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What is the Point of Winning in Sport?

What is the point of winning?

To win a game of (fill-in-the-blank), a person or a team must overcome the obstacles which stand between them and their objective. For example, within the sport of soccer, one team must score one more goal than the other team within the agreed laws (rules) of the game.

Since retiring, I have spent a good deal of time contemplating the purpose of spending all those years kicking a round ball around a rectangular field, trying to get it into a rectangular net 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 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 between these two things, objective and purpose, we can get ourselves into real trouble.

Focusing 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 to win it. 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. In this sense, the outcome of the game becomes the point or fuel for the person's participation in 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 achieved what they sought to do.

When the game is played in this way, people need to prove themselves as an athlete or a coach. You become more through comparison and seeing yourself as more significant, stronger, faster, more technical, or more innovative 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, I will have 'made it,' or that if I score a goal, I will be seen as enough.

Unfortunately, I have found that when people use the 'outer game to feel better about themselves, it is often generated by seeing others 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 to expand ourselves as human beings through the act and process of playing the game. In this process, we find the natural fuel for long-term participation and growth in the 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 our 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 subtle, but I understand that there is a significant difference between these two ways of looking at sports. It is the difference between a toxic concern for winning and a healthy concern for putting forth your best effort to win the game.

The person who sees sport as a means to develop their 'inner game' knows 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 without end and about the growth and development of their inner capacities.

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 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 growth and development, 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 our attempt 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 to learn about ourselves, where we currently are as a player and how we are as a person. I value the obstacle 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 are primarily within myself. It transforms a simple game into a journey of self-discovery, an exploration of our growth and capacity as human beings. The opponent is helping us to see exactly where we are as human beings at that moment.

Do we choose to take the field to prove we are better than everyone else? Or do we take the area to test ourselves as human beings? One is a path to anxiety and unhappiness; one is a chance to expand and fulfill our potential.

This has been essential teaching for me, not only in my participation in sport but also in any task or interaction I am involved in, to see and understand the difference between these two very different paths in life.

With sincere respect,

Photo by Ray Shum

Andrea Neil

Founder of Andrea Neil Coaching and

The Coaching Compass

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