Jim McKay succinctly described the range of emotions inherent in competition in the intro to The Wide World of Sports when he said: “The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.” But is this not a microcosm of life? In our lives we experience many highs and lows, and the lessons learned as a participant and fan of athletics can teach us so much about how to demonstrate class, humility, and graciousness in the highs, and grit and perseverance during the lows.
There are many benefits for our mental health to be gained by being involved in sports. As a participant, it teaches us many things. In addition to the obvious benefits to our physical health, it teaches us how to be part of a team. To value others above ourselves. To sacrifice for the common good. In baseball, for example, there is a strategy called a sacrifice. When a batter lays down a sacrifice bunt, he deliberately gives himself up so his teammate can advance into scoring position. When returning to the dugout, he is celebrated with more enthusiasm than if he had gotten a hit himself. Being on a team gives us a sense of belonging, a feeling of connection with others. It provides an authentic opportunity to work together in search of a common goal. One common and practical example is a student enrolling in a new school. By being a member of a team for the new school, she is instantly welcomed into a community where her successes will be celebrated and she will be supported in her struggles. It inflames a sense of loyalty and belonging.
Participating in all sports, even those that are individualistic, builds character in other ways. It teaches us resilience and perseverance. Many common expressions describing those attributes have their origin in sports. For example, the expression “answering the bell,” which means continuing to persevere in the face of adversity, comes from boxing. When returning to one’s corner after getting beat up, a boxer has one minute to rest, after which a bell rings to start the next round. It is difficult to answer that bell, to re engage in a fight that one is losing. But boxers are celebrated for answering that bell, for continuing to battle even in the face of pain. This is true in life, after a difficult day at work or school, it can be hard to even get out of bed the next morning. But that is what we must do, answer the bell.
Sports teach us to respect our opponents. To accept the results of a hard fight. One beautiful tradition in sports is the handshake line at the end of a playoff series in hockey. Even after a hard fought competition, the winners and losers put aside celebration and consolation to pay their respects to one another by shaking hands. We learn empathy, knowing how hard our opponents worked and even in our joy, consoling them in their disappointment. Who can ever forget the little league player, who, after getting hit in the head with a pitch, walked off of first base to console the pitcher who was in tears. Another beautiful moment and lesson to us all.
Even as a fan many of these benefits are evident. Just like a participant on a team, being a fan gives you a sense of community and shared experience. You experience, as Mr. McKay said, the joys of victory and the agonies of defeat, together. You never have to do it alone. Sports fandom brings together schools, communities, cities, even countries. Some of our fondest memories are from going to or watching games with our moms and dads, our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters.
Sports, as a participant or as a fan, gives us an outlet; a healthy escape from the stresses and anxieties of everyday life. When kept in proper perspective, it can make us better, healthier people and positively affect us physically and emotionally. It helps develop our character and our spirit. The lessons learned through sports can be applied to life, and in many ways, more effectively than anything else.
Sports. There’s nothing like it.