, developed over time through repeated practice and exercise. When we look at two opposing athletes, we might determine objectively that one is stronger, faster, taller or more skilled than the other by their physical characteristics alone. Given two opposing teams, for example, one with players all over six-and-a-half feet tall and the other with not a single player over five feet, one team will look to have an absolute advantage, at least, “on paper,” as they say, over the other – that is, by physical description alone. (Which team has the advantage depends, of course, on the sport in question.)
Sport, however, as a constant thorn in aristocracy, decided long ago that the outcome of competition ought not to be decided by what the competitors looked like, but by the egalitarian simplicity of a score-board or a clock. And so a second element is added to the equation, then, that of the athlete’s ability to direct focus, will-power, and a greater burning desire towards winning at all costs. It is precisely this element that gives us our beloved underdog tales, our against-all-odds miracles, and our mind-over-matter legends (think John Henry versus the steam powered hammer) which hold a particular resonance within the American story, not to mention its rhetoric.
|Gamesmanship on the Golf Course|
To answer this call, by the latter half of the 20th century a distinct mode of sports rhetoric arose alongside the growing belief that no athlete can be successful without a successful sports mentality. Will power, in the “heat of battle” (note that there are numerous parallels between the motivation of an athlete and the motivation of a solider), is born from the athlete’s own moment of deliberate action, fueled and sustained by a passionate combination of desire and inspiration, which will have been prepared and inculcated by the effective coach. Thus it is that sports rhetoric is necessarily of two parts: that of preparation, a long, slow, gradual bolstering of confidence and desire, and that of a moment’s inspiration, a call-to-arms that incites, through gravity and passion, the force of the will. Ultimately, however, this rhetoric is unique in that it depends not on direct persuasion of the athlete by the coach, but on a long-term preparation of the athlete to be capable of self-persuasion when those critical moments of decision arrive.
In Aristotelian terms, the effective coach utilizes a mostly epideictic species of rhetoric. Epideictic, being concerned with praise and blame, and often utilized for commemoration as in the Funeral Oration of Pericles and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, bolsters the athlete’s sense of present opportunity as an integral part of a greater endeavor. “For those praising and blaming,” says Aristotle, “[the end] is the honorable [kalon] and the shameful, and these speakers bring up other considerations in reference to these qualities.” In a kind of foundational stage, the coach repeatedly suggests that the athlete desires success over and above everything else precisely because it is just and honorable, often by citing a greater spirit (e.g. of team, of school, of country) as evidence. The notion that an athlete competes as part of a larger team, tradition, or legacy plays upon that fundamental desire, the common dream of adding one’s name to history itself. The abundance of record books and trophies and medals and awards in sport (perhaps matched only by the military) does well to implicitly remind the athlete that his or her accomplishments will be recorded for posterity.
Bear Bryant, the former University of Alabama football coach who garnered six national championships during his career from 1958 to 1982, would give a locker room speech to incoming freshmen every year in which he began the process of inculcating a distinct future goal in the minds of his athletes. In his relaxed southern drawl Coach Bryant starts, “now here’s why you can win, on little things, and we’ll be talking with you about little things as long as you’re here… on little things and a little something extra.” The tone is slow, logical, and clear. It bespeaks the years of tradition and success that Bryant, as a coach, has already achieved, and looks forward to more of the same with the current class of athletes. The speech goes on to explain how it is possible to “play a little over your head,” and upset the teams and players who have a physical advantage by concentrating on the mental, on “preparation, and the things I’m trying to get across to you. . . And if we do that as a team,” says Bryant, “eleven at a time, well four years from now, why, you’ll be walking out of here as national champions.” Bryant pauses, just long enough for the athletes to hold that image in their minds, and then concludes with his own vote of confidence: “And I’ll tell you this – I expect nothing less.”
|Hook 'em Horns|
|The Gator Chomp by Tim Tebow|
Implicit in Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric, that one must “see the available means of persuasion,” is the idea that a speaker ought to be able to argue any and all sides of a question. For many, this suggests a pejorative connotation to the idea of rhetoric itself, that it is merely a form of manipulation toward the speaker’s own ends without regard to the wishes of the audience. Such is the vision of rhetoric set forth through Plato’s Gorgias, that “the rhetor has the power to speak against all men and about everything, so as to be more persuasive in multitudes about, in brief, whatever he wishes.” Aristotle’s distinction, however, is that the effective rhetor must have such power “in order that it may not escape our notice what the real state of the case is and that we ourselves may be able to refute if another person uses speech unjustly.” Inspiration and praise by itself is well and good, but if there is an element of persuasion in sports rhetoric, what is it that the coach must be able to refute? What possible counter-arguments will an athlete face, and might they be called unjust?
