In his book Homo Ludens, translated to “Playing Man”, Johann Huizinga examines the idea and importance of play in modern society. He characterizes the idea of play as being:
While many people, including myself, believe that Huizinga’s definition of play is very accurate, I feel that one component of his description brings up a very controversial question: Is play actually non-competitive? According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, “competitive” is defined as, “of or relating to a situation in which people or groups are trying to win a contest or be more successful than others.” In the eyes of Eric Dunning, play is indeed non-competitive. In his book The Dynamics of Modern Sport: Notes on Achievement-Striving and the Social Significance of Sport, he argues that as competitiveness increases, so does seriousness and that as competitiveness decreases, the fun increases. Typically, we associate play as something we do during leisure time or for fun. However, that in no way, shape, or form means that play cannot be both fun AND competitive.
I have been playing both competitive and pick-up sports for as long as I can remember. Whether it was youth soccer, basketball, or football or just playing a game of pick-up basketball at the park with my friends, sports in general were always my number one source for leisure. However, for some reason I always enjoyed the league games more. As I look back on it, the competitive nature of the organized league games made them that much more exciting than the unorganized, often chaotic games in the park with my friends.
Take basketball for example. The intensity of the league games was just that much higher because there was a title to be named the best team on the line, as opposed to pick-up games where play often turned into joking and messing around. As an athlete, specifically someone who thrives off competitiveness, I always had more fun when there was pressure on the line, even though the games were more serious. My competitive nature only fueled me for the next level: high school sports.
In high school, I played four years of varsity tennis. While there were many days that I didn’t feel like practicing on the court or running several miles, the competitiveness of high school tennis in Florida always drove me to improve my game. And even though my body hated me at the end of the workouts, the joy of winning made it that much more fun and worth it in the end. Anyone who has played a high school sport knows that the competitiveness increases as the state tournament progresses. For me, nothing compared to playing in the state quarterfinals. The competition between my opponent and me pushed me to play that much better. And even though I lost the match, there was nothing more FUN than playing at the highest level of high school tennis.
I have made it clear that as the level of play increases, so does competitiveness. In other words, high school sports are more competitive than youth sports, collegiate sports are more competitive than high school sports, and so on. But does this mean that as an athlete improves at a sport, the fun in the sport decreases? When watching college and professional sports, I find it hard to believe that the athletes are not enjoying themselves when playing. While the practices may be brutal and the grind of the season may seem long, there is nothing sweeter or more enjoyable than holding up the championship trophy at the end of the season. And even if that doesn’t happen, which it doesn’t for every team except one, the pure love of the game is often enough. And besides, you can’t tell me Dennis Norfleet isn’t having fun while dancing to “Atomic Dog” before he takes a punt return. I am aware that there a group of college and pro athletes who play their sport just because they are talented and that they will get something out of it such as a scholarship or monetary worth, but I believe that most athletes are playing for the love of the game as well. Sports in general are supposed to be fun, and the competitiveness of the sport shouldn’t change that.
Michael Jordan, six time NBA champion and one of the most competitive athletes to ever live, once said “Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game.” This quote comes from a man who put more hours on the practice court than anyone, a man who wanted to win more than anyone, a man who played his best basketball when the pressure was highest. But just because he was that competitive, does not mean he didn’t have more fun than everyone else while doing it. Some people live for competition, and Michael Jordan and myself are a few of those people.
While Dunning and Huizinga wrote that play is non-competitive, I believe they are only speaking for a part of the population. Many people do not have an inner-drive for competition, and that is completely acceptable. But for us athletes, play is synonymous with competition for all intensive purposes. What is a basketball game or tennis match without a little competitive fire?
Game on anybody?