Unexpected Life Lessons from Sports
Bill Long 11/6/08
A few years ago I wrote an essay on this subject, which I will refine and develop here. My central point is that sports teaches you lessons, but it is watching rather than participation in sports that holds many of the most enduring lessons for life. This isn't a popular point, so I will need to defend it in this essay.
In fact, I learned from actual participation in sports that sports gave me more ambiguity than clarity regarding life's important values. For example, participation in sports tends to teach you that life is about competition, but in fact, most of life really isn't about competing with anyone. Even if two people are interviewing for the same job, it isn't really best to characterize it as a "competition" between the two; the person will get the job whom the organization feels best meets its needs. Again, participation in sports may give you the impression that playing injured is a good and courageous thing. But again, this isn't really a very useful lesson in life. Sometimes you ought to stop doing what you are doing when injured. Finally, coaches always say that one of the best lessons of participation in sports is that it teaches the centrality of "teamwork." It possibly does, but teamwork isn't usually what you need to get things done in life. A surprisingly great amount of work happens not because you are part of a team, but because you have "alone" time to do some work.
Thus, in my mind, the lessons from participation in sports are somewhat ambiguous, but lessons from watching are clearer. Three of them follow.
I. What To Do When They Don't Pass the Ball To The Guy
We have all seen it over and over again. The basketball or football player is standing there right near the basket or is open for a pass. He waves his arms. But the ball doesn't come to him. He could easily have made a first down or a basket if the ball had come to him. Sometimes people don't pass it to you because they can't see that you are open. Other times it happens because people aren't looking for you. It is also probably true at times that "open" people don't get the ball because someone doesn't want to pass it to them.
How does the player react when this happens? The better the player, the more he reacts with no emotion. He just goes back to the huddle or continues with the play. Perhaps he will mention it to someone, but he makes no visible display of emotion. This teaches us that when people don't "see" that you are open, you just have to continue "playing" the game as if nothing significant has happened to you. I know that one of the things I most couldn't understand in my 20s and 30s was why I was "passed over" in interviews when I clearly could do the job or was the best person for a job. I often became flustered and, in some cases, embittered. I thought that if people were that blind, then I wanted nothing to do with them. If I really had been an avid sports watcher, however, I would have seen that you just have to swallow those little events and keep playing. Eventually the game evens out. I guess I hadn't watched enough sports in those days to know that was the case.
II. When Fouled Hard, Intensify Your Game
Fouls or penalties in sports are meant to discourage wrongdoing and level the playing field when someone breaks the rules. But often they are used by the opposing team as elements of strategy. You foul the opposing star in order to see if you can get him off his rhythm or "out of his game." You harass him, double-team him, try to rattle him, treat him "unjustly." If you get him to notice you rather than the goal, you have achieved your goal. What great athletes do, and it is evident for all of us who watch sports, it is to use these insults/assaults to intensify their game. Of course they are hurt, and they probably are offended at the intrusiveness of the hard foul. They not only don't give up, but they often request the ball more often, or take more shots, as if to say to the other team, "Now you really got me going..."
It is incredibly difficult to maintain your cool and redouble your effort in search of your goal when you unjustly receive a "hard foul" in life. Your first reaction might be, "Why should someone do that to me? I wasn't doing anything to him/her." Or, "I only want the best for the organization. Why is s/he then trying to bog us down?" We don't know all the reasons that motivate those who "foul hard." There might be a mixture of jealousy and spite, or a sense of desperation, or even a joy in derailing the plans of those superior to them. Perhaps the person who fouls another very hard doesn't know exactly why s/he is acting this way. But the purpose is often to try to take the confident one, the "star" off of his game. Watching sports teaches us that the best players are those who can endure the "slings and arrows" of unjust treatment on the court, and rise to do even better. Who comes to mind? Kobe Bryant and Allan Iverson. Regardless of what you might think of them in other ways, they are true "teachers" on this point.
III. You Score by Subtlety
Since I am a person who suffers from what I sometimes call "terminal clarity," I don't usually understand why anyone would not try to be crystal clear in what they are saying. But then, when you watch sports, you realize that clarity may be a concept that exists in the coach's mind and on the whiteboard, but seldom is put into practice according to the plan. Most scoring, especially in hockey, comes off "rebounds" or "deflections" rather than on wind-up slap shots. The obvious attempts to score usually generate the real opportunities for scoring--by secondary or other players. One way to handle a problem is to try to attack it "head on." Sometimes it isn't clear exactly what this means, even though lots of people use this language. But I have found that most things are gained in life through indirection or, differently said, through appealing to people on grounds other than the one you seemingly want to attain.
I have found that most success comes to me when I inquire about another person's family, their interests, what they are thinking in general about life, how they have handled a difficult problem. I like to enter people's lives through stories rather than through analytic discussions. Stories are shortcuts to the soul, I think, but we often think of them as of lesser importance than the "bottom line" of a message someone is bringing. Sometimes, I suppose, you have to identify exactly what the "goal" is and "go for it," but I find that whatever success I have enjoyed in life has come because of "deflections" and "rebounds." I mention an "offhand idea" and it blossoms. I get in touch with a student I taught 20 years ago to do one thing, and something entirely different arises. Sports teaches us to expect the real meaning of things below the surface of the buzz...
Now I am off to the gym. Do I like working out? Actually, like 94 year-old Jack LaLanne, I hate it, but I do it because it is "good for me." Just like going to bed late at night...
What is the source of some of your significant life lessons? What lessons have you gotten from sports?