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12 Post author: adamzerner 26 December 2015 07:54PM

This is intended to be a pretty broad discussion of sports. I have some thoughts, but feel free to start your own threads.

tl;dr - My impression is that people here aren't very interested in sports. My impression1 is that most people have something to gain by both competitive and recreational sports. With competitive sports you have to be careful not to overdo it. With recreational sports, the circumstances have to be right for it to be enjoyable. I also think that sports get a bad rep for being simple and dull. In actuality, there's a lot of complexity. 

1 - Why does this have to sound bad?! I have two statements I want to make. And for each of them, I want to qualify it by saying that it as an impression that I have. What is a better way to say this? 


I love sports. Particularly basketball. I was extremely extremely dedicated to it back in middle/high school. Actually, it was pretty much all I cared about (not an exaggeration). This may or not be crazy... but I wanted to be the best player who's ever lived. That was what I genuinely aspired and was working towards (~7th-11th grade).

My thinking: the pros practice, what, 5-6 hours a day? I don't care about anything other than basketball. I'm willing to practice 14 hours a day! I just need time to eat and sleep, but other than that, I value basketball above all else (friends, school...). Plus, I will work so much smarter than they do! The norm is to mindlessly do push ups and eat McDonalds. I will read the scientific literature and figure out what the most effective ways to improve are. I'm short and not too athletic, so I knew I was starting at a disadvantage, but I saw a mismatch between what the norm is and what my rate of improvement could be. I thought I could do it.

In some ways I succeeded, but ultimately I didn't come close to my goal of greatness. In short, I spent too much time on high level actions such as researching training methods and not enough time on object level work; and with school and homework, I simply didn't have enough time to put in the 14 hour days I envisioned. I was a solid high school player, but was no where near good enough to play college ball.

Take Aways

Intense work. I've gone through some pretty intense physical exercise. Ex. running suicides until you collapse. And then getting up to do more until you collapse again. It takes a lot of willpower to do that. I think willpower is like a muscle, and you have to train yourself to be able to work at such intensities. I haven't experienced anything intellectual that has required such intensity. Knowing that I am capable of working at high intensities has given me confidence that "I could do anything".

Ambition. The culture in athletic circles is often one where, "I'm not content being where I am". There's someone above you, and you want to beat them out. I guess that sort of exists in academic and career circles as well, but I don't think it's the same (in the average case; there's certainly exceptions). What explains this? Maybe there's something very visceral about lining up across from someone, getting physically and unambiguously beaten, and letting your teammates and yourself down.

Confidence. Often times, confidence is something you learn because you have to. Often times, if you're not confident, you won't perform, so you need to learn to be confident. But it's not just that; there's something else about the culture that promotes confidence (perhaps cockiness). Think: "I don't care who the opponent is, no one can stop me!".

Group Bonds. When you spend so much time with a group of people, go through exhausting practices together, and work as a team to experience wins and losses, you develop a certain bond that is enjoyable. It reminds me a bit of putting in long hours on a project and eventually meeting the deadline, but it isn't the same.

Other: There's certainly other things I'm forgetting.

All of that said, there are downsides that correspond with all of these benefits. My overarching opinion is "all things in moderation". Ambition can be poison. So can the habitual productivity that often comes with ambition. Sometimes the atmosphere can backfire and make you less confident. And sometimes teammates can bully and be cruel. I've experienced the good and bad extremes along all of these axes.

Honestly, I'm not quite sure when it's worth it and when it isn't. I think it often depends on the person and the situation, but I think that in moderation, most people have a decent amount to gain (in aggregate) by experiencing these things.


So far I've really only talked about competitive sports. Now I want to talk about recreational sports. With competitive sports, as I mention above, I think there's a somewhat fine line between underdoing it and overdoing it. But I think that line is a lot wider for recreational sports. I think it's wide enough such that recreational sports are very often a good choice.

One huge benefit of recreational sports is that it's a fun way to get exercise. You do/should exercise anyway; why not make a game out of it?