In sports rhetoric, like most epideictic speeches, opposing arguments are often difficult to pin down. There is no immediate “other” for the coach to warn against. Unlike public forums and assemblies, in which a speaker is often followed by an opposing view or argument, speeches between coach and athlete are private affairs that lack a distinct counter-argument. No one is waiting in the wings for Knute Rockne to finish his speech before laying out the reasons why Notre Dame, a University, can’t actually have a “style” of blocking. Furthermore, whereas many orators seek to persuade an objective audience, any good coach will have already gained the trust of his athletes, through speeches similar to Bear Bryant’s locker-room talk to incoming freshmen. The athletes immediately believe in the coach and are ready and willing to do exactly as he says. Still, the coach must prepare his athletes for the various forms of counter-argument which, in a relaxed setting off the field or before a competition, have yet to show themselves.
|Illustration of Lincoln at Gettysburg - November 19, 1863|
On the day of the competition, especially before those final games or races which were envisioned as long-term goals months or years prior, the coach often talks to his or her athletes one last time in a formal setting. The effective “pre-game speech” collects the spirit and determination of the team or individual and asserts the gravity and importance of the present occasion. It seeks to inspire the belief that all that is left to do in order to win is a matter of mental resolve and focus, precisely because that alone is left to free will. Herb Brooks, coach of the United States hockey team of the 1980 Winter Olympics, spoke to his players before a highly-anticipated semi-final match against the U.S.S.R. (cue the “Cold War” pun). Though the speech itself does not project the literary genius apparent in something like the Gettysburg Address, the delivery in such a speech supplies its own power:
Great moments are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here tonight, boys. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One game. If we played ‘em ten times they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with ‘em. Tonight, we stay with ‘em, and we shut them down, because we can! Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world.
The average sentence length is a mere six words. Phrases are short, direct, and to the point, separating the preparation stage from the execution stage, the here and now, which relies on a remembrance and belief that nothing ought to distract from the pursuit of victory, since it is now so close.
Rockne, too, in his pre-game speech, one which was surely delivered with a more energetic and aggressive tone than that of Brooks, still emphasizes the role of memory with his repeated use of the phrase, “don’t forget, men!” which occurs three times, in rather quick succession, towards the end of the speech, ending with, “And don’t forget, men – today is the day we’re gonna win. They can’t lick us – and that’s how it goes. The first platoon men, go in there and fight, fight, fight, fight, fight! What do you say, men!” Though the stage of mental preparation leading up to competition is undoubtedly the more important factor in sports rhetoric (since true belief takes time to acquire), the dramatic gravity of a pre-game speech or aggressive shouts from the sideline, when most effective, packages that belief into something memorable in and of itself, which reminds the athlete that he or she is truly capable of refuting adversity and discomfort in favor of victory.
It would seem as though it ought to be the goal of every kind of rhetorical speech to not merely alter the opinions of an audience, but to inspire that audience to persuade itself of what is just, so that when the time comes when a course of action must be taken – whether it is a vote, a declaration of war, or a deliberate decision to push through physical pain – no matter what other external elements may distract from the task at hand, belief trumps the counter-argument. Thus it is that the most powerful “sports mentality” that an athlete can possess is one which holds the firmest of beliefs in the athlete’s own desire and the justness of his or her endeavor. The athlete persuades himself that the physical demands of the body to stop, to rest, to relax, and to give up, are entirely false because they attempt to contradict what the athlete believes to be true.
The approach, as a whole, calls attention to two key considerations: that of inspiration and that of the just and unjust. Sports rhetoric, at its basis, seeks to instill the belief that nothing is more just than performing up to one’s own physical potential. The challenge in this approach is to help the audience come to see what is just, not by proving it to them, but by inspiring them to remember. No form of speech is remembered more by anyone than the epideictic, precisely because it must always suggest, or at least imply, how one thing or another ought to be remembered. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered as a commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation. Pericles, like Lincoln, delivered his most memorable speech on a field of battle in an effort to honor those who had died for a greater cause than themselves: Athens. Lincoln was mistaken, to a certain extent, when he said at Gettysburg that “the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here today.” But his point has not been proven wrong by the fact that to this day Americans continue to recite his beautiful words. For it is the spirit they embody, and the actions to which they allude, that maintain the memory of the event and continue to provide inspiration, even in scenarios and political climates far removed from the Civil War.
When I think about Johnny’s performance at Heps, and I wonder how he was so able to persuade himself against the rather-convincing arguments of oxygen-debt, lactic acid, an injured foot, and a heart racing at around 200 beats per minute, I conclude that Johnny’s mental strength must have originated from an argument in favor of justice applied to athletics, which is the origin of all sports rhetoric. He was motivated by the speeches of coaches just as he was inspired by the rhetoric of Churchill, Lincoln, and M.L.K, to fulfill his contribution to a team that represented more than just a collection of individuals. To Johnny, an athletic career at Yale spent on the sidelines could not be more unjust. And after years of injury and setback, during which the only preparation possible was mental, as he pushed through the pain of a few final steps, he had no problem remembering why.
 Adolf Hitler, failing to recognize this, staked an argument for the superiority of the Aryan race on an international sporting event, the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in which Jesse Owens captured four gold medals, beating out the “physically superior” white Europeans.
 For the origin of the term “gamesmanship”, and a brilliant satire on its use in athletics, see Stephen Potter’s The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or the Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating), 1947.
 Aristotle, On Rhetoric, trans. by George A. Kennedy (New York: Oxford University Press), 2007. 1.2.1.
 I use the term “coach” loosely to refer to any speaker who attempts to inspire a team or individual. Though the coach most often fulfills this role, other individuals (team captains, sports psychologists, etc.) may do so as well.
 On Rhetoric, 1.3.5.
 Plato, Gorgias, trans. by James H. Nichols Jr. (Ithaca : Cornell University Press), 1998. 457b.
 Aristotle, On Rhetoric, 1.1.12.