For the Love of the Game (And the Player)

How Could Sports (and Life) Possibly Be Fun?

Sam Bush / 8.23.21

Most of us have been shaped by memories of playing sports as kids. They’re often the first time people experience individual success and personal failure. Thankfully, the stakes are low with youth sports, but the times when it felt like everything was on the line are likely to leave an impression. I’m still haunted by the memory of ending a Little League game by striking out with the bases loaded. Arbitrary as it may be, it was the first time I felt like I had let people down. These times can be hardest when we feel as if we have failed to meet the expectations of others.

A poignant look at sports and expectations was Motoko Rich’s Olympics article in the New York Times, “Second Best in the World, but Still Saying Sorry” about how a significant number of Japanese athletes publicly and uncontrollably wept after competing and falling short of a gold medal. The article features a member of the Japanese wrestling team “crying so hard that he could barely get the words out” calling his silver medal a “shameful result” and apologizing as if he had been found guilty of a crime. According to Takuya Yamazaki, a Japanese lawyer, athletes “are not really supposed to think they are playing sports for themselves. Especially in childhood, there are expectations from adults, teachers, parents or other senior people. So it’s kind of a deeply rooted mind-set.” Kind of, you say?

Americans may not cry over silver medals, but there’s certainly the expectation to perform — whether it’s the Olympics or middle school field hockey. The competitive nature of sports creates concentric circles of pressure and stress well beyond the playing field. There are coaches to please, helicopter parents to appease, peers to impress, and scholarships to be won. The love of the game easily distorts into the desire to win. With so much riding on games of inches, how could sports possible be fun?

Two former coaches once conducted a survey  over the course of three decades, interviewing hundreds of college athletes. They asked ever player about their worst memory from playing sports as a kid and, by far, the response was, “The ride home from games with my parents.” The post-game analysis (i.e. criticism) where parents rehashed the game with them. “Why didn’t you pass the ball?” or “That was a great play.” Even if the parent’s judgments was directed elsewhere — “The ump was totally biased!” or “I can’t believe the coach didn’t put you in the starting lineup!” — any critique from the parent was enough to suggest that they were more invested in the outcome of the game than their child.

By contrast, the coaches asked those same college athletes what their parents said that encouraged them and helped them enjoy their sport the most. At the top of the list (by a long shot) was the simple statement, “I love to watch you play.” One of the coaches who organized the study also noted that young athletes especially enjoyed having their grandparents watch them perform because “grandparents are more content than parents to simply enjoy watching the child participate,” whereas a parent might offer advice or become too invested in the child’s performance. The greater the expectation of performance, the less an athlete enjoyed playing the game.

I’d be hard-pressed to find a more gracious and encouraging word to someone than “I love to watch you play,” nor one that expresses such delight. At its essence, the statement is pure gospel. It is the expression of love for another no matter the outcome. It asks nothing in return, but finds joy and pleasure in someone else as they are. And it is precisely God’s word to us (i.e. the players of the world). If play is an allegory for life, God isn’t keeping score or measuring performance. He is exercising a pure benevolence independent of evaluation. In short, “I love to watch you play” is just a fresh take on saying “I love you” to someone.

In the game of life, people naturally divide themselves between winners and losers. But the great irony is that both groups are equally under the law of scorekeeping and meritocracy. Just because you win doesn’t mean you’re free. Thus, praise is equal to criticism: it just builds expectations. Even if said with good intentions, telling a child that they’re good at tennis can be translated into, “You must be good at tennis (or else).” What’s intended as encouragement just keeps them on the treadmill of success. In some cases, it can even crank up the speed a few notches. “I love to watch you play,” however, is entirely focused on the person at hand. Win or lose, the person is the priority.

Something is imputed when this kind of unconditional love is given. When the person’s enoughness is paid upfront, there is no pressure to prove oneself and all the more space to live life more fully. When a husband says he loves his wife’s voice, his wife will sing more around the house. When a mother says she loves to watch her toddler dance, the child will dance ten times sillier and more passionately. When love is given regardless of worthiness, it engenders the very thing it commands.

So it goes with God. We are loved before we think, speak or do. We are loved before we win and we are loved after we lose. Love, you see, does not hinge on human action, but on God’s own being. God does not love people because of what they’ve done but because He is love incarnate. In other words, He loves because He is love.

God delights in us with the same kind of pride and joy of a grandparent watching his grandchild play Little League baseball. He isn’t concerned about whether we get a hit or strike out. He’s just thrilled that we exist at all and is experiencing all of life’s joys and struggles. Win or lose, he just loves to watch us play.