SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
May 16, 1988
Is It What Life's All About?
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May 16, 1988


Is It What Life's All About?

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Taking for granted the need for reform in sports, Martens still thinks the competitive climate for youthful athletes has improved during the last decade. The principal reason is that more coaches, both professional and amateur, not only have learned to teach mastery of sporting skills but also have understood why it is advantageous to do so.

"The national media, understandably, are preoccupied with what is happening with athletes at the highest level of sport," says Martens. "The real story, the most important impact of sports, is occurring at the level where most people compete—in school games, community recreation programs, Softball, bowling, golf leagues. At that level there is more and better competition—more useful and pleasant—than ever before."

Bill Harper is a professor in the department of physical education, health and recreation studies at Purdue. Harper is essentially a sports philospher, and the underpinning of his professional creed is his opinion that we are becoming so addicted to competitive games and keeping score that we are forgetting how and why to be playful in ways that can't be scored. Not long ago, Harper told me the story of how he was once pressed into service as the coach of a youth soccer league team in West Lafayette, Ind. He didn't have much expertise in that sport, but he brought to it a conviction that organizers and managers—who should be supernumeraries—have seized control of sports programs from their rightful owners and beneficiaries, the participants.

To counter the influence of such organizers, Harper told his soccer team in the beginning that he had only one basic rule: Everyone was going to have equal playing time. The players themselves would decide tactical and strategic questions. Practices would be optional.

And how did this all-power-to-the-players system work?

"Pretty well, at least superficially," Harper said. "The kids were good about coming to practice, and some of them said it was the best team they'd ever been on. Some of the parents said they acted turned-on about it at home, and all the parents I talked to seemingly liked it."

All right, but what about the "superficially" and "seemingly"?

"Well, it probably wasn't a fair test," he said. "We won a lot. If we'd lost, the kids and parents might have felt a lot differently. In fact," Harper continued, lowering his voice as if he were about to say something shameful, "we won the state championship."

If you badger them enough, you can sometimes squeeze the pith out of philosophers. It worked with Harper. At the end of a long evening of conversation, he finally said, "If competition isn't taken too seriously, it can be important. I mean, what it finally boils down to is, The bigger the trophy the more trivial the contest."

Which seemed as good a place as any to leave large, heavy questions about when and why competitive sport is good or bad.

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