Team Sports and Values?

I always find it funny, seeing parents talk about the value of team sports: they’re always, always people who play team sports as adults, and how they loved playing them as kids. That’s fine, and I don’t contest that a kid can, while playing a team sport, develop his or her teamwork skills, discipline, understanding of the virtue of sacrifice, and grasp of the value of hard work.

But… I value those same things, though I didn’t enjoy—and never really played—team sports after elementary school (and even in grade school, I never played them much). So then where did I pick up those values?

The kneejerk response is to say it was with my tenor sax in hand, and/or my Dungeon Master’s Guide on the table in front of me. Except that’s a kneejerk response, and I try never to really trust my own kneejerk responses.

Reflecting on it, I think the idea is actually bullshit—just like the claim that “sports teach teamwork” (etc.) is bullshit. Here’s why:

1. Sports (and other pursuits) probably help reinforce those values and skills, rather than “teaching” them.

I’ve met jocks and former jocks who were great team players on and off the field… but at least at the middle and high schools I attended, plenty of the “jocks” lacked all of the skills people claim sports “teach” kids. In fact, they included many of my high school’s biggest assholes and losers: people who were incapable of respecting others, allergic to working on a team except with other jocks, and so very disciplined that they were flunking out of school despite classes being tuned to the middle 70% in terms of intellect and effort.

I’d hazard a guess and say that team sports—with the right coaches, anyway—are like going to church: they might help reinforce these kinds of values, if you have the right people supervising, but most of the time they can do no more than that.

Now, if you want your kids to learn to be team players, to have discipline, to value hard work and sacrifice for the group, you can use sports as part of your approach, by giving them a chance to practice these things out on the playing field. But you have to actively cultivate a sense of respect for others, integrity, and all the other sub-skills that are necessary for those higher-order values and skills, and you can’t count on the team sport to do that.

If you don’t, you may end up just sending your kids to hang out with the worst kids in the school… and, for that matter, some of the worst adults, too, who will model for them none of the skills and values you were hoping for!


2. But the same goes for Tabletop RPGs and Playing Music, for that matter.

Gamers and former band geeks seem to like to make the same kinds of claims about their hobbies that people often make about sports. Of course, this is understandable, of course: being a geek or a band kid in a world where sports has a crazily inflated value is aggravating. (One of the few scenes in Whiplash I could actually relate to was all about that.) Having to hear that football teaches virtue (and never hearing how music does) is especially galling when the biggest assholes and worst bullies and scumbags at your school are all on the football team, right? (That’s how it was a my high school, anyway.)

I think it’s therefore quite natural former band geeks and gamers overstate their case, since they’re just transposing it over in the first place.

adnd-1st-ed-dmgAgain, don’t get me wrong: there are lots of great skills that get practice either playing in a band, or playing (or running) an RPG campaign group. (Posts this one, or this one , outline some of the benefits for RPGing, for example, and they’re valid: playing D&D can help a kid further develop and practice all kinds of skills and aptitudes: creative imagination, problem solving skills, understanding of teamwork, storytelling, and willingness to make sacrifices for others. Same goes for playing in a band, as any musician will happily tell you.

Hell, my own vocabulary and reading comprehension—not to mention my appetite for reading—made a quantum leap when I acquired my first edition AD&D Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide; I got interested in geometry and design, in cartography and drafting, in the structure and function of narrative, in the literary references in Appendix N (those that were available to me), and eventually I was launched toward a career (however modest so far) in speculative fiction writing. I certainly sacrificed a lot of my time and energy to make for better games, too.

Hell, one Gamma World campaign I ran pretty much worked out like that famous series finale for Freaks and Geeks:

… with a classmate I’d considered a bully—and who’d considered me a nerd—joining my game, becoming a good friend, and bringing a bunch of our classmates around to the wonder of roleplaying cyborgs and mutant hyperintelligent animals and motile plants armed with lasers.  gammaworld3dI stopped wanting a Nintendo, and while he kept getting into fights while playing hockey, he also read more, and learned how to talk with kids who weren’t on the hockey team. And meanwhile, I developed the social skills to talk with kids very different from me, in terms of values, background, socioeconomic class, and experience. So, yeah, some of the best times I had as a kid were around a table, roleplaying some adventure, and some of the nicest and most interesting people I know—even today, even in Korea—are avid gamers.

