I was never very much of a sports guy. By “sports guy” I mean someone who either follows organized sports passionately or participates directly. I’ve dabbled in lifting weights, skateboarding, bicycling, and jogging, all of which can be competitive, but for exercise rather than competition. At various times I’ve played tennis and table tennis, both of which I find to be great fun. I enjoyed watching the Seahawks win, at least up until the time they didn’t win. I was quite smitten by the UFC when it started, for multiple reasons. On one level it was pure violent spectacle: THERE ARE NO RULES! On a more sublime level it seemed like a genuine scientific experiment in which the competing claims of the various disciplines of martial arts could be tested against one another. I still watch it from time to time, but my interest in coughing up the pay-per-view dollars has waned.
Growing up I developed a sort of anti-jock mentality. My father taught law at the University of Montana, and was very critical of the emphasis on University sponsored sports. Honestly I’ve never followed the arguments carefully, but suffice it to say I was indoctrinated from an early age that organized sports were not the highest and most virtuous human accomplishments. I still hold that belief. When I was in about the third grade I gained weight, though by today’s standards I’d be quite “normal.” For whatever reason I was not “naturally” athletic at that time. Childhood being what it is this difference quickly becomes a stratification of human value. I was the kid with the big vocabulary who was really into science.
By the time I was in about the 7th or 8th grade I was playing lots of table tennis with my friends. I quite enjoyed that, and became competitive, at least with my other friends who played. I spent a fair bit of leisure time doing this, at least until I was in college when drinking beer in bars became more profound.
Several years ago I discovered that there was a table tennis club in Bellevue. It was sort of expensive, but I drove there almost every night. Being that Seattle has a large Asian population, the club was chock-full of VERY good players, almost all of whom were vastly better than me. Nevertheless, I was able to find people to play with that had a similar level of skill, which made things fun. In a setting like that, it becomes genuine exercise!
At the time I was employed in a metal fabrication plant in Seattle. During the lunch hour we would set up a table tennis table and play. Since a bunch of guys wanted to play, we would always play doubles. One Russian man was about as good as I was, and we were the top two players. We were never team mates. Sounds like a fun way to spend the lunch hour, doesn’t it? Yeah, except for the intrusion of what I’ll call “sports mode.”
I had a supervisor who was a genuinely good guy. He was smart, and unlike most of the pipe fitters and many of the welders, he was not an ex-con. He was an excellent boss, and saw to it that I was allowed to progress as a welder. His management style was not “hard ass” like the man he had replaced, which was a very welcome change. At lunch he would play table tennis with the rest of us, though he was not particularly good. He partnered with the Russian pipe fitter. What began to make playing un-fun for me was that he would transition from mellow, decent, boss into “sports mode” which is my name for “talking trash” or “talking shit.” He would find some rumor or personal scuttlebutt to talk about during play to “rattle” me. I found this weird and off-putting, as I always thought of table tennis as one of those games like tennis in which you intentionally ~compliment~ your opponent; “nice shot” you say…
So at this point I need to apologize for why this essay is not simply an account of petty aggrievement. On a fundamental level, what makes participation in sports fun? Yes, winning is fun, but it’s entirely possible to have fun IN THE MOMENT during the game, rather than simply at the end. Biomechanical actions like exercise and sports can act as platforms for the meditative experience of “flow.” I can get into this state while walking, at least some of the time, for moments at least. Sam Harris uses the example of surfing, and the same can be said of many sports. The “runner’s high” may be a matter of the intense focus on the biomechanics of motion, and the enforced concentration on the joints and muscles. The swing of a tennis racket or table tennis racket that results in a well placed shot can be a moment of “flow.”
Yet our society embraces, to various degrees, the very behavior that is antithetical to “flow” which is “trash talk.” You see this openly in martial arts like the UFC or boxing. Muhammad Ali is venerated for his skill at this behavior. It’s openly celebrated in the NFL. Ronda Rousey of the UFC appeared as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter “reality” TV show. She defeated her opponent Miesha Tate in a climbing contest. As she reached the top she screamed out to Tate “Fuck You!”
Instead of arguing whether this behavior constitutes “good sportsmanship” I offer you a thought experiment instead. Imagine that you’re married, or that someone close to you is cooking dinner. You hover over them in the kitchen and “talk shit.” You create imaginative scenarios in which they ruin the food, by a variety of means. You second guess how much of certain ingredients they use. You question their esthetic judgement in the utensils they own and use. You mock the biomechanics of how they use a knife. “Hey, don’t cut yourself!” You berate their knife sharpening skills. And so on. Now ask yourself, does this promote human thriving? Loving human interactions? Does “sports mode” in the kitchen allow someone you care about to enter the state of “flow” and experience moments of meditative bliss?
Lest I be dismissed as a sports-hating egghead, why have we as a society tolerated the denigration of athletic fun through “trash talk” in a way which we would not tolerate in other spheres of human behavior? I simply like moments of “flow” during exercise and competition, and wish the same sort of joy for those with whom I participate. I think “sports mode” is bullshit.