What are sports and why do we play them? Sports are such a universal part of culture that it’s easy to take their existence for granted. Fresh air and exercise might seem a sufficient explanation in an era of drive-thrus and desk jobs but the tremendous expenditure of energy they demand deserves an explanation in a broader historical context. Today I’m going to examine the evolution and meaning of a class of sports called invasion games. Invasion games are a class of team sports in which two groups of athletes defend and attack opposite ends of a specified playing surface.
The standard soundbite on invasion games is that they evolved out of inter-tribal raiding behavior. While this view isn’t exactly incorrect, it’s an incomplete and insufficient explanation for a phenomenon that spans thousands of cultures and years. I’ve made no secret of my admiration for the great Swiss thinker Jean Piaget and I find his ideas illuminating when applied to this topic. We typically believe that thought precedes action. Piaget observed the opposite. He noticed that children were able to functionally participate in games without the ability to articulate the rules. He believed that these rules or principles existed first in an unconscious form that had to be acted out and observed before it could be consciously understood. In other words, we act on principles we aren’t aware of and then observe those actions and extract out the patterns.
This point of view is supported by the observation of the universal tendency of culture to create rituals that express the essence of the culture itself. Whether they are manifested in art, music, dance, or sport, these traditions can be thought of as an unconscious acting out of patterns of life that may then be observed and understood. Because the unconscious mind understands before the conscious mind, we are drawn towards acting out the patterns that exist in this intermediary space. This is why we are able to act them out. The understanding is embodied but is not yet conscious enough to be articulated. This is also the mechanism behind play therapy and psychodrama.
What I hope to do is point out how invasion games contain an embodied understanding of many of the principles that science has not yet been able to explain. Science is usually applied to sport with the intention of understanding the sport with the intention of improving performance. I believe science would do well to use the popular sports of the time to guide research towards the edge of our collective understanding. Below I outline several examples that illustrate this phenomenon.
The ball and objective reality
I believe that the addition of a ball in invasion games was an early acting out of the concept of the objective or non-personal reality. It’s the idea that I believe something, you believe something, but there is also a reality that is independent of these personal perspectives. We can see the acting out of this shift in sport. Instead of competing against each other directly, we began to compete to manipulate a third-party object such as a ball. If one team could take the ball and impose their will on it despite the efforts of the opposition, they were more aligned with objective reality. The ball exists in a neutral space between those who would wish to do opposite things with it. The idea that we all compete to influence a collective space that exists independently of any of us might seem obvious now, but we had to act it out before we could consciously understand it.
The Red Queen Problem
The Red Queen Problem is a reference to the the scene in Alice in Wonderland where the red queen proclaims that you have to run as fast as you can just to stay where you are. Scientists use this term to refer to the problem of the ever changing environment. Darwin said survival of the fittest, but many people forget that “fittest” has no permanent definition. As soon as you’ve settled on an evolutionary strategy, the environment will adjust its strategy to exploit your strategy. We see this same pattern in the rise and fall of the popular tactics of the day. Possession based styles will dominate until they become widespread enough to be exploited by a counter-attacking strategy, and the parody of evolution continues. Like life, there is no equilibrium point or universally advantageous strategy aside from constant adaptation – running as fast as you can just to stay where you are.
Time,or at least the perception of it is at the center of all high level performance. As we know, there is no objective unit of time. It is only perceivable as the relationship between two events. It is completely self-referenced. The universal advantage in sports is temporal resolution or adjusting to the opponent more often than the opponent adjusts to you. The nervous system of a house fly is structured with a different temporal resolution. To a fly, a movie would look like a slideshow. This is why it’s so hard to catch them mid-air. They adjust course at a rate that is outside of our perceptual structure. It appears that elite performers are responding to changes in the relationship between self and environment at a faster rate. These performers often describe this experience as being on “the razor’s edge” or in the space between the frames. This bending of time perception in rare cases is an example of something we understand intuitively, but haven’t yet come up with a sufficient explanation.
Much has been speculated about the idea of collective minds. One of the fundamental differences between humans and other animals is our ability to organize into groups that function with many of the characteristics of an individual. The flocks, herds, swarms, and colonies of other species do display some interesting group behaviors but we are unable to know what their internal experience is. Humans typically experience life in the form of a first-person narrative. This experience of self may be temporarily suspended in states of unification around a common goal. This “ego dissolution” is often described as a transcendental experience by those experience it. A group of skilled musicians improvising together will often speak of syncing up or being on the same wavelength. Similarly, teams have the ability to experience moments of connection that border on the telepathic.
New branches of science such as network theory and complex systems are beginning to explore these areas. Some scientists have claimed that collective structures like cities or the internet should be considered conscious. Our own “individual” minds are themselves the result a myriad of networks interacting in complex ways we don’t fully understand so it’s no surprise we’ve barely scratched the surface of the same problem at a higher order of magnitude.
Extended Mind Hypothesis
Yet another controversial topic in science and philosophy that we see represented in sport. The extended mind hypothesis states that the mind is not limited to what goes on within the skull. Because humans are such avid tool-users we are able to extend our self concept onto coupled objects. For example, a driver who experiences the movement of the car as their own. Part of skilled performance is this ability to develop a functional coupling between the performer and their tools or instruments. This explains the vague remarks so many star athletes make about being “one with the ball.” Novices experience themselves manipulating the ball. Experts don’t experience this gap between self and the ball because they’ve extended their self concept into the ball.
Early philosopher of science Michael Polanyi noticed that we are unable to simultaneously use a tool effectively and perceive our own use of that tool. Effective use always involves forgetting the separation between self and tool – ball in our case. While scientists argue whether this coupling is actually constitutive of mind, we experience it as such from a phenomenological perspective. Again, we’re acting out what we don’t yet fully understand.
Every culture has a term for some basic motivation or drive that propels us through life. Thanks to Sigmund Freud, our English word libido is imbued with strong sexual implications, but the concept was originally much broader. Easter philosophies refer to it as Qi or Prana. On our best days we feel this energy surging through us like electricity. We run faster, jump higher, and hit harder when we feel this energy. When it’s gone we feel sluggish and heavy. Perhaps because of the mercurial nature of this mysterious force, athletes are notoriously superstitious. Many sports teams will institute abstinence periods before big events such as the world cup to try to keep this energy intact. Obviously factors like muscle mass, genetics, nutrition, and fatigue play a role in force output, but one doesn’t have to be very mystical to admit that some days we just have more of that inexplicable fuel in our tanks.
Wilhelm Reich, one of Freud’s greatest but least known students studied the breathing patterns and muscular tension of his clients in search for this mysterious energy (he called it orgone). His work was later a big influence in our understanding of the autonomic nervous system, and also trauma therapy. Aside from various rituals and superstitions that athletes cling to, little is known about the dynamics of this force in sports. It’s that same pattern. It’s obvious to us these things exist at an experiential level, but our formal understanding lags behind. This doesn’t mean any of these things are magic. Sports are a collection of things we know in an unconscious embodied way. By acting them out, we become more aware of them until we are finally aware of the underlying principles.
Bonus: Which of the above dynamics do you see in these stadiums? How might it feel to be a performer competing in front of them?