Part of me feels like sports are just inherently fun! I know that calling them inherently fun is too strong a statement, but I think that under the right circumstances, they often are fun (I think the same point can be applied to most other things as well).

In practice, what goes wrong?

  • You aren't in shape. You're playing a pick up basketball game where everyone else is running up and down the court and you're too winded to breathe. That's no fun.
  • Physical bumps and bruises. You're playing football and get knocked around, or perhaps injured.
  • Lack of involvement.
    • You're playing baseball. You only get to hit 1/18th of the time. And you are playing right field and no one ever hits it to you (for these reasons, I don't like baseball).
    • You're playing soccer with people who don't know how to space the field and move the ball, and you happen to get excluded.
    • You're playing basketball where each team has a ball hog who brings up the ball and shoots it every possession.
  • Difficulty-skill mismatch. You're playing with people who are way too good for you, so it isn't fun. Alternatively, maybe you're way better than the people you're playing with and aren't being challenged.
  • Other. Again, I'm sure there are things I'm not thinking of.
For the most part, I feel like the things that go wrong are correctable, and once corrected, I predict that the sport will become enjoyable (some things are inherent, like the bumps and bruises in tackle football; but there's always two-hand touch!).

I even see a business opportunity here! Currently, these are all legitimate problems. I think that if these were corrected, a lot of utility/value would be generated. What if you could sign up and be provided with recreational games, with enough time for you to rest so you're not exhausted, where your teammates and opponents are respectful and considerate, where you're involved in the game, and where your teammates and opponents are roughly at your skill level.


I sense that sports get a bit of an unfair rep for being simple and dull games. Maybe some are, but I think that most aren't.

Perhaps it's because of the way most people experience the game. Take basketball as an example. A lot of people just like to watch to see whether the ball goes in the hoop or not and cheer. Ie. they experience the game in a very binary way. Observing this, it may be tempting to think, "Ugh, what a stupid game." But what happens when you steelman?

I happen to know a lot about basketball, so I experience the game very differently. Here's an example:

Iguodala has the ball and is being guarded by LeBron. LeBron is playing close and is in a staggered stance. He's vulnerable and Iguodala should attack his lead foot. People (even NBA players) don't look at this enough! Actually no, he shouldn't attack: the weak side help defense looks like it's in position, and LeBron is great at recovery. Plus, you have to think about the opportunity cost. Curry has Dellavedova and could definitely take him. Meaning, if Delly plays off, Curry can take a shot, but if Delly plays him more tightly, Curry could penetrate and either score or set someone else up, depending on how the help defense reacts. That approach has a pretty high expected value. But actually, Draymond Green looks like he has JR Smith on him (who is much smaller), which probably has an even higher expected value than Curry taking Delly. But to get Green the ball they'd have to reverse it to the weak side, and they'd have to keep the court spaced such that the Cavs won't have an opportunity to switch a bigger defender on to Green. All of this is in contrast with running a motion offense or some set plays. And you also have to take into account the stamina of the other team. Maybe you want to attack LeBron on defense to make him work, get him tired, and make him less effective on offense (I think this is a great approach to take against Curry and the Warriors, because Curry isn't a good defender and is lethal on offense).

Hopefully you could see that the amount of information there is to process in any given second is extremely high! If you know what to look for. Personally, I've never played organized football. But after playing the video game Madden (and doing some further research), I've learned a good amount about how the game works. Now when I watch football, I know the intricacies of the game and am watching for them. The density of information + the excitement, skill and physicality makes these ports extremely enjoyable for me to watch. Alternatively, I don't know too much about golf and don't enjoy watching it. All I see when I watch golf is, "The ball was hit closer to the hole... the ball was hit closer to the hole... the ball was it in the hole. This was a par 3, so that must have been an average performance."


Comments (25)

Comment author: Jacobian 27 December 2015 05:01:01AM 5 points [-]

This is something that I always found weird hanging out with LWers, how people almost take pride in being anti-sports. I'm not athletic at all and yet I play a dozen different sports and watch everything from figure skating to college football. Is this because the nerd/jock dichotomy actually happens in American schools and not in movies? All my friends from the math club in high school in Israel played soccer several times a week, every chance that we could.

