Spending the weekend playing many games of water polo got me thinking, why do athletes bother? What is it that makes them go to hours of training, and put their bodies under all kinds of strain, to play a game that ultimately has no lasting significance? Let me say off the bat, (horrible pun) that I am an athlete, and I am under no circumstances saying that sports are stupid, but I do question my own motivation to run 26.2 miles or get into a pool where the laws of civilized society disappear and it becomes appropriate to scratch and drown the opposing team.
Bernard Suits wrote a playful dialogue called “The Grasshopper” that laid a serious foundation for sport metaphysics. Suits defined a game as the “voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”, and noted as its necessary components:
(1) a “prelusory goal” also known as the “object of the game”
(2) constitutive rules which forbid the most efficient means toward the goal
(3) a “lusory attitude,” that is the players’ conscious acceptance of rules which makes the game possible.
So far so good. If you look at Suits’ analysis you can see how he draws sports into a general metaphysical attitude of existence on earth, that we as humans have some made-up ambition to make an impact in our short time (goal), which then combines with our ethical beliefs (constitutive rules) and our acceptance of our society or world as having inherent and unchangeable rules (attitude), all of which lead us to participate in, for lack of better terminology, the game of life (not the board-game, that’s just silly).
We’ve all seen this done before, a specific sport becomes an analogy for life, being an individual participating in a larger team, using your emotions to fuel your game but not letting them get the best of you, etc., etc. Indeed, one of sports’ claims to fame is that in participating we are also taught “skills for life”. This being said, normally rules of decency don’t apply when it comes to competition. Guys grab each other with no fear of being called homosexual, the idea of personal space is gone, and realistically you break the rules as long as you can get away with it. So maybe sports aren’t teaching us the best lessons when it comes to our social interaction.
However, it teaches you something about yourself. The agonizing pain, the endless training leading up to a competition, it’s in pushing yourself past what you previously considered your limit to see just how far physically and mentally you can go.
I would argue that the best way to get to introspection is to be an athlete, especially a long-distance swimmer or a runner. You’re by yourself, left to your own thoughts and strengths, and that’s when you figure out what you’re really made of (I don’t mean that in the common usage, but the metaphysical usage). It’s a chance to discover the simultaneous strengths and weakness of humanity as you will your body to continue while your mind questions why you even bother.
So if individual sports teach you metaphysics, then team sports teach you ontology; how you relate to other beings, not just your essence. To succeed it’s about the interaction and utilizing the difference strengths and weaknesses to achieve a common goal. The fact that this goal is illusory is beyond the point. All of our goals are essentially unnecessary and of our own making. So while I’m questioning why I bother swimming/running, etc. it should lead to the general question of why do I bother doing anything at all.
Living is all down to our self-motivation, and we make arbitrary choices and create “illusory goals” in everything we do. While this makes them less “real” in a metaphysical sense it doesn’t in a sociological sense, it’s just a part of existence, because if we aren’t working towards anything, then really our existence becomes its negation non-existence, which brings us to the whole issue of negation as not nothing … oh dear … it seems we have approached the post-modern theory of slippage, and absence as implying presence … time to resign any attempt at theory and lose myself in some pointless athletic endeavor.