Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sports: A window to the soul

I'm writing about five reasons I like sports. Number three is: They provide a window into a player's character -- for better or worse.

Life is about associations, closeness, and levels of intimacy. I wrote yesterday about how sports can provide us with a social fix. In my opinion, doing sports activities with friends is one of life's great pleasures. It is one of the dividends paid for the time and effort required to get "good enough" for people to want to play with you.

About four years ago I started playing racquetball. I played tennis and handball in my youth, and racquetball is a good mix of both sets of skills. Plus, it's easier to find a racquetball partner than a tennis or handball partner. I had the good fortune to find a suitable partner that began via a conversation at church one Sunday.

Vicci is about five years younger than me, and she's an athlete. We played a few times and here's what I learned:

1) She plays fair.
2) She keeps her cool.
3) She plays hard.
4) She doesn't give up.
5) She has a good sense of humor.

Over time I also learned:

6) She shows up on time, or lets me know she's running late.
7) She appreciates having someone to play with who is like her.
8) She's interested in getting better, and she's willing to take sports advice.
9) She can lose and win graciously: she demonstrates good sportsmanship.
10) She's willing to commit to an on-going sports relationship, because she loves sports in general, and racquetball in particular.

It was always fun playing with Vicci. We started out playing an hour a week, but worked up to being able to play for two hours. Except for vacations, illnesses, and job demands, we played very regularly for three years. She was my racquetball partner until she moved out of state.

I uncovered the character of a splendid soul via the sport of racquetball. It didn't happen overnight, but it happened. Why? Because the artificial pressure cooker that is sports, provides a window into the character of another. In Vicci's case, it was a pleasant view.

It was rare that she got heated and smacked the ball into the wall. More often she turned the anger into more intense and focused effort. Mostly she got mad at herself for not living up to her own standard of play. And that was okay. She is human.

Sometimes she won, more of the time I did. When she would win some games, I would find some YouTube coaching to lift the level of my play. We challenged each other. We celebrated good rallies and laughed at self-inflicted misplays.

Vicci's been gone for a while, and I've been scouting out new potential partners. I need the exercise and social interaction sports provides, but I'm only going to do it over the long haul with someone who I enjoy playing with. Someone who consistently demonstrates that they are worthy of an on-going association and a personal closeness that is developed over time on the field of play. Someone who "plays well with others."

Some learn to play well with others in Kindergarten, and some never learn it. One way to find out fairly quickly is via friendly athletic competition.

That's the third reason I like sports. It's a great way to find great people who play well with others. That's the kind of person I want to play with, hang-out with, and form a relationship with. They've proven their character under pressure, even if the pressure is self-generated via sports.

Real life generates it's own pressure tests. Most of the time, it's not as intense as what is experienced on the playing field, but often those tests are easier to "pass" if a person has learned to gracefully navigate the challenges of friendly athletic competition. Some times the real life tests are more intense, and that's when we each discover what we're made of -- for better or worse.


  1. Good post, Don. I was never one for sports, as I am not too coordinated, but I think you are right; sport is a good arena to observe something of a person's inner, as well as outer workings.

  2. I just now found a joke. Elementary children were asked how do you decide who to marry, and a ten year old boy answered: "You got to find sommebody who likes the same stuff. Like if you like sports, she should like it that you like sports, and she should keep the chips and dip coming."

  3. @Deedee: Thanks for the comment. I'm discovering that this set of posts is thought provoking, not just for the player of sports, but for those who don't. A lot of these concepts carry over to any game-type situation. Monopoly, Risk, even Shoots-and-Ladders is a good setting to learn about a person: cards too. (My mom taught me a lot about winning and losing as we played Yahtzee when I was little. Not until I was in high school, did I figure out that sometimes... she let me win. I was blown away. Letting someone win is an option? Who knew?

    @Dennis: Cute joke. Many, if not most, people enjoy watching sports. I like to watch others playing sports, but I soon get bored. I want to play. I would rather participate than spectate. The only teams I followed once I was out of high school, were the teams my kids played on. (I have watched the NFL Replay consistently for a winter or two. But now I watch, Whose Line is it Anyway? It's even more entertaining for me.)

  4. Don-

    I like how you connect sports to character. That was one of the building blocks of my childhood. We were taught, largely through sports, the importance of doing the right thing, working hard, staying positive, etc. And, like you and your kids, I have found some of my dearest friends through sports.

    I've also found that these are the friendships that I can always rely on perhaps because we have to rely on each other in sports. Sometimes I miss these friends the most because we have gotten to "know" each other so well through our sports that we don't have to spend a lot of time explaining ourselves. We can just "be" and "play"-- two very important prerequisites for a good friend.

    Thanks for the thoughts. I hope you find a new raquetball pal; it sounds like you and your nephew might be on to something! :)

  5. @Miss H: Thanks for the comments. Glad to hear this resonated with you. I like your addition, "...staying positive..." Perhaps the advent of sports psychology helped improve coaching over the years. Staying positive wasn't taught so much to me by coaches, but I learned it. Peak performance is impossible when you are negative, second-guessing, and dragging around emotions from a previous play. What a life lesson. Thanks for pointing that out.

    I also like how you identify two attributes of friendships developed with former team-mates: "we can just 'be' and 'play.'" Well said. In sports, you do learn to rely on one another, and that mutual trust can carry over off the field.

    I appreciate your insights, and guess what? I am playing again with my nephew today. Noon with my old high school friend, one to three with my nephew and his friend. (I'll sleep well tonight!)

    Oh, what fun!