Return to Sender - Reconsidering the Meaning of Play and Sports

author : Scott Tinley
comments : 4

“Everyday when I drive home to my house, there is a basketball court there. And sometimes I’ll just pull over and see how the kids are playing the game.”

- Antawn Jamison, NBA player

By Scott Tinley

My volleyball partner was pissed. I’d set her too close to the net and she over hit the ball, couldn’t compensate for my weakness. Oops, I said. Damn, she said.

 Tinley, I thought you were a…a competitor. The scowl said it. But it bounced off me like Teflon, falling into the sand and disappearing along with a thousand and one discarded barriers from my sporting past. I came to play, partner, not to compete; the clash of ideologies creating a chasm wide enough for our opponents to find blindfolded.

 Disparity in purpose is often the way of adults playing childhood games. Some of us show up to the courts and pools and parking lots loaded for bear, the drippings of corporate cut-throat tailing our purposeful steps. Others are happy for a few kindred minutes of coffee conversation and a chance to wax poetic of days before gravity pulled down our waistline dreams. And in between are a gazillion other 21-And-Older types who look to post- baccalaureate sports participation for myriad reason that are reasonably muddled.

There is an attraction to return to sports after college and career and kids and a mortgage. But we don’t always know where or how to place our now-encumbered bodies in that early midlife term. So, the why is left to rise to the surface on its’ own. And when it does, we may not recognize it.

At 25 you’re still slim and fit and competitive. At 35 you’re fit and competitive. And at 45 you want to compete but aren’t sure at what. Or why. And that’s when your world of sports gets curiouser and curiouser. It’s hard to admit let alone clarify your reason for returning to sport. We seek ways to prove our own adult involvement in physical games normally reserved for youth. And we thirst for any kind of explaining pugmark of success—a finisher’s t-shirt, a plastic medal, a recycled bowling trophy--just something tangible to hold and feel and place in plain view.

 The rational mind tells us that we won’t run as fast as we did in high school or swim as fluid as we did in college. But if we learned anything in those four (or six) years it’s that the effects of time only appear to be linear. And the body willing, you can still bend time like you bent weekend parties into entire semesters. You are in control, you remind yourself. You aren’t dead. They are the sort of the same.

So you don’t outwardly question this desire to be young again for the second time, to play, to compete, to win at something, if only some ice cream sundae bet with yourself to lose five pounds by the first of next month. A sport is the answer, you tell yourself without even knowing what the question was. Yes, something athletic that makes me sweat and look good in spandex, that exorcises the office demons before I get home. I’ll figure out the rest as I go.

   But somehow we are still afraid of returning as a soft child stuck in an adult’s hardening body. Act your age, we tell ourselves, but aren’t sure on what scale it is to be accounted. So, what is lost in translation are the meanings that sport used to give us as a kid. Is Adult Sports an oxymoron? A new language?  A way to burn off the vicissitudes of corporate culture?  Or is it a way to stop the clock for a weekend or a decade and reframe what a physical life can do for us? The answer may lie in that netherworld where sports and life overlap.  And as endurance athletes we sure seem to spend a lot of time in one or the other.

Sports don’t happen in different dimensions from our daily lives, there is no schizophrenia, no fifty yard split of ethos and ethic. We don’t go to the Crossroads to deal for our fitness and health. For many of us, it just seems natural--this physical life. Returning to sport as an adult doesn’t mean compromising on all that is huge and permanent and fixed. It’s not an early, mid or late-life crisis. It’s just another way of living. Sport is a kind of life that people choose and life is a kind of game that people play; a Venn diagram that deserves some fun in the gray areas. 

The action-hero philosophers will tell us that life is about experiences, feelings, successes and failures. It is the sum of smoke and deception, purpose and direction, love and hate, yingiditty-yang and you fill in the gaps.  Sport is at once phenomenological and self-reflexive. It’s fun to live on the edge so long as we don’t go over.

But as endurance athletes, by definition we must go to our borders to find our center. There is meaning in suffering, we tell ourselves, but not in stupidity.  These are not unattainable concepts for people who are drawn to a raw and pure form of sport rather than the other mine fields of postmodern life; that Halliburton zeitgeist or the new tyranny of the datasphere. Still, you could also live a sedate and vicarious existence and if it’s your truth and you’re happy, who can argue?  One person’s championship ring is another’s pop-top from an old cola can.  

In our naïveté of youth, our halcyon days before the weight of age tugs at our dreams and our belts, we circle the track and feel the soft rubber under our feet and smell the fresh cut grass as we temporarily enslave ourselves to the stopwatch. Each lap has meaning, we tell ourselves, each lap is quicker, deeper into our goal. But what do we really know at 14 or 18 or 22 years old? Too often our goals are more general-directing than specific-in-plan. Many of us equate success with material gain, something tangible with a leather interior and a GPS to show us the way.

