Sport is a model of life. It is like a mirror, reflecting the society’s ills and triumphs and often amplifying them, like a lens. Like any other model, sport is also a tool: it is a means to an end. And hence, its virtues tend to be coloured - and often confused - with the “ends” themselves.
The commercialisation of sport has replaced its politicisation during the Cold War era - but the resulting hyper-pressures remain and keep distorting its original core values. The ever-increasing premium on winning keeps raising the temptation to violate the principles of fair play.
As a result, the public may hear about a string of doping scandals and conclude “all is rotten” in this field of human endeavour. Or we may learn about less than dignified conduct of a sporting luminary - and jump into superficial moralising along the lines of “these are a bunch of spoilt brats - how can they possibly be role models?” This is where it’s important to keep things in perspective.
Apart from being a reflection of fluctuating social practices, sport has its own, quite stable intrinsic properties that keep me optimistic about its core virtues. And true sporting heroes do represent these virtues, I believe, rather well. By and large, they occupy their limelight position on merit. Their strength, endurance and agility are unmistakingly the fruits of dedicated effort and certainly not a “lottery win”.
I will argue that it’s not what meets the eye in their physical excellence that matters (though impressive it might be!). The spoils that such excellence affords are another matter altogether. Far more important is what brings it about - the inner strength and dedication stemming from boundless love for what they do. And that’s a good enough model to follow. After all, it’s up to us which models we choose to derive from the stories of our sporting heroes - the cynical, regurgitating their weaknesses, or constructive, focusing on the core virtues that are “bound to be found” in each of those stories if you read them well.
For example, it is hard to reconcile - especially for the inexperienced - the astronomical earnings most sporting stars enjoy with their love for their sport. Remuneration in professional sport is a big issue. When I hear, as a sport psychologist, an envious remark from a budding champ along the lines of, “If only I earned THAT much, it’d be so easy to be the best!”, I can’t help but remind them that the only way to “earn THAT much” is to enjoy doing it for nothing.
Psychologists and educators have known all along that no amount of incentives can match intrinsic interest in breeding excellence. This intrinsic interest - “for the love of it” - is what makes you practice mega-hours with no respect for any external evaluation or reward. And these mega-hours get overlooked by too many of the general public. Practice doesn’t make for a good media story, and it takes retirement for our superstars like Andrew Gaze (see "The Gaze plan for success" in Diners Club Spring 2005 Newsletter) to admit that there is no substitute for it. An average Jo Bloggs’ lack of first-hand experience with regular training makes athletic success all too easy in his eyes.
On the other hand, let’s assume that we’ve convinced our Jo Bloggs that massive practice is a requirement - and you can’t achieve it without the love for what you practice. How do you cultivate this love? It doesn’t materialise out of thin air: it requires multiple opportunities and a licence to fail or opportunities to switch sports at the initial stages (our widely differing talents take trial-and-error to discover). This discovery is, by and large, left to individuals and families. A culture of optional PE in schools and “user pays” attitudes to community sport both disadvantage all but the already dedicated. In this context, abandoning compulsory school PE and state-sponsored community sport seems like throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Let’s turn to the positives though. Sport is widely acknowledged as a strong character builder. And that includes being conducive to the development of adaptive skills, sound values and positive attitudes and dispositions. Ample evidence exists linking committed sport participation to growth in motivation, self-discipline and self-respect. Developing physical prowess becomes secondary - a natural medium for character development.
This original, undistorted idea of sport as a meaningful, dignified pursuit of physical excellence can be traced back to the ancient Olympics and to the various traditions of martial arts. In this form, sport is meant to trigger the best in every person who cares to take it up, to elicit “their best” to the maximum, and to encourage it to grow further.
Consider the influence of soccer on generations of underprivileged youth in Brazil, or that of basketball in the US or distance running in Kenya. The massive positive impact these sports have in their respective countries can never be matched, I believe, by any government intervention.
So what is it that makes sport a positive influence? First, it teaches you to value learning and to appreciate the slow growth of strength and competence, i.e. “earning your stripes”, rather than “demanding you rights”. It also teaches you that strength and competence are tools to be used wisely, and their growth depends emphatically on your own effort and commitment. Attributing this growth - as well as most other "happenings” in your life - to your own effort is well known to psychologists as a key personal quality - “locus of control” that lies at the very foundation of responsibility as a character trait.