I encourage everyone to try playing a sport, if you've never tried then something like ping pong or even throwing a frisbee around can be good entry level activities for people who think they're horrible athletes.

Comment author: Viliam 28 December 2015 08:49:42PM 3 points [-]

In Vienna there was once a LW meetup in a gym. Another rationalist teaches Salsa dancing. Ivan from Bratislava always rides to Vienna meetups and back on a bike. -- None of this is the kind of sport that the article describes, but seems to me they are in the same cluster.

Speaking for myself, I have always avoided all kinds of sport (including chess), because to me they felt extremely boring. Now I guess my objection was mostly that I am super picky about people I spend my time with; I probably would have enjoyed sporting with fellow rationalists. Recently, inspired by the LW meetup in the gym, I started exercising heavily at home; and I lost 4 kg in a week.

I have already heard people speculating whether the fact that some rationalists seemingly don't put high enough priority on their health is a specifically American thing (or even less charitably, a specifically Eliezer thing). On the other hand, for example Valentine from CFAR has a black belt in Aikido.

Comment author: CurtisSerVaas 28 December 2015 09:13:07PM *  3 points [-]

I was extremely extremely dedicated to it back in middle/high school. Actually, it was pretty much all I cared about (not an exaggeration). This may or not be crazy... but I wanted to be the best player who's ever lived. That was what I genuinely aspired and was working towards (~7th-11th grade).

This was me, but more like 6th-9th grade.

Off the top of my head, I think the main benefits I got out of playing competitive basketball were: 0. Physical fitness. 1. Ambition and competitiveness. 2. Something fun I do occasionally now. 3. Hard to describe mental skills related to practicing shooting form.

Elaboration on 1: I think it's really awesome how much "excellence porn" there in sports. You can go on youtube, and see tons of motivational videos. I wish there were the equivalent for intellectual domains. The closest you get is Paul Graham's essays for startups.

Elaboration on 3: Practicing shooting feels similar to meditation. I'm trying to pay close attention to tiny details of A. how my body is moving, B. Whether that feels like a good motion/shot or bad motion/shot C. How the ball actually moves. Furthermore, there's metacognition to see how your shot/motion changes when you're playing less close attention to it (e.g. when you're actually playing a game. Or, if you were focusing on improving your form in your legs, and then you switch to focusing on your form in your arms, you may notice that your leg form degrades again. Furthermore, you notice that leg-form and arm-form are not independent, and that there are local optima and that sometimes you have to get worse in order to get better.).

There's a lot more I could say, but I'll leave it at that for now.

Comment author: adamzerner 29 December 2015 02:36:00AM 0 points [-]

Cool stuff! Glad to hear from someone who's had similar experiences :)

Comment author: moridinamael 29 December 2015 03:20:01PM *  2 points [-]

One thing to bear strongly in mind when considering what sport to play is how prone that sport is to injuring you. Young people generally don't realize that pretty much any injury you get is a permanent injury.

Breaking your arm and needing a cast creates muscular imbalances that don't correct themselves without therapy. Twisting your ankle makes your ankle permanently more prone injury. Practically any blow to the head, even sub-concussive blows, yield cumulative brain damage.

Chronic pain sucks. It deflates your willpower, your emotional energy, your joie de vivre. Normal, non-athletic old people experience massive diminishment of life-enjoyment from normal aches and pains. Athletic injuries have the potential to drastically compound this.

I simply didn't have enough time to put in the 14 hour days I envisioned.

I've been guilty of similarly over-ambitious athletic goals in the past. It seems like I have a hard time motivating myself to do anything at all unless that thing is epic - unless accomplishing that thing would be amazing to have accomplished. So in the past I've been prone to shoot for goals that are actually impossible, because if I aimed for realistic goals, I wouldn't be motivated to work towards them.