But at the same time, some of the worst, most maladjusted, terrible people I’ve ever had to deal with, I met through gaming. Over the years I’ve seen (and had to deal with) everything from mooching and theft to relationship sabotage, bullying, and even physical violence. A guy I played with in middle school is a raging misogynist today.1

While the OSR blogosphere, for example, is chock full of examples of people who clearly have come to share ideas, create cool things, interact intelligently, and organize information logically all over gaming. But games don’t necessarily teach that, as a quick search of the expression “Edition Wars” will demonstrate. (Or read this.)


Imagine being so dysfunctional you rail at people for liking a different edition of the same game you like.

The music world isn’t so different: I’ve made lifelong friends through music, but some of the most self-involved, compassionless, untrustworthy, deceitful people I’ve ever known, I also met through music. I’ve had music gear stolen from me; I’ve put up with people who were constantly grandstanding, and with bands who didn’t treat me like an equal member, and people who didn’t bother to show up for gigs they’d agreed to play. I’ve known plenty of musicians who were utterly undisciplined, put themselves first, and didn’t know the meaning of sacrifice at all. I’d say about half the band directors I’ve worked with or studied under were consistently narcissistic bullies, bigoted egotists, and just plain assholes. (The other half were great people who sometimes had bad days, like we all do.)

As great a musician as he was—and he was one of the great musicians of the 20th century—Charlie Parker was also a real asshole, according to those who dealt with him directly.
As great a musician as he was—and he was one of the great musicians of the 20th century—Charlie Parker was also a real asshole. (Of course, he had a heroin problem, which is a better excuse than a lot of people I’ve known had for their  behaviour!)

So, yeah, music can reinforce wonderful traits and skills and values, but I’m pretty dubious about the idea it can straight-up teach them. Not everyone learns those lessons from playing music, trust me! I’d wager I learned about the value of discipline, hard work, contributing to a team or group, and willingness to sacrifice from the same place anyone does: my parents.

Ultimately, I think if you want your kids to learn these skills, that’s what you should expect of activities like team sports, TRPGing, or playing music; reinforcement of whatever you’ve taught them and, especially, modeled for them. Those activities are a great way to practice those skills, but I don’t think many people acquire them that way.

There is one skill set I think I did directly acquire—albeit in a painful manner—through playing tabletop RPGs and performing in musical ensembles, though…

3. The Importance of Reciprocity

The lesson I think kids can  get from being on a sports team, or in a band, or playing RPGs with a group, is this: that all the “values” people like to claim these activities teach, need to be critically deployed: they’re good things to be capable of, but it’s a terrible idea to apply them to every group or activity without critical discernment.

After all, being willing to sacrifice for the group isn’t always a good thing: in some contexts, it’s actually a great way to get yourself exploited, and end up being both regretful and resentful. Likewise being a great team player, on a team where most members are just looking out for #1. Discipline and hard-workingness are great skills, but there’s a time and a place for them, and that time and place is when you’re among others who share those values, even when (as with running a game) parity of contribution is probably impossible.2

Not every GM has a collection of books like this—or a fancy room to house them in—but most have at least a shelf or two of game books and supplements. Most players? Not so much.
Not every GM has a collection of books like this—or a fancy room to house them in—but most have at least a shelf or two of game books and supplements. Most players? Not so much.

That’s the lesson I think is crucial when it comes to these values: in the world of human beings, a lot of folks aren’t really on a great quest for excellence; they’re really not going to give 110%, or sacrifice for the group. A lot of people just never do that, and a small percentage of people actively seek out for those who do because people like that are eminently exploitable. That’s been my experience in music, in the world of RPGing, in the writing crit groups I’ve joined and founded, and in workplaces too.

