October 21, 2009

Sports Psychology

Speaking of sports, though, I had a great insight today from a colleague:  people who like sports are distinguished from people who don't like sports based on their relative comfort level with ambiguous rules. 

See, as we grow and develop, we come to understand that there are rules in the world, and we also perceive that sometimes those rules are applied flexibly or selectively.  Most of us find this unjust and unfair in some way, usually when we are on the bad end of the disparity -- or when someone else is on the good end and gets a reward or benefit that we are denied.  We all internalize and accept the notion that the world just isn't fair, in our own ways and at our own paces.  But maybe some of us long for a really fair world to a degree that others do not.

Those who have that strong desire for fairness, that strong desire for certainty, that need to know who wins and who loses, find themselves more attracted to sports than their opposite numbers.  In sports, there are rules, damnit.  In baseball, if the ball goes outside the base line, it's foul, whether you're Milt Pappas or Frank Robinson.  In (American) football, if you goe outside the line with the ball, the clock stops whether you're Randy Moss or Joe Shit the Ragman.  If you drive the ball into the water, that's a one-stroke penalty.  Doesn't matter if you're Tiger Woods.  Maybe the rule isn't fair, maybe it isn't the best possible rule, but the rule is the rule.  You have certainty.  And almost all the time, you wind up with a winner and a loser.

Even if the refs make a bad call, you know where you stand. And for the most part, the rules are at least aimed at creating a system where there is a pretense of fair play and evenhandedness in dispensing and administering the rules.  Something in the sports fan hungers for that kind of regimentation, that kind of structure, in contrast to the  way that the non-sports fan is comfortable with ambiguity in the structure and administration of rules.

In real life, if you have a disagreement with someone else and you walk away, you may tell yourself you got the better of the exchange, but your counterpart is probably telling herself the same thing and there is no third party to pronounce one side or the other the winner.  In sports, though, the rules discourage and in most cases prohibit disputes resulting in a draw. Particularly here in hyper-competitive America,  the prevalence of tie scores in soccer (European/global football) is probably the biggest reason why that sport has not ever really taken off in a big way here.  The NHL stopped having tie games, going to a shootout format if games are still tied after overtime.  Major League Soccer would be well-advised to do something similar.  Whether your team wins or loses, there is a result.  Once again, you know where you stand and that is something of a consolation no matter what that standing might be. 

My response to this concept was that in the world of music, there are a lot of different genres and ways to perform -- and listen -- to music.  Some people find themselves gravitating to musical forms like jazz and free-form hip-hop.  These are the same people who find themselves indifferent to sports and for the same reason -- they are comfortable with the unstructured, improvised structures of that genre of music.  But others find themselves enjoying, whether consciously or not, the structure of forms of music like rock and roll, old-school rap, or classical music.  My colleague got the concept right away; it is the same mental dynamic.

All of this is a bunch of tendencies and gross generalizations, of course.  But I think there's some meat on those bones.

The fact that rock and classical music tend to have larger audiences than jazz, and the fact that there seem to be more sports fans than non-sports fans, suggests that more people desire certainty and structure in the rules that govern the world around them than there are people who are willing to navigate the world with improvised and unstructured rules.

It's natural to read something like this and react that, "Well, I'm not really like that, so there must be a flaw with this."  And maybe there is -- but I think everyone's reflexive response to that sort of generalization is to resist it and that's probably a mistake.  Be willing to at least consider the possibility that one or the other kind of personality trait may actually be subsumed within your psyche and that your preference for (or apathy towards) sports or certain kinds of music may be a reflection of your comfort or discomfort with ambiguously-administered rules.

It's a good launching point for introspection about your subconscious attitudes towards authority, even if you ultimately conclude that my colleague and I are quite full of it.  (You wouldn't be the first to think that about either of us and I promise, we're not offended.)

1 comment:

David Mintz said...

Beware the false dichotomy. You don't have to like hip-hop OR classical. There are a few weirdos who listen to both Wu Tang and Chopin. (And btw, Wu Tang has its share of formal organization and structure. Ditto for Charlie Parker.) You don't have to be comfortable with EITHER rigid structure OR ambiguity, but be at home with both for different reasons at different moments.