We’re approaching the mid-point of my stepson’s AYSO soccer season. I can happily say that he is one of the stand-out players on the team. The only problem is that he doesn’t have much competition for the distinction.
At the outset of this season, I spoke with his coach about the outlook for the team. He was quick to assure me that my son had one of the top scores during tryouts. After a measured pause, he smiled out of the corner of his mouth and said, “We’re going to try to have some fun this season.” I knew this was an admission of low expectations. I surprised myself by my quick reply, “Yup, and winning is the most fun of all.”
I walked away from the encounter mentally thumbing through memories of my previous athletic experiences. I wanted to find an instance when I had fun on a losing team. I was well aware of the reason I had replied to the coach in the way I did. Winning had been something I valued as an athlete all throughout my sporting career. I had the most fun in sports when we won. In this moment of sad realization, I desperately tried to convince my adult self, through retrospective reflection, that it was possible to have fun on a losing team.
What does winning mean to us?
Victory is often times seen as the ultimate goal in sport. Success is commonly measured by ones record, endorsement deals and contract terms. There is little room for evaluation of the character of the athlete in modern sports. Lost are the concepts of hubris and arete as they were originally conceived in ancient Greece.
Professor Emeritus David Carr, from Emory University brings to our attention that we have a tendency to conflate athletic achievement with success as people. That an athlete has proven to be proficient at X in their respective sport, should not say much for their value as a person. This concept is referred to as “The Cans of Ability”. Carr goes on to further reduce that which should truly be praised by making the distinction of innate skills and acquired skills. He calls in to question our celebration of innate skills such as physical strength by conjuring up Biblical images such as Samson and Goliath. Would the story have been quite as epic had Goliath slain David? Don’t we expect the more physically superior to vanquish the weaker? Carr suggests that the deeper reason we rejoice in adulation of excellence is for the expression of qualities such as ingenuity, creativity, industry, dedication and commitment. These qualities lead to realization of one’s peak potential. I would take Carr’s sentiment one step further and say that we humans, throughout our many incarnations of civil society, have isolated such ideal qualities as a sort of Darwinian standard upon which we can best build successful civilizations.
Good vs Evil
Sport has historically provided a platform for reinforcing cultural mores about good and evil. The Ancient Greeks proved their worth (arete) through their conquests in the palaestra. The Romans reenacted complete battles using slaves to portray the foreign forces. Let us not forget the myth of the Black Knight whose exploits were so infamously recounted throughout medieval lore.
So it appears that there can be too much of a character component involved with victory. Perhaps another reason we seem to overly ascribe importance to winning is that we have historically attached such greater symbolism and meaning to it.
To the victor belong the spoils of the enemy
Joan Hundley makes her case to “put the fun and games back into fun and games.” (1983) In her essay titled, “The Overemphasis on Winning: A Philosophical Outlook”, she offers some explanations for the overemphasis on winning in our society. She borrows from play theorists, Neo-Marxists and feminist argumentation to claim that the state of modern sport has been affected by society. She therefore argues that we must change society before we can ever expect to see a shift from emphasis on winning to an emphasis on fun.
Hundley is in a sense, arguing against capitalism in the society by saying that our attitudes about winning in sport are directly related to the dog-eat-dog nature of capitalism. I wonder how she would explain the win-at-all-costs attitude so infamously prolific in the U.S.S.R. and other Eastern Bloc nations? Her attempt to blame our attitudes of winning on our Capitalist driven work ethic fails to account for fact that Capitalism, in its current form, is a relatively novel experiment. In fact, the character traits we associate with sportsmanship today were largely developed and propagated in Great Britain and her colonial territories at a time when they were the world’s superpower. The Neo-Marxist assertion that capitalism reduces sport to another form of production fails to take in to account for the fact that sport is not zero-sum. It is defined within discrete space and time. Wins and loses are only temporary and much growth can come about through struggle and the overcoming of adversity. The Neo-Marxist would not say the same about a Capitalist society. The Neo-Marxist view of Capitalism is one of zero-sum economics, unjust income disparity and class stagnation. A firm conceptualization of sport and a healthy view of winning helps to prevent such flawed leaps in logic by teaching us how to accept and persevere through perceived or real injustice.
