What’s wrong with competitive sports? Okay, I understand that our Rabbis want us to identify ourselves more with our soul than our body – but the body houses the soul, why not keep it in good working order?
Clearly the problem is not the exercise component of sports (though exercise can be overdone at the expense of developing our spirituality). The main problem is that competitive sports, today, have become a reflection of a sick and competitive society that glorifies “winners” and vilifies “losers” and where the concept of a true victory has been lost.
As someone who was very athletic in my youth, I remember how many good things I learned from participating on sports teams: how sports helped my self-esteem by achieving more than I had achieved before; by learning to accept defeat; by learning to nullify my ego for the greater good of the team. But I also remember how I was taught that winning is everything; that I should have no mercy on my opponent; and that I should be ashamed of myself when I lost.
This summer, Hashem brought all of this into sharper focus for me when I was asked to run a basketball clinic for 30 boys in my neighborhood from very religious homes. They were mostly Israeli boys who knew very little about sports in general and even less about basketball in particular (which is much less popular in Israel than soccer). I’ll admit to you that I did have some hesitation about participating in this venture. Sometime before I moved here, somebody put a sign up inviting people to join a basketball game, and the sign was torn down sparking a whole controversy in town which didn’t end in a good way.
Regardless of the risk of controversy, I really wanted to coach these boys because I welcomed the chance to teach them Torah values in an enjoyable athletic setting. I certainly wasn’t looking to get embroiled in another conflict between the pro-sports and anti-sports factions in my community (where the anti-sports faction was in the majority). Yet, I thought, here I have the opportunity to present these boys with the Torah’s approach to dealing with the challenges of conflict, revenge, competition, victory, defeat, despair – the emotions that sports bring out in people. Since I didn’t think that they were being taught this in yeshiva, I decided to accept the offer.
The first thing that kids need to understand in order to be properly prepared for the competition of sports and life in general, is that the emphasis that the secular world puts on “winning” has very little significance to us. It may feel good for the moment to be the “winner” and to “defeat or destroy” the opponent but this isn’t a healthy outlook according to our Torah perspective. The problem with wanting to win for the sake of winning and trashing your “enemy” (the other team) is that there is nothing permanent about this empty kind of “victory” – sometimes you will be the “victor” and sometimes you’ll be the “vanquished.” And on a deeper level you have done nothing to help unify the world which is our purpose.
In high school, when our team won we were “on top of the world” and when we lost it was understood that there would be no talking on the bus on the way back from the game. It was as though we were sitting shiva (mourning). And for what? A game? We were taught that it was a humiliating disgrace to lose!
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Have a wonderful day!