How Rules Change the Game

It has been a rough 2016 for me so far… It started with me slipping and falling down some steps back in late December. That resulted in some very annoying problems with my neck, a solid month of lying flat in bed and about another six weeks of rehab. No sooner than I was cleared to get active, I seem to have picked up some form of never ending flu or cold that has had me once again flat out in bed.

The truth is… that I am bored.



Win Win Win!!!

But, I am not writing about that. This is just some context. Because of this boredom, I have found myself watching a bit more sports than normal. As I watch, and listen to the commentators, I am hearing a consistent theme. Players are being not only rewarded, but applauded for abusing the rules entirely against the spirit and the principles of the game. Principles that existed in the sport long before these rules were introduced to help ensure their persistence.

  • “That’s a veteran play” – An NFL quarterback uses a hard snap count to get the defender to jump offside… The resulting 5 yard penalty and first down is awarded without having to run a play.
  • “Amazing awareness” – An NBA point guard intentionally initiates contact with a defender who has left his feet, and throws up a low percentage shot quickly… The resulting team foul lands the defenders team into penalty, and in addition the shooter is awarded two free throws.

These rules were never intended to be used as offensive tools.

  • The rules in football surrounding the start of every play evolved over decades with an intention to ensure that nobody gets an unfair advantage. It was intended to defend a prone quarterback.
  • Most rules about contact in basketball evolved dramatically, but initially were introduced with the intention to eliminate (or at least reduce) contact between players.

But then competition sets in. An independent referee is in place to pass judgement. Rulings on fairness fall into a model of “allowed/not allowed”. Principles are pushed to the side. The sport changes, and the way in which it is played, and coached changes. The way that we observe and cheer changes. Players are mocked for being tricked into violating the rules, and the trickster is heralded. In many sports, teams ensure that they have a professional “instigator” or “rat” to try to draw the other teams into foolish rule violations.

It upsets me to be honest. It creates an environment where role models are effectively teaching our children “As long as you can get away with it, it is okay”. I have never met a parent who admits to teaching this sort of thing to their kids.


Worst possible example

Deep in our hearts, a few already suspect what I am about to suggest. Football… or Soccer (Depends on where you are from, or what you feel like calling it) I love this game. I have always been passionate about it. To many, it IS the beautiful game. There is so much complexity and teamwork needed… and skill… and yet, it often gets decided by one person feeling a grab or touch near or in the penalty box to ensure a sure goal from the spot. 


Diving in men’s football is so well known that people who have never ever seen a game are familiar with this problem. It is a prime example of playing to the limit of the rule… cheating to get the rule to work in your favour.

But… there is hope. When rules are missing, and principle is the guiding source of behaviour… things change. We see this happen every game. We see it when a player goes down, and the ball is kicked off the pitch to stop the play. The ball is then returned to the team once the game restarts. It is a tradition, and it is almost never violated. Even the most supportive of home crowds would turn on their team if they violated this principle of fair play.

A similar principle exists in the touching of gloves in combat sports. If ever a combatant were to use this to advantage, they would pay a very steep price within the community of fighters.

Interestingly enough, I am willing to bet that if a rule were put in place for either of these examples, teams (or combatants) would do their very best to gain an advantage when adhering to the rule. It would destroy the spirit. The rule would replace the principle and would evolve into some form of competitive advantage as all rules do.


Since when do you write about sports?

Well, I don’t. This is really about leadership. When you ask your team to work within a set of rules, they will not just play to the limit of those rules… they are smart and may find ways to unintentionally abuse the rules to achieve goals. Principles however are something that can be discussed… often. I find that teams who have worked in a rule based culture rarely have a grasp of “why” we are trying to do something. This sort of conversation however is the cornerstone of a principle based culture. Even in the football (soccer) example above, I am willing to bet that any self respecting fan with children happily explains the principle when their young one asks why his or her favourite team is giving the ball back after an injury. The “why” IS the point. The “why” is what makes the act important, and is something that we feel we can align to.

I won’t be sick or injured forever. At some point, I will be able to get back into the swing of things, and I will be able to look at this period knowing that one new idea came to mind. And when the time comes, I will try to remember this. I will soon be part of a team trying to adopt a new methodology, or an approach… and I will do my best to suggest principles over rules, and open dialogue over why they matter, and not where the limits live.