In sport the only thing that works is constant, relentless, completely excessive effort and concentration. And sometimes that doesn’t work eitherby Benjamin Markovits / June 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
One of the reasons we’re supposed to play sports is because it builds character. As a kid I remember thinking, “this is bullshit.” But then I had kids myself and have now spent years dragging them—and being dragged—to various kinds of character-building exercise. I found a girls’ football club for my daughter even though she didn’t want to play. It seemed like part of my paternal duty, because middle-class American girls play soccer. Then I gave up. I tried the same with basketball, which she turned out to like; sometimes in spite of yourself things get passed down.
What’s strange about all this is that built into the decision to make them do these things is the moment, some years down the line, when they will choose to quit—because everyone does. And you make them play even though you know full well that when they do quit mild feelings of parental failure and disappointment will afflict you.
But I hassle my kids to show up anyway. Because there is something you can learn from sports that you can’t learn from any of the other things you make your kids do. My daughter spent a couple of years in ballet and I was struck from the beginning how orderly and precise the instructions were. The music lessons I’ve sat in on have been similar: you learn to do the same thing over and over the same way until you get it right. Obviously sports also involve repetition and precision but the chaos-generating tendencies of an unpredictable adversarial environment slightly shift the emphasis. And the incentive-structure looks different, too.
Failure and losing are built in. Somebody wins and then there are the other people who don’t. Practice drills, even for small children, use competition as threat and reward. For you to do well somebody else has to do less well. So you learn to want other people to fail. You also learn to fail yourself, publicly and humiliatingly, again and again. Because other people are better than you, and it’s not enough to do your best—unless you include under “doing your best” practising hours after practice is over, hitting or kicking balls against a…