‘It ain’t about how hard you hit’ – how sports speeches are inspiring a Long Island hospital

Dr Matt Schwartz has been motivating staff with lines from Rocky and other films

In the video, Dr Matt Schwartz has clambered up unto a chair in the Emergency Room to address his colleagues. Wearing blue scrubs and a mask over his face, there’s a stethoscope dangling around his neck and a surgical cap emblazoned with the New York Mets’ logo pulled tight on his head in the manner of a do-rag. In one hand, he clasps an empty plastic cup, in another a rolled-up sheet of paper. The portrait is of a frantic physician hard at work. Except he’s taking time out to deliver some truths.

“Life is a game of inches and so is Covid,” he declares. “In either game, life or Covid, the margin for error is so small, I mean, one half a step too early or one too late, you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow, too fast, you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are all around us, they’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second, and on this team we fight for every inch…”

He pauses then because the room erupts, impromptu cheers from doctors and nurses gathered off camera. Some presumably recognized the speech from the Oliver Stone grid-iron movie Any Given Sunday. More, perhaps, were enthralled merely because he was offering momentary respite to beleaguered personnel embroiled in a daily struggle against the insidious virus. Schwartz works at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore on Long Island, a strip of land abutting New York that has over 3,000 deaths and 72,000 cases so far. Truly, people living on the frontline.

“On this team we tear ourselves and everyone around us to pieces for that inch,” Schwartz continued, once the initial cheering subsided, “… because we know that when we add up all those inches that’s gonna make the difference between winning and losing, living and dying. In any fight it’s the man who’s willing to die who is going to get that inch and I know that I’m not going to have any life left in me while I’m still willing to die and fight for that inch.”


Emotionally draining

As the days dragged on and the body count rose over the past two months, Schwartz saw how the pandemic was affecting those around him. The hours were so punishing, the work so emotionally draining that collegiality became one more casualty of the terrible circumstance. People hardwired to cope with suffering grew shorter with each other, snarkier too. To ease the tension, the doctor delved into his back catalogue of beloved sports movies and the moment when coach Tony D’Amato, played by Al Pacino, famously tried to fire up the Miami Sharks.

“Now I can’t make you do it,” said Schwartz, winding up for the big finish. “I need you to look at the person next to you, look into their eyes. You are going to see somebody who is willing to go for that inch, you are going to see somebody who is willing to sacrifice themselves for this team because they know you are going to do the same for them and that’s what a team is. And we can either heal as a team or we can die as individuals. So, what are you gonna do?!”

At that point, he punched the air and leapt off the chair to the sound of whooping and hollering from delighted peers. For one and a half minutes, the focus of those men and women was not on intubating or ventilating the stricken but on a co-worker performing a rousing, sometimes hilarious, and not quite word-perfect rendition of a speech that has endured in the cultural imagination long after the forgettable film where it featured.

“The Game of Inches” soliloquy was first popularized in GAA circles by the Armagh footballers during their early 21st century pomp. Since appropriated by everybody from despairing coaches to dreaded motivational speakers, overuse has diminished it to the status of cliché. Yet, context is everything. From the mouth of a doctor in the trenches of an actual battle where real lives are on the line, the hackneyed sermon was suddenly repurposed, fresh, and a fleeting escape from the most manic of work environments.

Locker-room showdown

His depleted colleagues certainly thought so, demanding more cinematic reprieves from their calamitous work lives. Schwartz duly obliged, providing weekly, relevant trips through the canon of sports flicks, such as reprising the speech from Rocky Balboa where the ageing pugilist cautions, “It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” And proffering his own version of a locker-room showdown from Remember the Titans in which a high school grid-iron coach warns his players, “I don’t want the Covid to gain another yard!” Or words to that effect.

Perhaps most resonant of all was his reworking of a scene from Miracle, the ice hockey film telling the true story of when a team of underdog American college kids defeated the mighty Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics.

“We play the Covid 10 times, they may win nine of them!” said Schwartz, channeling Kurt Russell playing coach Herb Brooks. “But not this game. Not today. Today, we skate with it. Today, we are the greatest emergency department in the world. You were all born to be frontliners, every one of you, and you were meant to be here.”

As, most definitely, was he.