Ex. running suicides until you collapse. And then getting up to do more until you collapse again. It takes a lot of willpower to do that. I think willpower is like a muscle, and you have to train yourself to be able to work at such intensities.

However - at a certain point, some module of your brain may check in, notice that running suicides is extremely unpleasant and that it's not providing any hedonic benefit, and metaphorically cut your legs out from under you. You wake up one day and find that you just don't care to do that again today.

This happened to me when I did Crossfit. I was very intense about it for about two months, doing three or more sessions a week, and then woke up one day an the whole idea just seemed stupid. The shift had happened at some level below consciousness. So now I'm more wary of "overdoing it".

Knowing that I am capable of working at high intensities has given me confidence that "I could do anything".

I find this to be true for non-physical work as well. Various stages of graduate school were somewhere between "marathon", "series of sprints" and "death march" in terms of how hard I pushed myself, and now I will always know that I can push myself way, way past the point of feeling like I can't push any more.

Competition can go to your head. My final round in the last Taekwondo tournament in which I competed saw me behind on points and desperately trying to kick my oponent in the head hard enough to knock him unconscious, basically just wildly pummeling his upper body with my feet and shins. This is funny to reflect on, because it feels like going temporarily insane. (It's also valuable to have a reference for the emotional experience of "crushing defeat", which is what followed after.)

Taekwondo specifically had pros and cons. One of the pros was that we trained as a team but we competed individually, so I think the bullying was less than it could have been. That said, it only takes one jerk instructor willing to knock you out to prove a point to make the whole enterprise a waste of time.

your lengthy basketball quote

I really enjoyed The Art of Learning for its general approach to breaking things down like this.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 01 February 2016 02:17:06AM 1 point [-]

I recommend painscience.com for chronic pain problems.

Comment author: [deleted] 27 December 2015 07:32:54AM 2 points [-]

Recreational sports is fun! Unfortunately, for me and perhaps many other people, high school quite ruined that - no real friends, an obligation to play, shouting. I'd rather walk alone for hours. You really are in luck here, that it didn't make it worse for you.

Although badminton with someone you like might be still nice:)

Comment author: adamzerner 27 December 2015 08:56:19AM *  1 point [-]

You really are in luck here, that it didn't make it worse for you.

It almost did. There was just a moment where I decided that I had enough and that I was going to get good.

Comment author: [deleted] 27 December 2015 06:09:06AM *  2 points [-]

I'm a typical nerd, I've had bad motor skills all my life, I never really practiced group sports and that's the biggest reason why I've never enjoyed playing those kind of sports, and it always felt like I lowered my status by even trying. It always felt like I was in the way and just caused harm, so I just tried not to bother anyone and I felt more outcast than in other circumstances, and worst memories from school are from those group sports.

But there are expections at adult age when I've done it with people who accept my shittiness, and the goal is having fun and not competing with others. I admit that in those kind of circumstances it's more fun than other ways of spending time and it enables easier bonding with others.

Comment author: Dustin 27 December 2015 12:35:07AM 2 points [-]

I think the difference between playing and spectating sports gets glossed over in lots of "sports are dumb" conversations.

I do not care at all about watching other people play sports. It's super boring.

Playing sports ball with people you enjoy being around is quite rewarding.

Comment author: adamzerner 27 December 2015 03:55:21AM *  0 points [-]

I do not care at all about watching other people play sports. It's super boring.

Playing sports ball with people you enjoy being around is quite rewarding.

I assume you mean that you specifically find it boring/rewarding.

Comment author: AmagicalFishy 27 December 2015 04:37:27AM *  1 point [-]

I do not care at all about watching other people play sports. Everyone thinks it's super boring.

... doesn't seem to make much sense to me. In what context would he not mean that?

Comment author: Dustin 27 December 2015 05:38:27PM 0 points [-]

Well...yes. I'm not sure what other interpretation of that makes much sense.

Comment author: adamzerner 27 December 2015 06:33:24PM 0 points [-]

I thought "It's super boring" and "is quite rewarding" sounded like they were referring to sports themselves.

