POV - Scrimmage Along the Board (for web)

You’d think that sports builds character. Plenty of studies have claimed that athletes learn courage, persistence, discipline, develop social skills, and all while improving health. The list is so extensive one would think it’s the magic bullet for all of our woes. But with the string of high profile cheats, fights and all-round boorish behaviour of parents and sports fanatics, the evidence would seem to weigh on the other side. Athletes are human beings after all. They have the same failings that politicians and businessmen do.

The difference, however, is that we expect more from our athletes (or perhaps we don’t expect enough from our politicians). The reality is that sports often does not bring out the best in us. Sure, sometimes it does. Sometimes it changes us for the better. Sometimes we are even inspired and moved beyond our tribalistic fervor. So why don’t we learn from sport? Here are some of my speculations:

1. Not understanding general disciplines versus specific disciplines

Every discipline like medicine or engineering has specific disciplines, a means by which it accomplishes its objectives. In sports, discipline is often meant to refer to particular training method, or a particular technique. By itself, knowing how to execute a sport technique like how to kick a ball into the net has limited application in real life (unless of course it’s your profession). Recognizing the broader principles at work however can help one learn other techniques more quickly.

For example, consider the importance of practice. When an athlete practices only because they “have to”, then that athlete is unlikely to apply what they learn elsewhere. Practice is merely a requirement of participation. On the other hand, when an athlete discovers the connection between practice and performance, the athlete can apply this principle to other skill development. I have been guilty of claiming that “I am not creative” or “I cannot sing”. In reality, my claim is more about my unwillingness to practice singing or practice being creative than it is about ability. Part of the purpose for this documentary series was to draw out those general disciplines so that perhaps they could be applied.


2. Not applying general disciplines

Even if one possessed an understanding of the general disciplines, one might not apply them. In one area of our life, we might practice diligently, seek out expertise, challenge ourselves, push through failure. Yet in another area, we give up or approach it in superficial ways. Thus the extent to which we do learn depends a great deal on how much we care about what we’re learning. What we do or don’t find significant then has a huge bearing how well we apply the general disciplines.

Unfortunately even when we do care, we end up applying the specific disciplines without understanding whether or not they are relevant. When businesspeople assume they can solve social issues using business profit models or economists explain human behaviour through consumer buying patterns, they make a gross error and potentially do more damage. Hence success in one area can sometimes blind people to what success looks like in another area.


3. Overspecialization

The first time I watched a YouTube video of a youth competing in a cup stacking competition, I was amazed someone could invest so much time in something so seemingly simple. There are those who have an inhuman like focus on mastering their craft. The ultra-marathoner who runs a hundred kilometres or the man who spent 20 years getting genocide defined as a term. We should be thankful for those scientists, engineers, and athletes who demonstrate mastery of their domain. We should also be careful not to think they are masters of everything.

An athlete who grows up experiencing only their sport will lose perspective. They will come to expect that sport IS reality. What once was a game is no longer a metaphor for life and death but the actual thing. Ever since the industrial era, people have been driven to specialize into narrower and narrower job functions. Overspecialization is a product of a hyper technological society that ignores the symptoms of environmental degradation and social injustice just as the  workaholic ignores the other failing aspects of his or her life. The same applies to the “sportaholic”.


4. Segregation of life

A related but different problem is that of over-segregation. My favorite example of this problem is how we often talk about work-life balance as if work and life were two entirely separate entities. Certainly it simplifies management of the different areas, but then you get the phenomenon of someone who is professional at work, but a terror at home. Never underestimate the capacity of a human being to rationalize all sorts of behaviours as long as they are in different boxes.

I use to officiate soccer games. The worst game I ever reffed was a soccer team made up of refs. To me, being a good ref meant making fair judgments in high pressure situations. Surely a knowledge of the rules and the desire to uphold the spirit of the game would translate into being a better player? As it turns out, “referee” and “player” exist in two distinct boxes just as “athlete” and “citizen” can be two entirely different roles.  


5. Sports is not life

Famed Michael Novak from his very compelling book “The Joy of Sports” makes it clear:

“It is worth knocking down once-and-for-all the old saw that athletics ‘prepare one for the great Game of Life.’ They do and they don`t.. They may and they may  not. The Nazis exulted in physical fitness, pagan athleticism, games, and contests. Playing rugby at Aspen is often coincident with moral flabbiness,  intellectual mush, and  lassitude of sport.”

He goes on to say that sports is in a different world altogether, but it is a place where we can find a purer kind of joy and excellence than can be found in other human endeavours. I nevertheless feel that we should find ways to transfer the joy, the higher level learning, the sense of having known defeat into other areas that are a part of the game of life.

So how do we overcome these barriers? What must happen to promote deeper learning? These were the questions that shaped my approach to the documentary short and I hope you’ll continue to explore it with me.

by Chris Hsiung
Hidden Story Productions