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What we learn from sports

The merits of athletic competition have long been debated. They include:

Sports generate good feelings. Says social psychologist Marty Bourgeois, "We want to feel good about ourselves. I think sports give us a chance to do that. When our team wins, we are by extension a good person." An Arizona State University professor reports, Bourgeois says, that students wear more ASU paraphernalia on Monday following a football win than they do following a loss. Explains Bourgeois: "When the team wins, people are apt to say, 'We won.' When the team loses, they tend to say, 'They lost.' "

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Sports teaches participants about defeat. Terry Orlick wrote "In Pursuit of Excellence" and in it says, "A refined ability to learn from failure and to grow through losses is necessary to achieve excellence in any human endeavor." One of the few givens in life is if a person chooses to participate in a sport, that person at some time will lose.

Sports teaches about coping with pressure. Former pro basketball great Bill Russell has talked about "being able to do what you do best under maximum pain and stress." Sports can be a hothouse for this kind of development.

Athletes learn about taking risks. One of the best all-time quotes seen on refrigerators is by Andr Gide: "Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore." Almost all great athletes have lost sight of the shore or else they'd spend their lives working on tugboats.

Sports give us heroes. There's nothing wrong with that, other than bitter experience teaches that too many have clay feet. Wrote a philosopher, "The gods are dead; the pygmies prevail." Bourgeois says heroes are created because "we watch people do things that we can do, but we just don't happen to be as good as they are at it." Nobody understands this better than a novice who has tried to hit a three wood out of the rough on a golf course, then watches how Tiger Woods does it.

Fairness remains important. A level playing field is still generally lauded, and cheating is looked down upon. An ill-gotten victory is long remembered and never celebrated.

Conversely, the downsides of sport are clear:

Sports can be dangerous. Bourgeois has reservations about sports like boxing, auto racing, or "any sport that puts people's lives at danger. They are sports which can be fun, but they can lead to death." Yet, he concedes, "People differ in sensation seeking."

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Sports can be too violent. Bourgeois says research shows that youngsters who watch violent sport are more apt to go out and be more violent. In one study, Bourgeois says, homicide rates show increases after major boxing matches. An old theory, Bourgeois says, is that vicarious participation in violence makes people "less likely to act on their impulses." He shakes his head sadly: "It's an elegant theory, but research suggests the opposite is true." Further, he frets sports will become even more violent because there always seem to be people who will pay to watch.

Sportsmanship is declining. It used to be a central part of sports. No more. Taunting is in. Indeed, one of Bourgeois's students, Paul Chojnacky, from Glenrock, Wyo., doesn't think young people put any importance on sportsmanship. "It's a virtue," he says, "that has died out."

Individuals can overshadow teams. "There's more of a focus on individual accomplishments these days," Bourgeois says. "More, 'Hey, didn't I do something great?' as opposed to, 'Didn't I do something great for my team?' "

Sports can become addictive. Author William Baker writes, "Sports tend to whet competitive impulses to an addictive level that is useful for career building but potentially damaging to the more personal realms of friendship, marriage, and family."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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