Those moments when we are innocently off-guard – when we are dreaming or daydreaming, fantasising, preoccupied and, yes, playing sport – can give us insights into our basic biology . . . our human nature.
Sport engages all humanity, it has universal appeal, and for that reason we can safely assume that its attraction lies deep within our being. Another indication of sport’s instinctive character comes from its irrationality: why do we make such a deep emotional commitment to an activity that is of such little consequence?
A short history of sport
Inscriptions on the monuments of ancient Egypt depict wrestling, weightlifting, long jump, swimming, rowing, fishing, gymnastics, and athletics including the tug-o-war, as well as various kinds of ball games. Egyptians established rules for games that were supervised by a neutral referee, where there were uniforms for players, and prize ‘collars’ awarded to the winners. Both winners and losers were applauded, the winners for their skill and the losers for their sporting spirit. Sports, games and entertainment were also a part of Mesopotamian life where hunting was the preferred activity of the wealthy class in a tradition that has persisted to the present day.
However, our Western sporting tradition and its culture comes to us more directly from ancient Greece as filtered through the classically educated gentlemen who established and administered the British Empire.
Minoan youths boxing Fresco on the Greek island of Akrotiri (Santorini) dating to c.1500-900 BCE This is the ealiest record of the use of boxing gloves Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Athletic contests helped define what it was to be an ancient Greek and a hero – especially during the games convened at Olympia every fourth year. This was a religious festival. Mount Olympus was the home of the Gods and the games were held to honour Zeus, the closing ceremonial climax accompanied by the sacrifice of 100 oxen. This was the largest gathering of Greeks in a 5-day celebration of extreme competition between the various regional groupings of the Greek empire, regions that had often met in war. At the first Olympic Games, probably convened in 776 BCE, the contestants were drawn from the local population but, before long, competitors were drawn from the whole of Greece. Only those with wealth and leisure time could take part because training involved several hours a day working out in special gymnasia where professional coaching was offered. Much of the action took place in an arena called the hippodrome where the spectacle of four-horse chariot races wewas enjoyed as the supreme elite Greek sport.
The range of sports was, like the Egyptians, varied, and included boxing, wrestling, long jump, archery, throwing the javelin, and running, especially the famous marathon (to commemorate the Greek soldier Pheidippides who in 490 BCE ran from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news of the defeat of the invading Persian army of Darius I at Marathon, gasping out nikomen (‘We have won’) before he collapsed and died, the Persian defeat marking a turning point in the Greco-Persian Wars. A highlight of the games was the pankration, a particularly brutal mix of boxing and wrestling with anything allowed except eye gouging and biting – like today’s cage fighting. Said to have been invented by Heracles and Theseus it was introduced in 648 BCE. Victors at the Games were guaranteed social prestige and the adoration of the womenfolk. But Greek society was male in the extreme, only men competing (Sparta was different). A cult of the male body developed as exercise was performed naked to permit full appreciation of musculature and the human form in a tradition associated with pederasty: ‘Happy the lover who works out at the gym, then goes home to sleep all day with a beautiful boy’ (Theognis lines 1,335-336, cited in Morris & Powell).
Socially there was a firm link between athletic prowess, bloodlines, and marriage in the maintenance of an aristocratic social elite. And, as the Romans later demonstrated so well, special public events like this diverted the populace from their usual dangerous grumbling and whining about politics.
Though physical prowess has been admired in most cultures the obsession with strange and often absurd but harmless sporting contests in the Greek tradition was most avidly adopted by the British. The first modern Olympic Games took place under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee and hosted in Athens in 1896 at the height of the British Empire.
Sport obviously has universal appeal but in England with the Factory Act of 1847, which reduced worker hours, there was a new flowering of sport and a period in which most of today’s international sports, under Britains lead, were codified. Whatever we think about Britain’s colonial past we often ignore its legacy to organised sport.
