Ignorance. The word conjures up an instant negative association with close-minded, prejudicial individuals. But a quick look at the dictionary definition refers to “lack of knowledge, learning, information, etc.” Framed this way, is not ignorance something we all face? Can any one of us claim to not be “lacking in information” in anything?

In sport, ignorance is something that every athlete new or old faces. Every mistake, every miscalculation, every injury, loss, or bout of despair is a sign that ignorance is present. It is this continual dynamic battle between the protagonist the opposing forces working against and within the athlete that inspires audiences.  Spectators are more impressed by an underdog who overcomes seemingly impossible odds than a superstar who wins without effort.

Outside of sports, however, in day to day life ignorance is often seen as a failing of character. Make a mistake on a school test and you get a bad grade. Fail on the job, and you will be punished. Projecting confidence and pretending to know everything will get you farther than acting carefully and provisionally. Errors are seen as bad.

Ignorance, as Ken defines it, is the absence of that which could be learned that would be helpful. Ignorance is not bad or evil. It is a lack of something (a thing that could be knowledge, skills, understanding, motivation, training, practice, etc) that could be learned (because if it couldn’t be learned, then it is beyond us) that would be helpful (as opposed to trivial or useless kinds of learning).

For me, this definition of ignorance is empowering. Consider another related word: failure. Right away, we think “F”, loser, shame. Instead, failure should be seen as an indication that something needs to be learned. It is an indication of ignorance. Ignorance as defined above is hopeful. It means we can overcome it. Failure in conventional terms is an unalterable condition to be avoided at all costs.

Those who have played sports will have tasted loss, and it is here you will see the different responses. Some become despondent; some become angry. Others thrive on it and play even better. Physical technique is clearly not everything. An athlete training at an elite level primarily faces ignorance at a mental level. A stronger, faster, better fighter in karate will lose to the street scrapper who has higher levels of aggression, tenacity, resilience, viciousness, and motivation.

If only life can signal our ignorance as clearly as sports does. Our prejudicial views of other races, our narrow experiences in an institutional life, our assumed rightness of our culture often makes us blind to the damage we do to other people, other cultures, and our environment. Ignorance feels right because everything in our immediate environment tells us everything is okay. So what is there to do?

Sports has shown one way of dealing with ignorance. Discipline.