Pause now to play later. Delaying gratification to save our sports.

Last night, I sent an email to our club with a notification that I was shutting operations down for the summer. We had been holding out for some sign that we would be able to salvage our season. In May, I was hopeful that we would arrive at a place where cases were low in the summer and we would be able to have at least a couple months of training and competition before infections started to increase.

Even though we were able to train for a short period of time, I was ultimately wrong, as so many of us were, for two reasons:

  1. Covid-19 turned out to be more infectious than experts anticipated, particularly during a time forecasted as low seasonality.
  2. We as Americans seem to be willing to trade the future for the present.

What do I mean by the latter?

In 1972 Stanford Professor, Walter Mischel published a paper that would go on to become one of the most important psychological findings in the 20th century. The study, nicknamed the “Marshmallow Experiment” tested various children by giving them choice between enjoying one or two marshmallows. In order to get the 2nd one, however, the child would need to wait for an indefinite amount of time while the researcher left the room. Children who were able to wait not only showed a great amount of trust in the experimenter, but also developed strategies to cope with the fact that there was a marshmallow that they really wanted to eat sitting right in front of them. Anyone who has ever dieted can relate to this situation. The best strategy is to just not expose oneself to such temptation. The next best usually has something to do with distraction. Kids sang songs, tapped their hands and feet, and generally came up with novel ways to draw their own attention off of the tasty marshmallow and onto something else.

The most interesting part of this experiment was what happened afterwards. Researchers followed these children throughout their lives and discovered some profound insights. It turned out that those children who were able to wait for the 2nd marshmallow had better grades, higher SAT scores, and generally higher success metrics in life.

We want our kids to be able to wait for that second marshmallow.

Now, in the 21st century, we as a society are faced with the biggest marshmallow experiment of our lives. Can we delay gratification in order to curb the spread of Covid-19?

Along with many organizations, the NCAA faces real financial risk during this pandemic. Because infections rates are so high, players of all sports are testing positive quite frequently and must therefore quarantine 14 days at a time. One indoor college volleyball coach I spoke with cited four positive cases in the same day, and three of them were asymptomatic.  Coaches are overly stressed as they must deal with the very real notion of forfeiting a match or being infected themselves and unable to travel with their team on a road trip. I can only imagine what the mental health of these players will be when their teammates and/or coach is infected. Several of my former colleagues believe that the fall season will not take place for this reason. The Ivy league along with many other conferences have made the decision to postpone their fall seasons which include football. Likewise, Stanford recently cut men’s volleyball along with ten other varsity sports due to mounting revenue shortfalls.

Please listen to me when I say this. High infection rates jeopardize the existence of the NCAA. Football is the primary revenue source for college athletic departments and the primary factor in the proliferation of women’s sports through Title IX. Without football, there will be no more college volleyball or beach volleyball. I say this, because I know for many of you reading this, college sports are a driving factor in the desire to train right now.

Pausing now, ensures that we can play in the future.

For those of you who do not have NCAA aspirations, whether you are a player, parent, coach, or club director, you must know that the NCAA permeates our culture in the USA more so than can be easily understood. No other country maintains the sports opportunities that are available in the USA, and in large part this is due to the NCAA driving interest among young athletes. If the NCAA goes away, so do many youth sports opportunities. Beach volleyball is a great example. Before beach was adopted as an NCAA sport, I was practically begging kids to come out and train with me. Now I have to turn kids away. It is easily predictable that if NCAA beach is cut, or any sport for that matter, the interest at the youth level will wane, playing opportunities will diminish, and youth coaches and administrators will be out of a job.

Playing right now, especially indoors and/or unmasked is perpetuating the spread of the virus. And in California, I recently learned, it is against the state’s public health mandates, even in a “summer camp” setting.


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It is time for us all to do our part. In order to save our sports, we must delay gratification.

PAUSE now to PLAY later.

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