Who Says Competitive Sports Are No Fun?

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:

  1. Disinterested
  2. Voluntary
  3. Separate
  4. Uncertain
  5. Governed by rules
  6. Non-competitive

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.

youth basketball league

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.

pick-up basketball

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?

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4 thoughts on “Who Says Competitive Sports Are No Fun?

  1. Nice blog! I really enjoyed reading about your interpretation of “play.” I do agree that sports can be competitive, and that competition increases the level of satisfaction participants experience when playing. Although sports can be perceived as “competitive,” do they really fit an appropriate definition? In my opinion, sports truly are not competitive. I feel competition to be a characteristic strictly applied to the allocation of goods or benefits. Competition implies survival. There has never been an instance in modern athletics where sports have been a necessary means of surviving or fighting for resources such as food, water, shelter, or even power. Yes, many sports teams generate revenue but does that mean that there is competition involved? Yet, from another point of view, sports do embody this strict interpretation of competition. Many people participate in sports for self-improvement, rivaling the likes of statistics and time. An example of this would be cross country or arguably golf. In these games, you are competing directly with yourself. The problem occurs in understanding the ways are you benefiting by competing with yourself. In my eyes, emotional prizes such as pride do not count as being appropriate examples.

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  2. Very interesting post! I, like you believe that competitiveness is most definitely part of play for the majority of people. Not on purpose however, and I believe that play is possible without competition, but I believe especially today that in most cases, play becomes competitive over time. Like in a game of pick up basketball, the point originally may not be to win but as time goes on you may often find yourself trying to win or at least score more points than the next person. Contrary to the beliefs of the commenter above, I do believe that competition in sports today does mean some sort of survival. With the new implementation of the college football playoffs. Teams are playing to survive in that four team bracket and keep their chances Alive to win the national championship. I also liked the video of Dennis Norfleet dancing in your post as at that game he was a reminder that although game has evolved to be more about competition, maybe we should return the focus back to fun.

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  3. I loved your blog post. I also believe that competition is what drives people to success in sports. If a prize is present at the end of a game, players will do whatever it takes to win the game. I personally do not think I have ever played a pick up game in any sport that does not end in everyone fooling around. Contrary to this instance, I played varsity tennis for 4 years, and joking around would have us kicked off the team. Also, I believe in any form of competition, “play” will always be involved. At the end of the day, competition in any form is fun, and should be deemed as “play”. When you wrote, “In other words, high school sports are more competitive than youth sports, collegiate sports are more competitive than high school sports, and so on.” I couldn’t help but disagree. I believe no matter what age any competition will be competitive as the other. Both parties are trying to reach one ultimate goal: win the game. For example, Lebron James and I have the same ultimate goal when we are playing basketball: win the game, which means we both have the same competitiveness. But overall, I loved reading your post, and how you correlated real life examples to prove your point.

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  4. Most of us have a certain level of innate competitiveness; most people prefer to win rather than lose. However, many do not understand what it takes to win in competitive athletics, or any field that is competitive.

    In the business world for example, the responsibility of the CEO is, according to Tim Kenesey, a Berkshire Hathaway CEO, “my responsibility is to work for the board of directors and ensure the business performs at a high level; that we outperform the competition.”

    While business and athletics are very competitive, almost everything in life has some level of competitiveness.

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