Lessons for Life--from Sports
Bill Long 6/6/06
With the finals of both the Stanley Cup and the National Basketball Association beginning this week, I thought it might be good to reflect briefly on some lessons that sports teaches us about life. These aren't the lessons that are "out there" in the media and which are spoken of without much thought in our culture--such as "teamwork is valuable," which, come to think of it, sometimes is true and sometimes isn't. Rather I want to mention three lessons that basketball and two lessons that hockey teach us about life.
Lesson # 1. You Play Until They Blow the Whistle. One of the realities of sports and life is that you are "fouled" repeatedly, and much of the time the "officials" don't call the fouls. If the game was stopped every time that someone was fouled in the slightest degree, there would be no game. Different officials have divergent philosophies about stopping play. Some like to see the game go on; others like to "take charge early." You need to learn to "read" the situations you are in, to discover the "rules," and not be too offended if the officials don't blow the whistle every time you think they should. If you just stopped and refused to keep playing every time you thought you were fouled, the game would go on without you, and you would have plenty of time to meditate on your being fouled at the end of the bench. Thus, the best players are those who have learned best how to live with injustice.
Lesson # 2. Even When you Score a Dazzling Basket, You Need to Scramble back on Defense. Sometimes athletes put remarkable moves on each other. Sometimes they make the most amazing dunks. Oftentimes their shots look like they are bombs dropped from the rafters. In short, they are works of art. What do you do after such a work of art? You better dash back to your end and make sure that your man doesn't negate what you have done by putting in a layup because you weren't there to defend against him. I always thought that this was unfair; after a brilliant play they ought to stop the game and allow some kind of celebration or ceremony. But, they don't. You just keep playing. There will be time after the game is over, or during a time-out, to savor a little of what you have done. Not, however, right after you have done it.
Lesson # 3. The Best Athletes have Learned to Play Through Injuries. Injuries come in all shapes and sizes to athletes. Most of us would probably be knocked out of competition if we suffered the kinds of lacerations that are common to the game. But athletes have to expect injuries and have to learn to live with the pain that they cause. Pain can be overcome through drugs (temporarily) or other means, or can sometimes be ignored, but it is part of the game. And, in order to perform best you cannot let on that you are in pain. Sometimes you are afraid that if you keep playing with an injury you will exacerbate it and threaten your career; other times you need to keep playing until you are back in A-1 form.
We, too, live with countless injuries that have been inflicted on us by people who are ill- or well-meaning. The temptation to have one's life be defined by one's injury is sometimes immense. To be able to keep playing the game, sometimes seeking ways to accommodate your injuries, is one of the biggest challenges of life. But, the injuries will be there, and so will the game. What will you do?
Lesson # 4. From Hockey. Most Goals are not Scored by Sheer Power or Direct Assault on the Opponent. I noticed that three of the first four goals scored in the first NHL Championship Game were scored in less that "direct" ways. One was the result of a penalty shot; one came through the deflection of the puck off one's own defenseman, one came through a rebound after the goalie had made a great save. We sometimes feel that in order to get to the goals of life, we have to set them, go after them, bear down on them, "pass the puck" to the open man and let him drive home the shot on goal. But when you consider it for a minute, you realize that most "goals" in hockey are scored indirectly. Goals are scored when you come at the net from different angles. You try one thing, and are rebuffed by a defenseman; another shot is kicked away by the goalie; a third shot goes wide. But these direct approaches must be complemented by additional methods.
Lesson # 5. Most Goals are Scored by Gentle Nudges rather than by Screaming Shots. Indeed, what was striking to me was that most goals were scored by finesse rather than power. Most goals resulted from a quick snap of the wrists rather than a windup and a shot. On the penalty shot the player simply waited for the goalie to commit himself just a bit, and then deposited the puck by a quick wrist-motion in the corner of the net exposed by the goalie. One goal was scored off of a rebound, where the offensive player had an open net into which to flick the puck.
When I was a high schooler, my coaches taught me all the wrong lessons--that only athletics gives you discipline; that single-hearted devotion to one activity, even without drinking water for long periods of time, was best; that you can't get anywhere in life without teamwork. The bolded lessons above are what I really get out of athletics. And, now that I have (re)learned them, I don't have the same urgency to watch the matches. For, in fact, I really have no "team."
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long