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Scoping out the competition — my kids’ coaches have done it for years; traveling to rinks and fields to get a look at their foes. Coaches gain an advantage by learning as much as possible about the other teams. By identifying key players and methods, they are able to strategize about shutting down their opponent’s strengths and capitalize on their weaknesses. I was always amazed that a team would rather hang around a hockey tournament all day, weighing their competition, than go back to the hotel to enjoy the pool. For athletes, the chance to preview their rivals proves irresistible.

This is not a new concept. Throughout history, military battles were won and lost on the same premise. Wars were determined because of superior knowledge of an enemy. Who had the most troops? Skilled soldiers? Better weapons? Supplies, shelter, communications, position, intelligence…? Every element of knowledge served as an advantage. But the premise does not stop with sports or military conflicts. I really believe that part of successful navigation through any series of challenges is to know one’s adversaries. Sometimes, this knowledge gathering is done secretly. Coaches send scouts. Generals send spies. But sometimes, known adversaries make the conscious decision to sit down together and talk. Or, more importantly, listen.

I will never be a good sports mother. To me, it all looks rude. You spend the first five years of parenthood teaching your children to think of others: Share. Don’t push. Wait your turn. Never hit. Then they get into sports and it all changes. Kids are encouraged to steal the ball or puck and plow through other kids while some lunatic parent is yelling, “Hit him!”

Years ago, I was politely reprimanded by our junior football coach for urging some very young linemen to “use your words,” when they were shoving each other after a play. Said he, “I want them to be aggressive!” Oops! So, I understand that force is sometimes necessary! But it is best to employ a diplomatic approach when possible.

This time of year is fraught with nasty political ads. It’s unavoidable, unless one unplugs the TV. Suddenly, social niceties seem to go out the window. Educated men and women turn to name calling and ridiculous accusations in an effort to win over an apparently stupid and gullible population. Vermont gubernatorial candidate Peter Shumlin is running an ad showing his opponent, Brian Dubie with a Photoshopped nose growing like Pinnoccio’s. It would be funny if it weren’t so serious. In real life, we would call that bullying.

I recently got drawn into a political conversation, (ironically, at a football game) with a parent who had strong opinions about a candidate. He told me to watch for a particular commercial. He seemed convinced that it would strongly sway my vote, if not win it outright. I told him that I almost never voted for a candidate, but rather, a platform with which I agreed on the majority of issues. He shook his head and said, “I don’t go for all that political mumbo-jumbo. I go with my gut.”

I bit my tongue. It was almost more pleasant to watch football than to continue this line of conversation. Because the majority of people who share my political beliefs tend to be more quiet than strident, civility usually wins the day. I am reminded of a great quote from Garrison Keillor: “By all means, give stupidity the floor!”

This election year, it would be prudent to try a cerebral approach. By getting as much information as possible, we would all be better voters. Imagine if we played sports or fought wars the way we vote?

Parents might cheer for a favorite color, then find out their son is on the other team. Soldiers might shoot their own comrades because they went with their gut, and aimed for the less attractive uniforms.

Ignorant voting is no less senseless. Mock-up ballots are available prior to elections. Why not grab one and go through each candidate and be an informed voter, rather than one of the mob who “goes with his gut?” At minimum, we should all at least be familiar with each party’s platform so we don’t accidentally put someone in office who will go against our values.