…but if you try sometimes…you get what you need
Towards the end of the swinging 60’s, a great philosopher sang about his own youthful romanticism and pragmatic realization that “You can’t always get what you want; but if your try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.” I can’t tell you how many times I remember from my childhood, leaving a store listening to my dad sing this refrain to me after denying me some new toy or piece of sports equipment. I never did truly understand the message in the midst of the painful “injustice” of not getting what I had asked for. It was not until I developed as an athlete and experienced more triumphs and defeats that the words began to make sense to me.
Sport serves as a reminder of the inherent injustices in life. We constantly seek to equalize opportunity and access to success yet there are some unavoidable injustices that remain. Ethicist Nicholas Dixon reminds us that the “best team” does not always come out on top. (1999) There are refereeing errors, poorly structured play-off systems, luck, cheating and gamesmanship to contend with in determining the “best team”. It is our job, to the best of our ability, to seek fairness in sport without sacrificing the fundamental aspects of the game. We now have the technology through imaging, replay and complex computer models to eradicate much of the variance involved with assessment of athletic skills. If we’d like to, we could do away with the basketball game entirely and simply measure athletic skill through a series of muscle tests, vertical jump, reaction time, etc. We could develop a system that would accurately identify the “best team” without even having them set foot on a court but what good would that be?
Competition: a balance of hubris and arete
I recently witnessed the birth of my first child. In preparation, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about parenting techniques. One article that stood out to me was on the role of competitiveness in raising healthy children. There is evidence from psychological research that suggest competition can either help or hinder performance. Professor Emeritus D. Stanley Eitzen acknowledges the negative and positive aspects of competition however his tone is similar to that of Hundley in that there is a tactile discomfort with the fact that some are successful and others are not. He finds it problematic that with regards to competition, “people are sorted into a very few “winners” and many “losers.” (Eitzen, 2001) The reason provided to support categorizing this as a “negative aspect” of competition is that it threatens the self-esteem of the losers. There is a growing body of evidence that self-esteem should not be an end unto itself — especially when it is unearned (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, Vohs, 2003). We should not be uncomfortable with disparity of outcome as long as success was achieved through honorable means. Such positions as Eitzen and Hundley seem to assume a lack of integrity in both participant and system.
Our efforts to re-frame the concept of winning should be done with the knowledge that either extreme carries with it consequences that would negatively impact elements of the human spirit that are necessary for total fulfillment and self-actualization (arete). We are witnessing a shift from competition similar to the one perceived by Pierre De Coubetain in 19th century France. It is no surprise that in anticipation of the hosting of XXX Olympiad, Prime Minister Brown called for a revival of the competitive spirit:
“We need a big cultural change – a cultural change in favour of competitive sports. That’s what I think really matters.”
Western Civilization has vacillated from Stoicism to Feminism and back again yet we still find ourselves debating the true meaning of words like, “win” or “defeat”. Competition should not be the focus because as long as we are precise with our language used to evaluate skills and character, there is little chance that the players will sacrifice their humanity (hubris) for pursuit of the ultimate prize — Arete. Perhaps we would do well to contemplate what Arete would look like in today’s world for the purpose of articulating to our youth what it means to be a successful athlete. We can all strive for success but we must realize that the true measure of our success is not always illuminated high above the field of play.
- Carr, D., (1999) Where’s the Merit If the Best Man Wins? Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, XXVI, 1-9
- Hundley, J., (1983) The Overemphasis on Winning: A Philosophical Outlook. Philosophy and Sport: A Collection of New Essays, The Scarecrow Press, 177-200
- Dixon, N., (1999) On Winning and Athletic Superiority. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, XXVI, 10-26
- Eitzen, D.S., (2001) The Dark Side of Competition.
- Baumeister, R.F., Campbell, J.D., Krueger, J.I., Vohs, K.D., (2003) Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, IV, no. 1, 1-44