This is why, for me, it’s not a problem that sports, music, and role-playing games don’t indoctrinate these values into kids, or that some of the people involved in these pastimes lack these skills and never develop them. Both of those facts are features, rather than flaws, because while you can model hard work, or sacrifice, or discipline to your kids, you can’t model sussing out when others lack it, much less modeling cutting users and selfish jerks  loose. One learns to sniff out that kind of thing mostly from experience, trial and error, and from the sting of occasional disappointment.

4. Can We Stop Justifying Enjoyment?

Really, seriously. It’s great that DMing made me read more, and exercised my imagination, and taught me about reciprocity, and got me thinking about character motivation and worldbuilding and history and so on.

But it was still a game, and the purpose was fun… and that’s a fine thing in itself. Most people I know who love playing sports feel that way because they enjoy the challenge involved, and the neurochemicals released from running like hell or winning or from solid teamwork. Musicians often talk about how good it feels to play live, when the band is really together, and, again, the neurochemistry of music and musical performance suggest this is something deeply wired into our brains.

Somehow, we’ve become obsessed with utility and productivity to the point where we’ve lost sight of the fact fun, happiness, and joy are actually good for us. I suspect half the utilitarian justifications people concoct for pastimes like these are rooted in a feeling that one ought to justify letting kids run after a ball or noodle on instruments or goof off around a table. Somehow this makes me think of Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” (from her nonfiction collection Language of the Night).

Games and music and sports give us joy, pleasure, and happiness. What’s so wrong with that, that we need to concoct half-baked explanations of the didactic usefulness of every damned moment spent on them? Fun can’t be the only thing people do, including young people, in itself is positive, and is fulfilling, and it’s important for a balanced, healthy person, as I’ve noticed teaching young people whose parents didn’t understand this. I’m all for fun that exercises the body and the mind, of course—that’s something to be encouraged—and of course it takes hard work to become good enough at any of these pursuits for them to become fun… but I think there’s a cultural distrust of fun in itself, that makes us feel as if we need to explain why games are nutritious, when really the nutritiousness happens to be great icing on an equally great cake.

  1. He’s in fact been banned from a local bar here in South Korea—yeah, he followed me here, though we were no longer friends by then—and while it takes a lot to get banned from a foreigner dive bar in rural Korea, punching a woman in the face will do it. And no, we haven’t been friends for years, not since he tried to steal most of my gaming books collection.

  2. Reciprocity doesn’t necessarily mean parity, of course. GMing a game simply requires more time-investment than merely playing does, and usually at least a little more financial investment, too. There’s really not much that can be done about that… but you can still suss out who’s there for the snacks, versus people who are really there for the game.

2 thoughts on “Team Sports and Values?

  1. The one transferable skill or value I received from my many years of competitive swimming was something akin to meditation. Anyone can, with a little training, swim a long distance. To improve, you have to swim that distance mindfully and such mindfulness allows one to learn and improve faster.

    I am pretty, what, mindless?, much of the time, but I can turn most repetitive acts into forms of meditation now.

    Swimming is far from a team sport because for much of the training and racing, you are limited in your communication. I’d like to think it also taught me a version of fair play – “I want my competitors to perform their best so that when I beat them or am beaten, all will say the result was fair.”

    1. Oh, sure. I’d say that’s a bit like how reading D&D books (because they were written for an adult vocabulary, until the mid-to-late-80s at least) expanded my vocabulary radically. I would readily admit there are specific skills or skill sets you can learn directly from a sport. I’m a little more dubious about the idea of values being taught that way, though: I’d wager you’d probably picked up a sense of fair play long before you reached a swimming pool.

      (According to one book I’m reading right now, Paul Bloom’s Just Babies, there’s compelling evidence that valuing fair play is actually a deeply hardwired, instinctual thing in human brains, and it does show up in studies of child psychology as early as halfway through the first year of life… and it’s probably there earlier, it’s just really hard to test for it in kids any younger than that.)

      Which I suppose works out to the opposite of the C.S. Lewis argument about whether church makes people behave morally better. (Lewis argued that you can never be sure a morally bad churchgoer mightn’t have been much worse without church; I’d argue rather than you can’t assume a sport or hobby instilled a given value, since the person could just as easily have had it from the get-go, and only had it reinforced or highlighted in the course of the sport or hobby.)

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