A conventional definition from our neighbors across the pond describes sport as “an activity involving physical exertion in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.” On paper, it seems quite a facile concept, however, reality often casts a stark contrast on what seems to be too good to be true. Personally, I believe the aforementioned definition to be debatable. Some might say inaccurate or even unrealistic. In Ireland in particular, it seems to me that we are turning a blind eye to the entertainment aspect of our games. A prime example of this within an amateur game, was Donegal’s quest for All-Ireland glory in 2011.
Jim McGuinness (the revolutionist behind modern Gaelic football) went to severe and questionable lengths in an attempt to bring the Sam Maguire cup back to the Glens of Donegal. These measures entailed; a “legally binding” document agreed upon by players and management, phone confiscation, but most of all, an outlandish claim expressing that they “were putting (their) our lives on hold” to capture the All-Ireland title. Keep in mind, this is an amateur game. Amateur.
Furthermore, it is my opinion that sport represents far more than a mere “activity”. For many of us, I believe that sport embodies us. It becomes part of our heritage, our lifestyle and our mental and physical backbone. These intangible, innate elements of us as human beings cause us to embody a passionate and unforgiving type of being. The phrase “wearing your heart on your sleeve” is often spoken about, yet rarely visible. That being said, the Rugby giant Paul O’Connell made sure to make his feelings heard during his famous “manic aggression” speech; be it the evocative language or the explicit, the speech never ceases to make the hair on my neck stand up. The reverberation effect is truly profound with all team members instantly calling for duty.
This conjures up questions. Why do they do it? What is the reasoning behind their rationale? Why are they adamant to experience this “activity” which entails “enjoyment.” The reason, I think is related to two broad, simplistic terms entrapped within sport: Winning and Losing. Obviously the former representing the more favored.
Many of us may be familiar with psychological techniques before matches or contests. They usually take the form of breathing exercises, team huddles or a bombastic speech from a coach. Personally, I always seem to revert back to the reliable technique of visualization. Casting my mind back to a victorious accomplishment. Sporadic thoughts ensue, most notably, the euphoric high of being on cloud nine, the emphatic adrenaline rush and finally, the relief of knowing that all the blood-curdling passion was worth it.
However, that defiant feeling and unprecedented ground can quickly be diminished if the result is on the opposite side of the coin. There is a claim that the pain of losing is twice as painful as the exhilaration of happiness in victory. The depths of despair athletes succumb to can be quite frightening. For example, John Mullane vividly recites the post-activity after the All-Ireland semi-final loss of 2007 to Limerick. He recounts, as he pulled “over the curtains and, I didn’t come outside the door for three days.” In yet another “amateur” game. This type of behavior, along with subliminal messages within your mind and the ever-lasting “what did I do to deserve this” plea to a supernatural power, are only a few of the effects on the infinite list of what impact a loss can have on an athlete.
With all that considered, it does yield the question is it worth it? In my eyes, of course sport is worth it. Regardless of the result, there is one inevitability: Life goes on. As the well-renowned tennis player Billie Jean King once remarked: “Sports teaches you character, it teaches you to play by the rules, it teaches you to know what it feels like to win and lose- it teaches you about life.” What an education.