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Musings on Sport and Life

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For us college basketball enthusiasts, March Madness is here! As their fan, I was delighted when my college’s men’s and women’s teams progress through the NCAA Division III tournament‘s first two rounds to the “Sweet 16.” Alas, both Hope College teams then saw seeming victories snatched in the final seconds by the jaws of defeat.


The disappointing results prompted some morning-after reflections on the parallels between sport and life. As stage theater reenacts the dramas of everyday life, so the sports arena offers a microcosm of life itself.


Identity. As social animals, we live in groups, cheer on our groups, sacrifice for our groups. Our groups help define who we are, and who we are not. Our ancestors, knowing that there was sustenance and safety in solidarity, divided the world into “us” and “them,” reserving their most intense rivalry for those “others” closest at hand. As Freud observed, “Of two neighboring towns, each is the other’s most jealous rival.” The pleasures and passions of sport express our group identities.


Grit. Disciplined effort + a belief in one’s possibilities = excellence. Whether a point guard or a pianist, preparation seasoned with inspiration prepares one for the big stage moment. Persist in striving for excellence, without being derailed by setbacks, and we may achieve great things.


Mistakes. Yet, no matter the effort and the excellence, mistakes will happen. No one—no athlete, no musician, no business person—is perfect. Our aim in life can never be flawlessness, but rather having our good judgments vastly exceed our missteps.


Chance. After thousands of hours of preparation, a single shot that rattles in or out, a rebound that caroms to one’s teammate or the opponent, proves decisive. And so in life. Two intersecting cars meet at the same freakish moment and a life is snuffed. Two people arbitrarily cross paths, and a lifelong partnership forms.


Possibilities. In sport and in life, the possibility of a bad outcome makes a good outcome more gratifying. The darkness of night defines the light of day. Experiencing sickness helps us appreciate health. The pain of separation enables the joy of reunion. There is little pleasure in good endings apart from the ever-present possibility of the bad.


Death. College seniors on 63 of 64 teams entering the NCAA basketball tournaments will find their sporting lives ending in defeat, the death of their dreams. And so in life, which always ends in death.


Hope. Even so, many of us live with hope that on death’s other side is a new beginning. For the returning athletes and their fans there is next year. And for the senior athletes, there is a developed capacity for self-discipline and teamwork that—applied to new life goals—will take them to new and bigger life successes.

About the Author
David Myers received his psychology Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He has spent his career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has taught dozens of introductory psychology sections. Hope College students have invited him to be their commencement speaker and voted him "outstanding professor." His research and writings have been recognized by the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Prize, by a 2010 Honored Scientist award from the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences, by a 2010 Award for Service on Behalf of Personality and Social Psychology, by a 2013 Presidential Citation from APA Division 2, and by three dozen honorary doctorates. With support from National Science Foundation grants, Myers' scientific articles have appeared in three dozen scientific periodicals, including Science, American Scientist, Psychological Science, and the American Psychologist. In addition to his scholarly writing and his textbooks for introductory and social psychology, he also digests psychological science for the general public. His writings have appeared in four dozen magazines, from Today's Education to Scientific American. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see For his leadership, he received an American Academy of Audiology Presidential Award in 2011, and the Hearing Loss Association of America Walter T. Ridder Award in 2012. He bikes to work year-round and plays daily pick-up basketball. David and Carol Myers have raised two sons and a daughter, and have one granddaughter to whom he dedicates the Third Edition of Psychology in Everyday Life.