Portugal knock the Netherlands out of the 2006 football World Cup. Image; Wkimedia Commons

Why playing sport—when there are clear winners and losers—prepares you for real life

Intellectual arguments can end with both people thinking they won. Sport is different.
November 13, 2018

I was always a competitive kid, maybe because I spotted a gap in the market. My brother, who is four years older, knew everything, but was also practical—he was good with his hands, he could make things. If we needed a lean-to in the backyard to store the wood, he would figure out how to build it, and then he would patiently build it. I wasn’t really interested in anything unless you could win.

The competitive spirit sometimes gets a bad rap. It’s seen as a form of aggression. People connect it intellectually to some version of Darwinism—everyone’s out for themselves, and they’ll do anything they can to make sure they come out on top. Everything’s a battle, for resources or points or money. The one moral virtue they associate with competition has to do with teamwork—the idea of sacrificing yourself for the greater good.

Yet this doesn’t really do justice to the friendliness of competition—as a model, I mean, for social human behaviour. People play games to have fun. You can’t play unless you agree with your opponents on rules and goals—and you can’t play unless you find a way to play so that afterwards you can play again.

Games and sports are a series of conventions that have been agreed over time, and which work well. They have to reward effort and skill, but they also have to offer different kinds of talent ways of leveraging their expertise to become successful. In other words, a game in which the bigger or the quicker kid always wins won’t last long.

In that sense, they resemble good government—there have to be checks on certain kinds of obvious power. I started out playing football, then switched to basketball around the time I hit adolescence. Basketball involves an obvious height bias, and I guess one of the reasons I switched is that I turned out to be tall.

But these two sports also have a lot in common—they’re global for a reason, because they’re cheap and simple to play, but it’s the kind of simplicity that allows for an incredible complexity of strategies and interpretations. You can keep arguing about them, about what works and doesn’t.

As a kid, what I liked about games is that they struck me as problems capable of being solved. The prospect of winning and losing ensures rigour—it forces you to be serious.

You can get into intellectual arguments in which people on opposing ends of a debate deploy satisfying rhetorical strategies so that afterwards both sides have convinced themselves of what they already thought they knew, even though no real contact has been made. But you can’t walk away from a game of one-on-one basketball thinking you won when you didn’t.

This reminds me of my dad’s old story about the three econometricians who go duck hunting. The first one shoots too high, the second one shoots too low, and the third one says: We got it! Or the old French joke: it’s good in practice, but does it work in theory? It’s amusing sometimes to watch the data-analyst crowd trying to contain their frustration with the fact most sports offer an incredibly sophisticated but also obvious metric for measuring success—winning and losing.

Playing sports, being competitive, forces you to engage with who you are playing against, to make real contact—to assess their strengths and your weaknesses.

In other words, one of the problems to be solved, when you play sport, is you. Athletes have to think less delusionally than other people about what their limits are, and how they can make use of themselves.

They spend their childhoods asking: what am I good at? What am I not good at? What can I improve, what qualities am I stuck with? What can I do with the materials I have at hand?

It isn’t just when playing games that these questions matter.