I have friends who have no idea what I see in sports. All sports seem to them to be pointless. Why should one spend time and expend energy chasing a ball around a tennis court, or trying to hit a small ball into an absurdly small hole? It makes no sense. True. In the grand order of things, sports make no sense whatever. But there are hidden benefits that only the participants themselves seem to be aware of.
To begin with there is the challenge of competing against others and against oneself. I never went overboard about the competitive side of sports, though I much preferred winning to losing and always sought the toughest opponent when I played and also when I coached tennis. For the most part, I engaged in sports for the delight I experienced when I did something well. There is an aesthetic dimension to sports that can be appreciated not only by participants but also to a degree by spectators. When playing, it is called being “in the moment,” and it happens seldom but is an exhilarating experience. I also love to watch sports at the highest levels even though I know many of the participants are unworthy of my attention as human beings. But they do what they do extremely well, and there are times when one is transported out of himself by simply watching a man or a woman do something that very few people can do. I expect that is the continued fascination with Tiger Woods who has lost so much of his popularity as a man because of his personal failings, but who continues to amaze on the golf course.
I participated in a variety of sports as a kid growing up. In Connecticut as a young boy I played baseball and started to play basketball just before we moved to Maryland. There I was forced by my peers to take up lacrosse — “cool guys” in those days didn’t play baseball in Baltimore, they played lacrosse. I would have continued to pursue the game, but had to go to work in a grocery store after school to help my family and wasn’t able to participate in organized sports at all. But when I could I got involved in any sports my friends happened to be playing at the time. In college we had no intercollegiate sports, but I participated in touch football, squash, tennis, basketball, softball, and even track — where I was awful. I always loved sports and stuck with tennis and became fairly proficient and eventually ended up giving lessons and coaching collegiate tennis for sixteen years. In my “sear and yellow leaf” I play golf because my knees and right elbow have given out. But I still love the feeling of a well-hit ball.
Why waste all this time? It’s partly the release from the daily grind — my time on the basketball court in college and graduate school helped me keep my sense of balance, not to mention my sanity. As mentioned, the aesthetics of the games I played was very important to me and if I played well I really didn’t care if I won or lost. There is a joy it executing a shot or playing a point well that simply cannot be communicated with anyone who has never done it. That carried over into my coaching where I insisted only that my players do their best and not worry about winning or losing. It worked: I was lucky enough to coach some wonderfully talented young men and, especially women, who won a lot even though winning wasn’t the most important thing. It never was.
In sum, sports not only have an important aesthetic dimension, they can be therapeutic as well — not unlike comedy. As mentioned above, they are a release and an escape from the hurly-burly of everyday life. To many that’s a mark against them. To me that is a huge mark in their favor. In this world of high stress we live in, sports can be a welcome, even a necessary, release — an escape from the absurdities and frustrations of life into the world of rules and order where many good things happen and we learn to accept the failures (without pretending they are something else.) They take us out of ourselves, even for a moment. And that is a good thing: we can get lost in there.