Comment author: helldalgo 29 December 2015 07:58:49AM 1 point [-]

So, I'm incredibly clumsy. It's gotten better over the years, but you know those cliche movie scenes where the protagonist is learning to use a sword? And their mentor says "Think of it like an extension of your arm?" I have trouble feeling like my limbs are extensions of my body. I quite literally forget where they are in space. As I've gotten older, I have learned to space myself farther away from people to account for that.

Team sports were a disaster. Not totally! I actually had marginal success in volleyball. Positions on the court were clearly delineated, and people called out when they went for the ball. That was fine, usually.

All that being said, I have done better in martial arts and dance. The martial arts schools I've been to relied a lot on building fundamentals with solo footwork drills, so I had a grounding in the basics before I ever had to make physical contact. Grappling went well, too. In dance, I'm either dancing alone or am in near-constant physical contact with someone, which also seems to ground my limbs.

I do find a lot of the benefits that you outline here in structured physical activity. Activity that has a "play" feel to it, even though it's incredibly hard. The camaraderie, the post-workout "highs," and massive improvements in my day-to-day coordination are all noticeable. My recent dance class has been more effective than talk therapy at treating my depression and anxiety. I haven't been measuring, but I also know that evidence points towards cognitive benefits too.

Comment author: Lumifer 28 December 2015 05:29:57PM *  1 point [-]

My impression is that people here aren't very interested in sports.

I am not particularly interested in competitive sports because it's not an area where I have a competitive advantage :-)

I also think that sports get a bad rep for being simple and dull.

I think there's a lot of difference between "solo performance" kind of sports (e.g. running) and "interactive" kind of sports (from fencing to soccer). The "interactive" sports are anything but simple and dull.

Comment author: Brillyant 28 December 2015 07:45:40PM 1 point [-]

I've found solo performance sports to be interesting as well. It's fascinating to me to "train smart" and try and push the body and mind to it's limits. I've done some QS projects involving weight lifting and running goals that were cool.

I'm probably duller than the average LWer, though. Ha.

Comment author: Lumifer 04 January 2016 05:01:45PM 0 points [-]

I've found solo performance sports to be interesting as well.

It's kinda an "everything is interesting if you're interested in it" thing :-) But for a lot of people solo sports means pedaling on a stationary bike while watching TV...

Comment author: raydora 28 December 2015 01:37:48PM 1 point [-]

I no longer play sports (unless it's mandated by work), unless you count grappling on occasion.

Yes, I maintain a fantasy football team to practice statistical thinking (as opposed to actual statistics, at the moment) and because I found it ingratiates me with my colleagues. My workplace went from a den of geeks to regular Monday night football types in the space of months, so I switched from D&D to fantasy football.

It's safe to say I don't really have teams I root for (once upon a time it was Newcastle United, because I liked zebras as a kid) or sports I watch more than a few minutes of. Yet I'm interested in sports- now more than ever.

It's in the details. How does a tennis player improve his reaction time? How does handball transfer to boxing? How does the conditioning a football wide receiver employs differ from a midfielder's training in football? What are the steps coaches take to improve performance? When performance is at a peak, what's the best method for getting a group of people with adrenaline driving them to incorporate tactics into their play? Are tactics something you need to pay attention to? Sports provide a simple world with well-defined rules to explore the effect of competition on innovation.

If a team isn't maximizing play within those rules, that team should lose over time. There's a consequence for not paying attention to reality- especially in professional sports. If passing the ball in a particular way is bad form but it works and isn't against the rules, surely teams will eventually start doing it, and the game will have to be re-examined.

You can find a lot of these aspects in multiplayer virtual games, but the physical skills required for sports introduce a whole new element that's extremely interesting. Sure, Counter-Strike might raise your reaction time, but that's just your eyes and your hands. A squash player, now, she'll need to move her whole body.

I see the value in sports. I just don't find it fun to, actually, you know, play, due to skill mismatch. People are either way better or much worse. Unless it's capture the flag, paintball, or some other 'new' sport. The sports I do enjoy are one-on-one, but they carry a high risk of injury or are a heavy time sink.

