In 1981, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam edited The Best American Sports Writing collection. In his introduction, Halberstam, who had covered the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movements and was one of the most profound sports writers of his time, wrote, “There was an undeclared and gnawing sense that the sportswriters had more fun, and also that they were allowed to earn a living and remain – as most people in the city room, for all their fame could not – little boys.”
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I have spent the last few years as the editor of Volleyball magazine, and I identify very closely with Halberstam’s words. Every day, I can immerse myself in the drama and personalities of sports and live vicariously through world-class athletes, contemplating why sports captivate so many of us.
Want to join this club of writers who earn a living and get to remain little boys (and girls)? Here are my tips for rookie sports writers.
Know the game.
Perhaps you have the good fortune of bringing 20 years of baseball-playing experience with you to an interview with Big Papi. That’s great, but you might also get assigned to cover the College Squash Association National Team Championship without ever coming within 100 feet of a squash court. Don’t panic. Plenty of writers cover sports they’ve never played and weren’t huge fans of.
Do your research. Lock down the basics, and watch a few videos online to get a feel for the rhythm of the game. Then dig into the background of the specific athletes and teams you’ll be covering.
Befriend the media relations staff.
The sports information director, public relations rep or press officer in charge of wrangling the photographers and reporters for the team (or venue or event, depending on the situation) acts as the gatekeeper to the best seats, exclusive interviews and royalty-free photos. Contact him or her before the event to introduce yourself and make any special requests. If you know in advance that you’ll need a one-on-one interview with a player or coach – if it’s a player’s last game before retirement or a coach is anticipated to collect her 1,000th victory, for example – now is the time to set that up.
A good working relationship with this person will also come in handy if an athlete unexpectedly puts up career-high numbers and you need to ask for an exclusive interview amid the chaos of the post-match press conferences.
Navigate the post-match press conference like a pro.
Be confident at press conferences. Sit near the front and at the end of an aisle where it’s easier for the microphone runner to get to you. Expect the losing team’s athletes and coaches to be upset and short with their answers, especially in a championship or other high-stakes event. Know that you’ll have to really work for it if you want to get a good quote from this group (but acknowledge that sometimes the best storylines grow out of the team or individual who didn’t finish on top). Also keep in mind that every writer in the room hears the same answers during the press conferences, so use your exclusive one-on-ones to flesh out your unique angle and get some good quotes that no one else will have.
Find your angle.
Although sports writing almost always includes scores and stats, those elements alone do not make a compelling story. Before the game, ask the media relations rep if there is a live stats service. If so, you can rely on the stats tracker to give you the play-by-play and final box score for later reference and use your time during the game to take notes on the action. Your angle will materialize in the genuinely enthusiastic cheering from the injured star player on the bench, or the rollercoaster of emotions written on the coach’s face as his team pulls off a come-from-behind victory, not from the numbers and percentages on the final stats sheet.
Speak the language of action.
Write about sports with an active voice. Avoid clichés. Use colorful verbs – floated, sliced, tiptoed, sashayed, launched, stroked – to illustrate the movements of the athletes; however, be aware of language that tries too hard. Pay attention to the game, especially when you’ve just started covering a particular sport. Really watch what the athletes do and consider how you could best describe their movements. Reading lots of top-notch sports writing will help you build your sporting vocabulary and familiarize you with a wide variety of sports and the people who play them.
Megan Kaplon is an editor and a former collegiate volleyball player and coach.
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