What is the Point of Winning in Sport?
Updated: Apr 30
What is the point of winning?
Winning is the successful overcoming of obstacles and reaching a desired goal or outcome. In order to win at soccer, one team must score one more goal than the other team within the agreed laws (rules) of the game.
That’s the definition of winning. But the purpose of something isn’t always implicit in the definition. The definition of eating is to put food into your mouth, chew it and swallow. That isn’t the purpose though; the purpose is to nourish our bodies.
Since retiring I have spent a good deal of time contemplating what exactly is the purpose of spending all those years kicking a round ball around a rectangular field, trying to get it into a rectangular net in order to ‘win’ the game.
I’d like to think there is something deeper and more meaningful there, and it isn’t as silly as it sounds. My current understanding is that, much like eating, there is a difference between the objective of the game (in this case winning by scoring one more goal) and the purpose of playing the game in the first place. Moreover, when we fail to differentiate these two things, objective and purpose, we can get ourselves into real trouble.
To focus only on the objective of soccer involves seeing the act of playing or coaching the game as an end in itself; ‘I play or coach the game in order to win the game’. In this line of thinking, winning is the sole aim. Those who concern themselves with winning in this way (as the prime target), see sport as measured through results; making a certain team, being a starter, scoring goals, winning championships, coaching records etc. This is about the pursuit of playing the ‘outer game’ of sport. The outcome of the game, in this sense, becomes the point or the fuel for the person’s participation within the activity.
This paradigm sees winning as a finite goal. A limited and temporary one that can leave the player at any given moment feeling and thinking that they have become more as a person because of what they have accomplished through the game, or less of one when they have not accomplished what they sought to do.
When the game is played in this way, it usually creates a need in people to prove themselves as an athlete or a coach. You become more through comparison and seeing yourself as bigger, stronger, faster, more technical, or smarter than others. Often this paradigm of sport is put forward as a solution to feelings of low self-worth in someone. This idea implies that if I make a specific team then I will have ‘made it,’ or that if I score a goal then I will be seen as enough.
Unfortunately I have found that when people use the ‘outer game’ as a way to feel better about themselves, it is often generated by seeing other people as less. This is the problem with this type of comparison as a basis for self-worth, it is dependent on being perceived as better than other people.
The other way of looking at the act of playing the game is to separate the objective (winning) from the purpose of playing in the first place. Or rather, to separate the objective and assign a more meaningful purpose, as a means to expand ourselves as human beings through the act and process of playing the game. It is in this process that we find the real fuel for long term participation and growth in sport. If we can develop the vision and the tools to understand that there is a greater purpose behind trying to score one more goal than your opponent, we can create an experience that generates real self-worth; rather than a flimsy shadow of it based on external accolades.
At first this may seem like a subtlety, but I have come to understand that there is a great difference between these two ways of looking at sport. It is the difference between a toxic concern for winning and a healthy concern for putting forth your best effort in order to win the game.
For the person who chooses to see sport as a means to develop their ‘inner game’ as a person, they see the purpose of sport and playing the game for reasons of self-discovery, of learning about themself as a person. For them the pursuit of the game becomes an infinite one, a game that is never ending and is about the growth and development of our inner capacities as people. The concept of the inner game involves our ability to remain centered within the moment-to-moment of present action. Of course, it is not easy and involves our continual effort.
This form of the game also involves feeling good about yourself in a way that is not dependent on whether or not you win the game. Instead, it comes from a place of seeing your self-worth just the way you are. You begin to compare yourself to who you were yesterday, and feel good because of your own growth and development and not because you view yourself as being better than your opponent or teammate.
Sport provides us with many challenges and these challenges stand in the way of us attempting to win the game. We can see the other team as our opponent and treat them as the bad guys or we can see them as a valuable resource for us to learn about ourselves, of where we currently are as a player and how we currently are as a person. I value the obstacle that the opponent creates by placing themselves between me and the goal of ‘winning the game.’ As I try my best to win, this process unearths and forces me to confront these obstacles, which in reality are mostly within myself. It transforms a simple game into a journey of self-discovery, an exploration of our own growth and capacity as a human being. The opponent is helping us to see exactly where we are as a human being at that moment.
Do we choose to take the field to prove we are better than everyone else? Or do we take the field to test ourselves as human beings? One is a path to anxiety and unhappiness, one a chance to expand and fulfill our potential.
This has been an essential teaching for me, not only in my participation in sport but also in any task or interaction that I am involved in, to see and understand the difference between these two very different paths in life.