Patience in Sports

It seems that patience is slowly dying out in our current instant gratification society. Why make this rather obvious, somewhat philosophical observation in a sports column? Well, in my view at least, this societal trend has become particularly noticeable within professional sports. It has become dangerous for team organizations to be patient because of fans, sponsors, and pundits who constantly clamor for results in the present. As a result, teams are constantly pressured to throw around money in hopes of providing immediate entertainment, and are sometimes forced to prioritize that over long-term development.

There are certainly many examples where these short-term approaches have led to the desired results. However, there are also teams who’ve been patient, stuck with a plan no matter how hard things got, and eventually found a level of success that made the wait worth it. Which way is better? It’s worth seeing some real examples to figure this out and see if there’s a good answer.

I’ve actually experienced both ends of this patience spectrum during the last year or so from teams that I follow. On the patient end, there was the New York Mets this year. Up until then, they had gone nine seasons without a playoff appearance. In 2010, they had hired a new general manager, Sandy Alderson, and manager, Terry Collins in hopes of restoring success. However, they failed to go above .500 for many years. During its losing years, the team dropped many former star players and instead opted to strengthen its farm system.

Despite the years of mediocrity, the organization stuck with Alderson and Collins partially because of the promise of impressive prospects in the farm system who would eventually be able to help out the team. Gradually, these prospects came onto the scene and did not disappoint. The pitching staff in particular got stronger from year to year, beginning with the team’s “Dark Knight” Matt Harvey. Mets fans were used to mediocrity, and had no problem dealing with it during those years with the hope that the promised improvements would come to pass.

In 2015, the Mets’ patience finally paid off. Their pitching staff, although one of the youngest, was also amongst the best in the MLB. The team grinded out wins and, before they knew it, had a solid 90-72 regular season and rode its momentum all the way into the World Series before the Royals finally stopped them. All of us Mets fans who had spent years in misery suddenly had nothing bad to say, as our team showed the league what all of its potential could amount to and that they had now become one of the teams to beat. There have been few seasons from any of my favorite teams I’ve enjoyed more, and it would have never happened without the intelligent moves and the patience of the Mets organization.

On the impatient end, though, I had the New York Jets. Just before the 2015-2016 season, they had fired head coach Rex Ryan, who had been with the organization for six seasons. His first two seasons saw immediate success, with the Jets ending both just one win away from the Super Bowl.

From there, things began to spiral downwards for Ryan and the Jets, who found themselves unable to pull off a season above .500. The team stuck with Ryan through that time because of his strong relationship with and support from the players. Furthermore, with his booming personality and defense-focused approach, Ryan seemed to have the potential needed to give the Jets what they needed to be winners. Unfortunately, the Jets became somewhat of a laughingstock throughout the NFL for many mistakes they made (most notably Mark Sanchez’s “butt fumble”) and never realized their potential, leading to Ryan’s firing after a 4-12 record in 2014. I was initially very frustrated with that decision, because I felt that he had proved, during his first two seasons, the success he could have if he had the tools needed. It felt to me that the Jets cut him off before he could fully develop those tools to make the team truly special.

However, during the most recent season, the Jets went on to go 10-6 and just barely missed the playoffs under new head coach Todd Bowles. Suddenly, the atmosphere around the team became much calmer, which seemed to help Bowles focus and make the most use out of the admittedly mediocre resources he had on hand—pushing a slightly above-average quarterback like Ryan Fitzpatrick to break many franchise records was no small feat.

So now we seem to have two contradictory situations. The Mets, after waiting through many miserable seasons and developing their younger players, now have a successful team that looks strong for years to come. On the flip side, the Jets benefited from losing their patience and finding someone who could make the most of the somewhat mediocre set of players the team currently had. Is there a point to all that deliberation?

The key seems to be that patience is a path to success only if it is done right. Patience, by nature, requires people at the helm who can slowly develop a system without building up pressure. Collins and Alderson have these traits; both are quiet, uncontroversial guys who create few problems and maintain calm presences in the organization. Ryan, however, constantly predicted almost every year that the Jets would be contenders for the Super Bowl, had an overly strong media presence that always put the spotlight on the Jets for the wrong season, and made the Jets into a bit of a circus. Bowles was able to come in and calm things down, which seemed to be the best course of action for the Jets in the end.

Patience is still a good thing for teams to practice. It provides a sense of stability, and can make for some longer-lasting success if the team is willing to deal with failure along the way. All teams might not have the ideal atmosphere to do that, but those who do and can pull it off certainly earn more respect from me. Perhaps the only way to make it common would be if all fans could respect patience within teams; maybe then patience could finally become something that everyone recognizes as worth working towards. For now, though, all that I can do is just sit and hope that others learn from teams like the Mets and try to emulate their patient approach. In the long-run, the anticipation as you wait combined with the excitement when the desired goals are reached really can make sports more fun to follow.

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