Sports versus Games


I posted a picture recently in response to some parents who were concerned about some changes they started to notice in their children’s demeanors when it came to their membership on the track team.


The picture and caption sparked even more questions about what I meant when I talked about sports versus games. I had given similar talks about the topic and figured I’d share my explanation in the event it might help some parents, coaches or athletes wrap their brains around some feelings they may have.

Sports versus games

By no means is this an article about sports versus games in a sense of which is superior or which you should have your child do. But there is a difference and you the reader may have a better understanding of your child’s point of view or make your own decisions based on it.

Season after season I’ve seen certain parents struggle with reconciling track and field with the rest of their children’s (and their own) experiences. Some swim into it like a duck to water while some thrash about like a lobster in a pot. There are many many reasons for this but the central theme across all is what I call the understanding of sport versus game.

Nomenclature aside, I want to start by framing sport against games. For example, the sport of athletics is exactly that, a sport. When your child becomes an athlete they become sportsman. Besides striving for the gold medal or “the cup” they strive to be the best “sportsman”. Conversely when they play their part in a game they are game players and strive to win the game and contribute enough to become “most valuable player”.

Cut to the chase…

For the most part, sports allows for the individual (or sometimes a unit) to perform against other individuals (or units). Strategy and tactics are owned by individual.

“Alright already, Bill! What are sports?!”

Sports are those endeavors that link back to the survival of the species. That’s right. They test the most basic human bio-mechanical ability. Here are some examples:

“Go” sports – running, sprinting, dashing, cross country, walking, marathons, steeplechase, mountaineering, boating, auto racing, equestrian, swimming…anything where you go from here to there…these sports have existed since mankind began. 20130424-232558.jpg

Eons ago we ran to survive from being prey and eventually evolved into pack pursuit hunters. In fact, the only thing that humans do better than any other species on the planet (abstract thought aside) is run long distances in high heat. In packs, we chased our prey down until they collapsed from exhaustion. It is why our bodies self regulate temperature via perspiration and are furless (well, most of us anyway). It is how we first began to get our steady diet of high protein and why our brains exploded in size. As our brains grew so did our efficiency in hunting, which brings us to our next category…

“Hunt” sports – javelin, shooting, archery. These sports tests an individual’s ability to hit a target with accuracy – another unique human trait. They’re born from the need to bring home food.

“Work” sports – shot put, discus, gymnastics, weightlifting and the like test strength in measurements of force, distance, velocity and work. Those who did this the best built the best homesteads before the full understanding of simple machines.

“Love” sports – Dance in all its forms and it modern day cousins cheerleading and kick-line. When we do it we call it dance, when other species do we call it “mating rituals”. It showcases the physical prowess of an individual to potential suitors. (Let this be a lesson to you young lads…girls like boys who can dance and for good reason…learn to dance fellas!)

“Fight” sports – wrestling, martial arts, fencing, boxing, and war. Yes, war. These sports allow us to incapacitate an attacker to preserve the tribe. Sportsmanship in war is known as chivalry.


So what are games? Obviously in this article we are staying away from game theory and we’re not talking about individual, non-athletic games. Sorry Monopoly fans…

Clearly the most popular pastimes in the world are games. You know them well – football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, softball, tennis, volleyball, bowling, polo, and the like.

Those of you who are familiar with sports history know that most of these games have roots in preparing young men for war. For the most part they teach tactics and to some extent strategy.

Teams are made of of many players and take elements from sports and cobble them into a contrived set of tasks within a timeframe that is primarily done for the entertainment of the participants and observers of the game. Most have morphed into modern day interpretations of themselves and are a reflection of societal values.

Games are fun. Games are an escape. Games provide a controlled and safe environment for participants to engage in willing suspensions of belief. They’re good things. Teams are typically temporary and fluid form season to season. When a team wins a game, every member of the team and all their fans “win”! They build youth, communities and even nations.

“You can’t un-ring a bell…”

So what does this mean to parents?

We live in wonderful times that are tremendously safe compared to most times of human history. Our children today are protected and supported to an enormous degree. As such there are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of activities children can participate in from when they are newborns. Everything from “mommy and me” swimming lessons for babies to pre-k fitness to organized sports to ponies! Occasionally some children go through their early formative years never engaging in sports. It can be completely normal and acceptable for a young lad or lass to play pee wee soccer, then PAL basketball, then CYO volleyball or any other combination of games for that matter. Conversely others take judo, swimming, gymnastics, and dance. You’ll notice that these sports are mostly offered by private organizations.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…so?! What’s your point!?”

The point is that after many years of coaching I have found that those children who join the track & field team, those children who are first being exposed to a sport, encounter and emotional threshold that they have never encountered before. Sometimes it is done very publicly at their first track meet. What’s happening is that they are experiencing a pure form of self judgement. There is no team to blame, no coaches to argue with, nowhere to hide. They know that they win or lose their race on their own merits. Some are caught off-guard and get emotional. Win or lose, they get emotional. Some will cry. They may be tears of joy or tears of defeat but they will come.

And it is okay. It is normal. It is growth.

It is then when they realize…

“…this isn’t a game…”


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