For us college basketball enthusiasts, March Madness is here! As their fan, I was delighted when my college’s men’s and women’s teams progress through the NCAA Division III tournament‘s first two rounds to the “Sweet 16.” Alas, both Hope College teams then saw seeming victories snatched in the final seconds by the jaws of defeat.
The disappointing results prompted some morning-after reflections on the parallels between sport and life. As stage theater reenacts the dramas of everyday life, so the sports arena offers a microcosm of life itself.
Identity. As social animals, we live in groups, cheer on our groups, sacrifice for our groups. Our groups help define who we are, and who we are not. Our ancestors, knowing that there was sustenance and safety in solidarity, divided the world into “us” and “them,” reserving their most intense rivalry for those “others” closest at hand. As Freud observed, “Of two neighboring towns, each is the other’s most jealous rival.” The pleasures and passions of sport express our group identities.
Grit. Disciplined effort + a belief in one’s possibilities = excellence. Whether a point guard or a pianist, preparation seasoned with inspiration prepares one for the big stage moment. Persist in striving for excellence, without being derailed by setbacks, and we may achieve great things.
Mistakes. Yet, no matter the effort and the excellence, mistakes will happen. No one—no athlete, no musician, no business person—is perfect. Our aim in life can never be flawlessness, but rather having our good judgments vastly exceed our missteps.
Chance. After thousands of hours of preparation, a single shot that rattles in or out, a rebound that caroms to one’s teammate or the opponent, proves decisive. And so in life. Two intersecting cars meet at the same freakish moment and a life is snuffed. Two people arbitrarily cross paths, and a lifelong partnership forms.
Possibilities. In sport and in life, the possibility of a bad outcome makes a good outcome more gratifying. The darkness of night defines the light of day. Experiencing sickness helps us appreciate health. The pain of separation enables the joy of reunion. There is little pleasure in good endings apart from the ever-present possibility of the bad.
Death. College seniors on 63 of 64 teams entering the NCAA basketball tournaments will find their sporting lives ending in defeat, the death of their dreams. And so in life, which always ends in death.
Hope. Even so, many of us live with hope that on death’s other side is a new beginning. For the returning athletes and their fans there is next year. And for the senior athletes, there is a developed capacity for self-discipline and teamwork that—applied to new life goals—will take them to new and bigger life successes.