Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.
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.
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.
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."