I do wonder why people haven't come up with a better game- one that maximizes suspense and use of complex tactics.

But which sport has had the most rules changes over time? A cursory glance suggests the NFL, but I suppose I should make a note to crunch those numbers when I'm inclined.

One last thing. I think there might be a better way to structure professional teams to encourage drama. As the saying goes, you're just rooting for a jersey. Perhaps some sort of player buy-in to a team might change that. After all, city leagues, high school games, national, and even college sports make for more compelling stories.

Comment author: adamzerner 28 December 2015 04:49:09PM *  0 points [-]

Interesting points about sports being so meritocratic; I never thought about it that way.

Mandated by work?!

What have your experiences been like with fantasy football? Sorry to be so negative but I've been appalled at the way people approach it. I had an argument with someone once that ended up reducing to the fact that he was valuing a player by how many points they produce (Aaron Rodgers) and I was valuing him less because I was valuing him based on how many points he scores relative to what the alternative would be (I even linked him to the article, which didn't change his mind; it was an ego thing; I'm playing him in the championship now, yay competition!).

I've also been disappointed to see that people heavily reach for players in the draft, effectively saying "I disagree with all of the experts". Maybe they are just trying to have fun and don't actually think it's the best strategy? That isn't my impression, my impression is that it's genuine. Personally, I largely stick to the rankings (experts know more than me), but I do adjust based on the strategy I'm taking, and I do disagree with the experts sometimes. This year, for example, I valued the elite wide receivers very highly compared to the experts (because I liked the receivers and because I didn't like many running backs this year).

I actually never heard the expression of "rooting for a jersey", but I'm very glad to learn of it! Personally, I'm one of the few people I've encountered who doesn't root for a jersey; I root for the teams that I think play the game the right way. In basketball this means I change a lot year to year. In football, I've been a big Steeler fan for a while. Admittedly, I do "root for the jersey" to a nontrivial extent with the Steelers, but at the same time I like the way they approach things and would stop rooting for them it they stopped doing the things I like.

Sorry to hear that you haven't found people to play with whom your skills are matched well with :(

I'd be interested to see a sport (re)designed to encourage drama and fun. Leagues have taken steps to do this, but I think that they are marginal steps as opposed to a fundamental restructuring. Ex. NHL (and soccer too?) made the goals bigger, NBA and NFL penalize hand checking more which benefits the offense and makes for a higher scoring and more fast paced game.

Comment author: Brillyant 28 December 2015 06:12:41PM 1 point [-]

I've also been disappointed to see that people heavily reach for players in the draft, effectively saying "I disagree with all of the experts".

This can be a good strategy. I've played in leagues where the winners have won largely because they chose players before the experts projected they should go.

Following the consensus will likely yield the highest average performance over a span of several seasons, but the experts get it wrong sometimes. If you can pick the overachievers in any given season, it can yield a championship.

Comment author: adamzerner 28 December 2015 06:16:56PM 0 points [-]

Good point.

Comment author: raydora 10 January 2016 05:02:26PM 0 points [-]

We have mandatory 'fun days' where we grill hot dogs and play ultimate football.

Thanks for the link, I'll definitely attempting to implement some of the lessons from it to my draft next year. Incidentally, drafting is where I've always failed- I kind of just picked players without any knowledge or analysis, and then figured out what I could do with them during the season. The waiver wire helped, of course. Mine is an extremely blue collar league, so there's not much in the way of strategy besides 'I follow my gut'.

Comment author: [deleted] 27 December 2015 01:20:19PM *  1 point [-]

I want to learn to sail to signal status, stay fit, and learn a practical survival skill.

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In order to achieve an edge, the athlete of tomorrow will have to gain a mental edge to achieve success over equally physically developed and gifted opponents.

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Comment author: [deleted] 04 February 2016 11:41:47PM -1 points [-]

I like adventure sports that pit people against nature rather than the mainstream team and adversarial sports that pit people against one another. The government and responsible corporations ought not fund divisive entertainment!