Games of Life

mixed sport6


Unlike most seasons, when a single sport often dominates attention, summer offers a range to choose from – making it a great time for sporting analogies.

So, which sport does life most resemble?

Football, according to New York Times columnist David Brooks. Though baseball and football are both team sports, baseball…

“is basically an accumulation of individual activities… In soccer, almost no task…is intrinsically individual.”

People might think they are playing baseball in their daily lives, he says, but in fact their decisions are influenced by their surroundings – more like football.

Everyday thought and language are packed with analogies. They can help explain things by comparing something hard to picture with something more familiar, like the picture of atoms we learn at school, where electrons whizz round the nucleus like the planets revolve around the sun.

Metaphors, the most common sort of analogy, trigger images in a listener’s mind and give body to something hard to picture (“bubbles” or “froth” in markets, “landslide victories” in elections…), so they’re particularly common in news and business communication. Often the aim is to add drama to something mundane: a “financial meltdown” sounds more urgent than “falls in some prices”.

You have to be careful though. An analogy is not a substitute for reality, just one way of looking at a particular aspect of the world. Atoms, you learn later, are much more complicated. And inappropriate comparisons can get people into trouble. A former UK government minister was criticised for saying she could see “a few green shoots” of economic recovery. The metaphor was seen as inappropriately bright at a time when people were losing their jobs.

Brooks was being light hearted, and there’s a lot of truth in his comments and those he links to here on how it’s “a game about occupying and controlling space.”

However, I’d like to add a couple of points.

In one respect, football is more individual than baseball. Baseball (like American football) consists of a series of plays, so coaches can issue instructions during the pauses. But a footballer with the ball at his feet is on his own: he decides the next move.

Arsène Wenger struggled with this when he worked in Japan (where baseball was the dominant sport), and told players they needed to take decisions rather than looking to the coach for instructions. (See my book Japanese Rules, referenced here.)

Second, how about cycling as an analogy for our dependence on others?

In the 15th stage of the 2014 Tour de France, two cyclists quickly broke away from the peloton. This was risky. Cycling tactics are based on minimising wind resistance, and riders in a group can take turns working hard at the front, while spending most of their time sheltering behind others.

But New Zealander Jack Bauer and Swiss Martin Elmiger split from the peloton early on in the 222 km race, after which each was without any wind shelter for about half the time. By the end they were spent, and the peloton caught them just 50 metres from the finish line. The heartbreaking last kilometre gives an idea of how it might feel to be chased by a pack of wolves.

Breaking away from the pack is often admired, and popular culture makes heroes of those with the courage to do so. But sometimes the pack catches up with you.

Then again, that’s just cycling, and just one way of looking at a particular aspect of the world.