From the old British empire we have the colonial relic of cricket teams in Australia, the West Indies, India, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. The founding of the Mary-le-bone Cricket Club is generally dated to 1787 when Thomas Lord opened a ground at Dorset Square although it was pre-dated by a former club known by various names including ‘The Noblemen’s and Gentlemen’s Club’ or ‘The Cricket Club’. This was essentially a social and gambling club connected to the London Cricket Club, the Jockey Club, prizefighting and other diversions. The England cricket team dates to the early 20th century and called itself the MCC up to and including the 1976/77 tour of Australia. The origin of the red and yellow colours of the club is unknown although the players often wore sky blue, the colours of both Eton College and Cambridge University. Only in the late 1990s was female membership permitted.
The first Aboriginal cricket team Photographed with coach and captain Tom Wills outside the MCC pavilion of the Melbourne Cricket Ground – 1866 Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Horses, an integral part of western life until the advent of the car, still feature in arenas of various kinds (an echo of the Greek hippodrome) at places like Hong Kong, a British colony founded in 1840 and the Olympic Games, extended to greyhound racing associated with hunting dogs. At St Moritz, Switzerland there is (still held) the White Turf horse-racing event which dates to the 1907 British winter social season as entertainment for the well-heeled continental ski set. Then there are sports like rugby and American gridiron football (rugby originated from and was named after perhaps the most famous of the 19th century schools of empire), soccer (emerging in its modern form in mid-19th century as part of the attempt to standardise the various forms of football played in English public schools), and tennis (the modern game originating in 19th century England). Table tennis originated in Britain during the 1880s when it was played among the upper-class as an after-dinner amusement, possibly first devised by British military officers in India or South Africa who also created badminton by adding a net to the traditional game of battledore and shuttlecock – shuttlecocks dating back to games in ancient Greece. Then there is the peculiarly eccentric and sedately aggressive English game of croquet which was given a formal set of rules in 1856 by the All-England Croquet Club formed at Wimbledon, London, in 1868. Though the origins of golf are uncertain, some have suggested the source of the name as an acronym with a distinctly Greco-British imperial flavour … Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden.
As a sporting ideal the Olympic Games has led to strange tournaments like the Pacific Games where Pacific Islanders and New Guinea natives engage in the time-honoured but bizarre classical tests of physical prowess like throwing the discus and putting the shot.
A metaphor for life
Part of the ethos of gentlemanly sport was treating athletic contests as a metaphor for life. Sport was character-building: it taught you to ‘play the game’ and it was on the playing fields of Engish public schools that the leaders of the British Empire were trained for their future role in empire. Sadly on the world stage at the time of the British Empire the much-vaunted principle of fair play for all, as in ancient Greek tradition, was only fair play for the select few – the ‘even playing field’ did not extend to other nations and races.
Of course, as a British convict society, Australia embraced the preoccupation with sport as it was an opportunity to beat the patrician ‘poms’ at their own game.
Sport & human nature
As Sigmund Freud pointed out in his book Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), life is an uncomfortable compromise between what we would like to do as completely free individuals and what is acceptable within our community. Our true nature, our natural inclinations, are held in check by the socially imposed laws, rules and conventions that are necessary for the smooth running of society: we trade individual freedom for social stability. To see what I mean reflect on the legal institution of marriage and the popular assertion that men think about sex at least once every sixty seconds. You get the idea.
Sport & reason
Our first indication that we are entering a psychological area of special interest comes with the acknowledgement that sport is indeed irrational.
Of course we use reason to devise its strategies, to organise our teams and so on, but the fact remains that its overall purpose is not really apparent. What does it really matter which sporting team is top of some table or other? One group of people working together to manipulate a ball more effectively than another group may be of interest in terms of physical skills like hand-eye coordination but this is of little consequence to our life situation either as individuals or groups. We know that sport is enjoyed because, unlike life, its consequences rarely cut deeply into our lives. But playing the game can become so much like the contest of life that it it becomes confused with it. As a research student at university I had a friend who, when his team lost a weekend match, would arrive at work with all the symptoms of chronic depression. He would not speak, and this was no pretence. This prompted a kind of sporting epiphany concerning sport’s irrationality: for many people sport is not casual entertainment, a healthy and relaxing way to relieve pent up emotions – it is much more than that … it is serious, the metaphor can become reality. So here is our first insight. Absence of rationality in a major human activity is an indication that we have entered the realm of biology and instinct and, in common parlance, sport is tribal. But let’s scratch a little below the surface of this saying.