In our own freshman fame, in those times when we want things we would never get and got things that we never wanted, we just might’ve known that we were both passenger and pilot. While we were building a body, we were building a life. But at 17 or 21, those things were only barley within our control—our lives flying IFR. And perhaps sports helped us to figure it all out as we landed on planet adulthood.

But as the birthdays came closer and quicker we pined for that something still fresh and unammable, something closer to the act of sprit than the cell phone. It was earned, we felt, through blood, sweat, years, and many more miles.   

As athletes we develop these skills, these tendencies to pull down psychological barriers that rise up rise again in the biological. Age is a state of mind, we tell ourselves, in drowning the noise of a screaming tendon. As we ignore these smoke signals harboring things to come, we go around the track one more time, harder now because the guru-jock-of-the-month says in his new book that fitness is greater than health, and if we must have an addiction, than what better habit to be enslaved to? This sporting life, we are convinced, is the only life.

And for many of us, we would not be self-deceived. The only thing wrong was too much of a right thing.

 I remember the exact moment when I had crossed the line between training for performance sake and training for training’s sake, when sport had become my life but also a kind of slow dance with death. Oh, there was balance, but it came as two junk yard dogs circling each other. It was during the birth of our first child, my wife in the jaws of a protracted but not entirely uncomfortable labor. I pulled the doc aside and asked him if I had time to sneak outside for a quick five-miler. I would stay on the hospital grounds. I promised. That memory haunts me still, how I had folded myself tightly into sport and that part so far away from the essential cycle of life itself that the only satisfaction was an audience of one and the cackling laughter I’d hear in the background could only be the Devil’s.

No athlete can hide forever behind the thinly veiled excuse of ignorance. At least we should know when too much might be too much. Still, if we see sport and life as one, it is a great task to distinguish the map from the territory, to differentiate a training program from a training lifestyle. It can be done.

Equal parts passion and pragmatism.

You see, sport is a drug. And so is life. The needle slips in when you slip out of your mother’s womb. There is a terrifying excitement where part of you wants to go back into the shade and the other wants to jump into the light. You tell yourself that you just don’t know. How could you? So you follow your instincts to move because somehow it’s born with you, this knowledge that something possessed never has the same value or pull as it does in pursuit. You might be chasing your tail but at least you ain’t lying in the corner.

We’re all hooked to some degree. It’s certainly not hard to extol the virtue in sport. Simple, really. Bang away at the keys, chat up a stranger on a plane, or convince a relative over for Christmas dinner that sport is good, that it’s different; it allows us a chance to stand out.

From where, they ask.

From here, silly. Anywhere but right here, doing nothing.

With your sport, you tell them, you can glow in the dark. And you’d be right.

That’s the bad part of the drug—it can bend a reality on its own accord, squiggly lines on a desert horizon. Mirage goes from noun to verb. You glow when you’re supposed to fade.

But statistics are our ammo and the media is our ally. Numbers never lie and neither do heroes. It’s all so believable because we want to believe it. Sportsmanship, camaraderie, physical health, goal attainment, self-knowledge—they’re all there inside of sport, neatly packaged sometimes, raw and unwieldy at others. Sport provides a constellation of possibilities, and we could be a star in our own galaxy. Oh God, it’s so easy--twinkle, twinkle and I won my age group and another twinkle and if only I didn’t have this job I could’ve made The Show, could’ve stepped right into that aristocracy of fame: a fat house, a skinny spouse, the UPS driver calling me by my first name.

Go for it, sport says, grab the brass ring and find yourself separated from a normal life and don’t worry about separating from your self. When you return, you’re just a post-traumatic game show away from the regularity of a remote control and sixer of plain wrap.

Perhaps is not that easy to find meaning in sports if we’re too busy looking extra hard.

Athletes and athletics have become a fixture in our culture, socializing our youth, teaching them valuable lessons not so easily taught at home or in the classroom. They also clog up Sunday afternoons when the commentary clones are clogging our minds with flashy media dribble poured out up close and personal. As fan-addicts, sport thrills us like few institutions can, often over-shadowing theater, the arts, music, and war-for-profit as the chosen form of entertainment. Not since the Roman Empire has sport played such a roll in how we live our lives. Is it because commercial sport remains the last form of popular culture in which the ending is still a mystery?

I may have began this song as the naïve troubadour many years ago but now, even after the wounds of re-entry have healed, I wonder if I had subversively and in sequence convinced myself that it is the game that gives us life; that players come before play, events before eventuality, and sport before spirit.  

How will you know when a life of sport becomes bigger than a life of life?

When the meaning of it all resists application to a spreadshseet?

How will you know?  And what will you do with it? 

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date: August 9, 2010

Author


Scott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

Author

avatarScott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

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