Why Sports?

I have a number of friends who tend to look down their noses at sports and those who “waste their time” viewing or participating in sports. What’s the point, they ask? Why so much fuss about hitting that ball back and forth over a net or rolling that tiny white ball into the small hole in the ground?  Clearly, they cannot see it. And many who do see it are unable to see much of anything else. But there are reasons, good reasons, for participating in sports and while watching athletic events in person or on television might not be the most productive way to spend time, it beats such things as drinking or smoking pot — though, perhaps, it’s not as much fun. (I wouldn’t know [wink, wink]).

In any event, I do think there is a defense that can be made for participating in sports at all levels, from the lowest to the highest.  As others have pointed out, they tend to develop “character” and that is something that seems to be on hold pretty much anywhere else. I’m not talking about Division I sports at the University level, especially football and basketball. We know that character is the least of the concerns of those involved in those activities. The scandals that break out almost daily drive home the point that those sports are corrupt at their core and leave many former athletes dazed, discarded and wasted on the sidelines, victims of alcohol or drugs, out of work, frequently penniless, and full of pain.

But at the junior levels, in the schools and even in college at the Division III level where sports are played for the fun of it — for the most part — character is developed through self-denial, discipline, and the frequent experience of failure.  In no other walk of life these days, least of all in the schools, do we allow kids to fail, ignoring the well-known fact that failure is a very valuable life-lesson. In this regard, I hasten to add, the strange new practice of awarding trophies to all young participants and refusing to keep score defeats the purpose of sports — those aspects  of sports that are worth preserving.

Sports are also one of the few remaining places where it is not only appropriate but encouraged to discuss “greatness.” Is Michael Jordan the greatest basketball player ever to have played the game? How about Bill Russell? And is Rod Laver the greatest tennis player to have ever wielded a tennis racket — or is it Federer (or, perhaps, Martina Navratilova)? And so it goes. The Commissars of Culture who dominate the scholarly citadels have disallowed the notion of greatness in the arts, literature, and even behavior since it is now the case, apparently, that it is all a matter of taste. Period. There are no great writers, only those we prefer. There is no great art because it’s “all in the eye of the beholder.” We cannot talk about Great Books because there are no such things. They have been tossed into the bin waiting to be burned by professors who prefer to hold forth about postmodern theories and discuss the latest tome by a minority figure who has been wrongly ignored.

I have held forth on this topic many times because it seems to me to be so intellectually lazy and wrong-headed. There are clearly great writers, painters, and sculptors as there are great dancers and musicians. Not only can we discuss over a beer (or two) whether Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever, but also can also discuss over a glass of wine (or beer) whether Mozart was a great composer, perhaps the greatest ever, and whether or not Elizabeth Wharton was a great writer. I’m not saying that the discussion won’t get heated at times, or even that there is an answer that we would all agree upon. But the issue can be discussed, because there is greatness in our common world. It is rare, but it is there along with real beauty, ugliness, fear, spitefulness, and generosity. Indeed, our world is full of richness in all shades and colors. And we can talk about that world and come to some sort of agreement about the things that go on in it, even with those who see things entirely differently. Out at least we used to be able to do so.

In any case, the argument in favor of pursuing sports at all levels has to do not only with the fact that it does build character through self-denial and discipline, and, of course, acceptance of the lessons of failure. But it also teaches us about greatness. It opens our eyes to things going on around us and prepares the field for an intelligent discussion not only of greatness in sports but anywhere else as well. Furthermore, it helps participants to develop coordination and strength, a healthy body to accompany our healthy minds. The Greeks knew it, like they did so many other things. But many of us seem to have forgotten it, or are determined to look away and snigger at the horrible waste of time on the part of those who participate as well as those who simply watch and marvel at the beauty sports sometimes display, the sheer magic of what the human body can do, and the vicarious release of passions that might otherwise lead us in the wrong direction.

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Players As Captains

Now that the United States Ryder Cup golf team has lost the cup once again questions abound as to why this group of talented golfers doesn’t seem to be able to win a team competition against a patch-work team of players from Europe and Great Britain. Phil Mickelson has again put his foot in his mouth and made disparaging remarks about the team captain, Tom Watson, who (it is generally agreed) botched the job. Mickelson simply said what the others wanted to say but had the good taste to keep it to themselves: Watson just wasn’t up to the task. He did a couple of things right, such as putting two first-time players together who made an excellent team — only to leave them out of competition on the second day when their twosome might have won a much-needed point for the U.S of A. Also, he forgot to mention to them that they weren’t going to play.

(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Tom Watson (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

It seems Watson was too autocratic, too “stand-offish” and uncommunicative. He didn’t involve the players themselves in the decisions he made, and several of those decisions raised eyebrows around the golfing world — like the one mentioned above and the decision not to play Mickelson and his partner Keegan Bradley on the second day when they have shown themselves to be one of the most successful teams the Americans have ever put together. In any event, the golfing world is resounding with the second-guessing of experts and want-to-be experts and they all seem to agree that Watson simply did not get it done.

This raises an interesting question: why is it that outstanding players like Tom Watson so often make terrible coaches in sports of all types? Bill Russell springs to mind — one of the greatest basketball players ever to play but a mediocre coach, at best. The European Ryder Cup team was captained by a very good, but not outstanding, golfer by the name of Paul McGinley who seems to have had the magic touch, taking the same types of self-absorbed, wealthy, spoiled golfers from Europe and melding them into a winning team. Again, why does this sort of thing happen?

My guess is that the outstanding athletes don’t know what it is that makes them outstanding at their sport. They play largely by instinct. I once watched Marty Riessen give a tennis lesson to a middle-aged woman on the tennis courts at Northwestern University. Riessen was a perennial Big Ten tennis champion, played on the Davis Cup team, and later turned professional — once beating Rod Laver for one of his professional championships. But as a teacher he was tongue-tied. He had no idea what to say to his pupil. He became increasingly frustrated and she got correspondingly tense as the lesson went down hill. This is an extreme case, but it is graphic evidence of the inability of at least this great player to communicate to someone else what it is they needed to do to be successful — like the brilliant physicist who can’t teach entry-level physics.

And that seems to be the key: communication skills. Anyone who listens to Tom Watson will be immediately struck by the fact that he has difficulty saying what he is thinking. Couple that with his determination to stand away from his players and call the shots from on high and you have a formula for failure. A good coach is frequently one who has struggled himself or herself to learn the basic skills of the game and who has the ability to communicate with the student just what they must do to be successful. I dare say that golf came very easily to Tom Watson. And he apparently can’t pick up on the chemistry that does or does not exist between people.

I was not an outstanding tennis player. I played a good deal of competitive tennis and won a number of small tournaments, but I wasn’t in a class with folks like Marty Riessen, to be sure. But in taking the game apart and putting it together again at a boys’ camp in Maine years ago with a friend of mine, I learned what it took to produce tennis strokes and was able to explain the mechanics of the game to people trying to learn it. I spent 35 years teaching tennis and another fifteen years coaching at the collegiate level. Whatever success I had was due to my own struggles with the game coupled with my sympathy for those who found the game to be difficult — and my ability to communicate with them successfully. I also learned quickly the delicate art of keeping quiet when necessary. I have seen that formula repeated again and again. The formula the U.S.A. has for picking captains is doomed to failure: a famous player who has himself achieved greatness in the sport. It works on occasion, as it did with one of the few successful American Ryder Cup captains, Paul Azinger (not himself a player in the class of Watson, but an outstanding payer none the less), but not as a rule. The Paul McGinleys of the world will usually trump the Tom Watsons when it comes to coaching — even if they couldn’t beat them head-to-head on the golf course.