Though in reality sport is more or less harmless there is always the danger of some physical damage and occasionally this can be substantial – enough for mothers to feel doubtful about enrolling children in school sport and for a small proportion of professional athletes to be injured for life. Let’s say there is enough real danger to give each contest some real edge. However, for the most part we can enjoy the roller-coaster ride of emotions related to triumph and humiliation without our lives undergoing major change – nobody is killed or made pregnant. Sport is a good way of releasing all our frustrations by venting pent-up emotions – it is a socially-approved way of letting off steam.
Now let’s look more closely at all the psychological components of this emotional ‘steam’.
We have learned from moral psychologists that there are several ‘hot buttons’ that tap into our human nature, traits that are related to our psychological hard-wiring and, as they stand at present, we can list them as follows (see Moral psychology):
1. care/harm (helping and hurting) 2. fairness/cheating (reciprocity, altruism, empathy, cooperation, free-riding) 3. loyalty/betrayal (affiliations, in-groups & out-groups, strangers, tribes, coalitions) 4. sanctity/degradation (physical or spiritual purity/contamination especially in relation to food, sex, & death) 5. authority/subversion (hierarchy, pecking order, respect, dignity, honour)
There is not space to consider each of these factors in detail but it is immediately clear that sport ticks all the boxes – the reader can fill in much of the detail. But perhaps just a few general remarks are in order.
Each game is like life insofar as there is a set of rules that we all understand must be observed. Breaking those rules results in a penalty of some kind. Within the boundaries of these rules we are free as individuals and groups to achieve particular outcomes. Any team or individual competing successfully against another will have displayed not only the agreed skills but also the major traits of courage, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. Team sports also make weaknesses self-evident – any lack of skill, selfishness, cowardice, lack of self-control, and disobedience can be seen and managed, because all these factors can have a negative effect on the outcome. Though we might see the selflessness of a team memember sacrificing themselves for the team as a whole, we can admire the way individual players display dogged determination, cunning, perhaps the capacity to break the rules a little and get away with it while blatant cheating or free-riding is unacceptable.
At the end of a game there is the pride and honour of victory or the humiliation of defeat, and both are expected to be accepted with grace. Sport ensures that at the end of the day we ‘know our place’ – whether this be the position of our team in a league table or where we stand on the higher and lower levels of a victory podium an whether we are given gold, silver or bronze medals when we come first, second or third. We might not like the place where we end up but we understand the rules that needed to be observed by all contestants and we also know and understand why we have been placed in our particular position. Team events provide the opportunity to demonstrate leadership skills. In all of these ways sport has a satisfying lack of the ambiguity that is so common in real life. When someone wins a 100 metre dash or a team prevails in a football match the result, and the reasons for that result, are clear-cut, public, and final. We might argue about the deal we are dealt in many aspects of life’s lottery but if someone runs faster than us in a fair sprint then there is little more to be said.
The only time when people pack close together in vast numbers at regular intervals is at a sporting contest. Yes, there is the occasional music festival or political rally but these are sporadic events. But week after week sporting contests can guarantee mass gatherings of tens of thousands of people all yelling and screaming together for hours on end. Sport can be shared, it can give vicarious excitement as spectators express support and opposition that is profoundly felt. Sport is usually open-air, communal, and highly entertaining so there are plenty of other benefits.
Philip Clarke of the Australian Museum notes how reports of Aboriginal children at play indicate games as both entertainment and preparation for the hunt and battle. ‘Many games involved the motion of objects’, that children would chase seed-balls driven by the wind along the beach and clay pans, and that ‘As with children everywhere, ball games were popular’, games resembling European hockey and marbles and catching, some with opposing sides, spinning objects and enjoying the flight of winged fruits, skipping ropes and swings, girls would make plant dolls and boys play at hunting with mock spears and targets.(pp. 86-89)
So far I have looked at the more general psychological aspects of sport that you will probably have thought about many times yourself. But I think there is a deeper and more significant aspect to sport that goes unacknowledged, a meta-analysis.
