Sports – Blessing or Curse?

This past winter our family went to a college hockey game. It was a blast. Lots of noise, crazy cheering, some unsportsmanlike booing, and a lot of social chatter. And, we got to watch twelve hockey players perform their always (to me) stunning combination of grace, speed, synergy, and tussle. One of the players’ mothers is a friend of mine, so we even had a team to root for.

I’ve loved sports all my life. In fact when Covid first hit in March 2020, it did not register with me until I heard that the University of Minnesota had canceled its entire spring sports season. My jaw dropped and I actually felt shaky.  For the first time I imagined the immensity of a problem that would generate this level of response. But even aside from that: how could we possibly live without sports? Our neighbor Jessie, who became a pride of the town placing first as a national discus thrower, never got to throw the disc her crowning senior year.

Just like in theater, where we happily “suspend our disbelief”  that the world being acted out in front of us is real, in sports we temporarily and eagerly engage ourselves in the belief that it DOES matter who wins. And how thrilling that is for those of us with that competitive gene. 

We know there are competitions in the spiritual world, and sometimes I think what I see here begins to mirror those events. With daughters who run and ski, we have become fixtures at cross country, nordic ski, and track meets. It’s amazing to watch runners mutually improve as they pit themselves against each other in practice, rising and rising to new heights of strength and endurance as they prepare to face the opponents from other teams. Around here, when two runners sprint for the finish line and cross close together they never check the scoreboard first. It’s the parents who try to figure out who won; the athletes simply embrace. 

Our daughters are highly competitive runners. They have experienced success and failure, felt elation and disappointment, and worked to exhaustion. All of which is why sports builds character. 

I’ve wondered, though, about the effect sports has on parents. Sports seem to showcase parents at their worst! If their children do well, they can be puffed with barely concealed pride, or even conceit. If they fail, parents can be crushed–or worse, miffed, at the athlete, the ref, the coach, or even the weather.

But surely cheering for your kids isn’t all bad! There is also a simple love of children in there. When I glance behind me in the stands at the spectators, I can tell which children are running by their parents’ eyes. It’s clear that their love, their hopes, their dreams, are tied up in this race, for better or for worse. 

I think it’s important for parents of athletes to continually check themselves. Competition handily engages our propriums, our love of ourselves. There is no guarantee that sports will be used for good.  Sports is like politics–very tied up in power. It’s so easy to slip into some hellish thinking, feeling, and even acting out of pride, humiliation, or self-righteousness. 

Yet it is so much fun to cheer for our kids! And to be happy when they win in small and big ways, and disappointed when they lose or fall short of hopes and expectations. 

At the end of Heaven and Hell there is a section on equilibrium.  Everything needs resistance. Every heavenly society has a corresponding hellish society.  I don’t get all this, and I’m not suggesting that one team is “heavenly” while the other is “hellish” in real life. But I wonder if engaging in this way, whether actually or in spirit (from the stands), is satisfying something that Swedenborg is talking about. Overcoming evil is something we all need to do, sometimes against seemingly terrible odds. And without resistance, there is no victory. Without someone to compete against, sports are no fun at all.

The best analogy I ever heard for the necessity for us to be left in freedom as a law of Divine Providence came from Curtis Childs on “Off the Left Eye.” “It’s like this,” he said (to my memory). “Imagine that you play a great baseball game, and you win, and it’s a hard won game. Then after the game, you learn that your grandparents in the stands had paid off the competition. The whole thing was a charade. Wouldn’t you rather have played the game, for real? We all want to be in the real game. We want the freedom to be living our lives, to be choosing the good. Having the choices made for us saps our life away.”

About Katya Gordon

Katya Goodenough Gordon lives in Two Harbors, Minnesota, just a block from the north shore of Lake Superior. She has lived in this picturesque setting since 2008 when she and her family completed their first yearlong voyage living aboard a sailboat. Aside from home, marriage, and family, she is an author and reporter, a radio show host, a climate activist, and an active member of the United Church of Two Harbors. Born and bred in Bryn Athyn, PA, she is increasingly aware of and grateful for the ideas instilled in her childhood from Swedenborg's Writings, and always looking for ways to spread these life-giving truths in her community and beyond.

3 thoughts on “Sports – Blessing or Curse?

  1. As a mom and grandmother of very sporty children this article really resonated with me. Great article

  2. I like sports too and always enjoyed seeing our kids and grandkids playing – win or lose but playing with heart. But sometimes I was disturbed by the parent’s behavior like Katya was. And it was hard that some kids always did well and some always did poorly no matter how hard they tried. So, we thought we would try to find other ways to play sometimes in sports or other games.

    Our family experimented with playing cooperatives games. Some of those we found were boring. But we looked at games we played competitively and experimented with playing them cooperatively to see if they could be fun that way. And some worked very well.

    For example, in volleyball or badminton trying to keep the ball or birdie up as long as possible by hitting right to the people on the other side instead of trying to hit where they weren’t. We would try to beat our record number of times rather than the other team.

    In Scrabble or Upwards we all showed our letters and played to set up the next players and see how many neat words we could make together. The nice thing about this is that everyone is engaged all the time and not sitting there just waiting for their turn. We did the same thing with Chinese Checkers setting up bridges for each other and seeing how quickly we could all get our marbles across the board. Again, everyone was engaged all the time and everyone was helping each other.

    This is not to say that we never played competitive games but we had a balance. However, in the cooperative games there was no one yelling or angry – everyone was helping each other and happy when another did well.

    I suppose this could be considered avoiding the issue instead of addressing it but it was nice to have a balance between competition and cooperation. It is like the equilibrium Katya referenced.

    We also enjoyed seeing the 4-H displays at the state fair where they were evaluated against a standard and not against each other. So, you could see many blue ribbons but they were meaningful because they were working toward a standard and either meeting it or not. That is one way of handling competition.

    Another way some have tried to handle competition and make everyone happy is to give out trophies or ribbons to everyone on each team regardless of how they did. This just makes the trophy or ribbon sort of meaningless since it doesn’t reflect real growth or effort.

    As Katya noted, it is all very challenging but useful to address.

    Thanks, Katya.

  3. Thanks for this Kathy! Your comments about volleyball reminded me of “peppering,” which I did with my daughters hoping that they would fall in love with volleyball (which they didn’t do, at least not enough to join the team). Back-and-forth, counting how high you can get before the ball drops. It’s a standard volleyball warmup and SO much fun. Also I remembered how when I used to play competitively, there was in the best games a very cooperative “aura.” When the plays went on and on, and the teams were so well matched, and as the end drew near the intensity and the length of plays grew, as everyone worked harder and harder together! I remember the end of those games, not caring much who won, the game itself was so fabulous! And I remember feeling a little foolish about that, like I couldn’t really explain out loud that I didn’t really care if we had won or lost.

    But when I coached volleyball later (briefly), and I remember after a game ended one of the captains went to her spot behind the line to serve up the next ball, and I realized she did not know that the game was over, so intent was she on the playing. Afterwards I told her how much that meant to me, to see her completely absorbed in the game itself, nothing about her ego or the team’s record allowed.


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