Nature & nurture; the organism-environment continuum; me here now
If we are actually the ones participating in sporting event then there is the excitement of the contest itself and the challenge of keeping our bodies fit and our minds alert as we aim for peak physical and mental condition. During the experience we cannot concentrate on other things, we cannot introspect, we just act – we must be here, now, alert and in the moment. This is the ultimate confirmation of our existence, the height of awareness, a point in time when our consciousness is so focussed that we forget about everything else, when we are ‘in the zone’. This is the nearest we get to a fusion of our minds with the external world, a brief moment in time when we cannot be absolutely sure about what will happen next but we know that whatever does happen could be of great significance. As a player, we have the capacity to influence and control the result.
It is for this heightened sense of awareness that people travel in droves to simply stand and watch, to imbibe the reality of action in space and time, as an affirmation of the reality of their existence. Mundane living has some of this quality but at a lesser intensity. We also experience its power through the performing arts where one slight change in what happens in a moment can mar a living performance or turn it into magic. Awareness of the vital importance of this knife-edge of now, of action in time, is something is shared by the audience. But though in the performing arts we have degrees of excellence, sport is more brutal and matter-of-fact, it has winners and losers.
A sporting contest is one of the few places where we can see raw human emotion at its extreme as we watch the eyes, facial expressions and erratic behaviour of nerve-wracked team coaches and the swaying, screaming crowd-drunk spectators. We can see our human nature and we can see our animal nature.
But it is all about the engagement of our internal world, our minds, with the external world of matter and people in a state of intense experience and concentration. For the contestants the engagement involves their bodies as well. The insight, perhaps too obvious to see at first, is that sport is a full affirmation of our being in the world in a way in which religion, meditation, and introspection can never be – sport is the closest we can get to a physical and psychological fusion with the world outside ourselves, the world out of which we are made. Unlike introspective meditation, which is the mind looking in on itself, sport is in-and-of-the-world engaging the environment and other people directly. So much of our living revolves around ‘imagined realities’ – our political systems, social conventions, religions and philosophies are all products of our human capacity for conceptual thinking and as such are a step away from the real material world. We know that such things carry uncertainty, opinion, all restrained and constrained by the greyness of cultural rules and conventions. In contrast a sporting contest is out-there, real, and fully comprehensible to all once the rules are understood: it is a tough, uncompromising and self-evident world (even though the interpretation of the rules can be loudly contested).
Evolutionary psychology can add further support to these ideas. Sporting teams number mostly 6-18 people which is about the size of a hunter-gatherer hunting band. The ball, so necessary in sport, is like the darting prey that is pursued in a life and death act that demands the maximal use of human sensory faculties. This is the way that our sensory faculties evolved. In sport we are reliving the thrill of the ancient hunt as pursuer and prey engage all their wits, knowledge, experience, senses, physical prowess, and understanding of the world outside themselves in a contest fought in fractions of time – and where death is a likely outcome. All honour comes from the community to the person who secures the prize, to the hero or heroine – because group survival depends on their skill.
All sport is about competition, pitting one person or group of people against another. This can be a painful process, both literally and metaphorically. We know that there will be winners and losers so our dignity and pride are at stake. We must learn and accept that sometimes we will lose and this too must be endured with grace. All this tests and affirms our humanity: at the end of the day, and whatever the result, we feel the consequences of physical exertion and the mental satisfaction of having tried our hardest by putting our physical ability to the test. As all sports psychologists know, we have also been testing our mental resilience and strength: the exercise was not just about our bodies.
Warfare & conflict
Much of what we see here can be directly translated into warfare and conflict. Only after the two world wars of the twentieth century has a proportion of humanity downplayed the honour and courage always previously associated with warfare. For almost all of human history it has been on the battlefield that men demonstrated their moral and physical strength, their courage, character and ability to lead. Here the ultimate activity of life is played out as one man is given the social sanction to take the life of another. The horse was known to ancient Indian and Persian cultures by about 6500 BP. Like chess and the lute the game of polo spread from this ancient European core, to be borrowed by the British in the nineteenth century from one the British dominions, India, to become known as ‘the sport of kings’ in a tradition rooted in horsemanship, the hunt, and warfare – an integral part of trans-Eurasian royal culture.
And here we have before us much of our modern dilemma. We have inherited from our evolutionary past characteristics that do not necessarily equip us for today’s world. We see in football hooliganism and the behaviour of incensed sporting crowds a full engagement with the world that can overflow into the emotions of the hunt. Sport allows us to see these emotions clearly and to know what it is we must manage.
Commentary & sustainability analysis
A strong theme of the articles on this web site has been that if we are to create a sustainable future then one of the major factors that we must come to understand and manage is ourselves. Sport can give us valuable insights into our human nature and the organism-environment continuum.
We all know that engaging with the physical world is good for us. The ancient Greeks pre-Socratic philosopher Thales had a saying akin to that of the Roman poet Juvenal ‘mens sana in corpore sano’ (a sound mind in a sound body). Evolution has constructed our bodies and minds to interact with a world that is external to our minds – and that means moving our bodies and exploring our senses in the environment, something many of us find increasingly difficult to achieve.
Sport teaches us that the real material world is exciting, it is something that we all have in common and something about which we all agree; it is about shared cognition and perception. Sport is a great tonic to those sentiments that focus on our individuality and the solipsistic treatment of our minds as subjective prisons. Whatever our diverse beliefs about the world, a game of cricket is real, unambiguous and, for the most part, uncontroversial. It allows us to express unequivocal approval and disapproval and to give full vent to the contents of our moral psychology.
It is no surprise that science shows us how physical activity like sport improves our cognitive flexibility, memory and mental focus. In simple terms it helps us to avoid distraction and focus more effectively on the task at hand. It is especially effective in combating ADHD. We know that even light exercise can stimulate the release of endorphins, dopamine and serotonin that improve our mood and cognitive performance acting as a mild antidepressant. Exercise is therefore a mild form of medication with significant benefits to our brains as well as our bodies.
This is a confirmation of the inevitable state of mental excitement that occurs during the interplay of our mental world and the world that lies outside our minds – what happens when there is full engagement of the two. Sport relates to sustainability through its insights into human nature. And it is human nature that is among the most important factors likely to influence our future on planet earth.
So, why do we devote so much time and emotional energy to sport?
Because sporting events take place within strictly defined boundaries of space and time, forcing us to concentrate all our mental and physical resources on the here and now to the exclusion of any other concerns, towards a definite end point, knowing that there will be a socially acceptable and definitive conclusion. In teams the same size as the maximally-efficient composition of a hunter-gatherer band, in which each member can know and understand the nature of each other member. The closest we can get to a psychological fusion with the physical world out of which we are made.
Moments when we are off-guard – as when we are dreaming, fantasising or playing sport – give us insights into our human nature
Emotional investment in sport is irrational because it does not match real-life outcomes
We enjoy the ‘emotional ride’ of victory and loss without the real-life consequences, such as death or social humiliation: it serves as an emotional release – a way of letting off steam
Sport emulates life in being bounded by a code of behaviour, a framework of rules within which groups and individuals can pursue particular objectives in competition with other individuals or groups
Team sports also emulate life by clearly displaying individual skills and behavioural characteristics. At the same both positive and negative behavioural traits are self-evident and exposed for all to see: positive behavioural traits of honour, loyalty, self-sacrifice, obedience, and physical strength or dexterity; and negative traits such as lack of skill, selfishness, cowardice, lack of self-control
There is a simplicity and clarity about both the process and outcomes while in real life there is often ambiguity and uncertainty
Sport is usually open-air, communal, and entertaining
For participants in sport there is the challenge of maintaining the body in peak form and the mind alert
 see Wikipedia Marylebone Cricket Club  see http://www.touregypt.net/historicalessays/ancsportsindex.htm
Morris, I. & Powell, B.B. 2014. The Greeks: History, Culture, and Society. (2nd edn). Pearson: Harlow