Spiritual Lessons From Sport

Even for non-sports fans, sports offers excellent examples of how people behave when they’re functioning from an enlightened perspective. The lesson I’ll present today surrounds my own city, Edmonton, Canada, and our hockey team, The Edmonton Oilers.

The context is that Edmonton got an NHL team at the end of the 70’s and within only five years that team began a run of 5 Stanley Cups. Frankly, it created very high expectations that have since proven quite painful. With one almost accidental exception, the team has floundered at the bottom of the entire league for twenty years.

The contrast between the two team histories had made Edmonton hockey fans a somber bunch. There wasn’t much to rally good thoughts around. Recently, into the vacuum created by seasons of finishing last, came a once-a-generation elite draft pick and a brilliant new coach and GM and the nicest arena in sports. Suddenly the team has gone from vastly underachieving to significantly overachieving.

An important part of the lesson is that normal is defined by whatever you’ve gotten used to. For a generation of Oilers fans losing was normal, so winning stood out like a sore thumb. It was sure easier to enjoy. If your team is dominant–as Edmonton was in the 80’s–then you couldn’t help but half-expect to win. And that is a recipe for disaster.

When you expect wins and they don’t come it’s painful. Likewise, expecting losses and getting wins feels especially good. Fortunately, that phenom player really is as good as they said he was, and so are the coach and GM, so in short order orange jerseys and t-shirts were selling like crazy to very, very happy fans who were suddenly forming more of an actual identity around the team, (now that the team finally had one).

Here’s another important part of the lesson: most people started off the year excited by the fact that we might make the playoffs for the first time in eleven years. And then boom. We beat the really good team we’re up against and we’re in the second round of the playoffs. It was Oilermania in Edmonton. Suddenly this previous source of anger and frustration and sadness has people feeling awesome, and how awesome depended entirely on all of that anger and frustration and sadness.

At public screenings of the game total strangers embraced after goals. They are now a family of fans. For good luck, there is now a First Nations drum circle done by Oiler fans prior to every game. I have witnessed people I know to have racist feelings about Natives, showing support for the Native drum circle. Stop and think about what’s happening in that person’s mind.

A guy has a very dim view of First Nations Canadians. This is innocently because of the part of the province he grew up in and some early programming from his parents, plus some unfortunate early experiences. So he’s always felt entirely justified. If he sees one of these guys as a Native then he’ll take a dim view of the very same person he will embrace if the guy’s beating a drum at an Oiler game! Think about that. The Native guy has multiple identities within the mind of the racist fan. And that racist opinion is so thin that it can be burst by an orange jersey. This is real bridge-building between cultures.

Even non-hockey fans got into these playoffs. They weren’t joining in the love of hockey. They were joining in on that wave of positive civic feelings. And why not? Why not make choices that help you feel connected and good? That’s how healthy, connected people do it. Once everyone was in a healthy state of mind, when the team finally lost something very interesting happened.

People think they’re not being successfully spiritual if they don’t dispel their expectations. It’s true, that’s a path to the path. But as I always say, you can’t have path without not-path, so that “wrong part” is actually equally important to your spirituality, hence yin and yang and the acceptance of suffering that the Eastern philosophies suggest. So yes, dispel your expectations, but don’t think you’re “outside” of spirituality if you have them. As long as you accept the teeter totter you’re on, you do get to trade your expectations for intense experiences.

In the end what happened was that everyone would have been happy if the team just made the playoffs at all, so this year everyone felt that the team had exceeded expectations. They were able to trade those exceeded expectations for very little pain when the team finally did lose in the third period of game seven of round two.

Yes, many fans were disappointed in that seventh game, many said so when interviewed. But to a person, they also said that it had been a wonderful year, they were proud of their team, proud to be a part of the fanbase, they’d made many friends and they lived in excited anticipation of next year. That is wonderful! They became voluntarily part of a family. They fell in love with the team and each other, and they’re hopeful. And for this year, they are literally happy about losing.

Of course, all of this will set up our expectations, so if we don’t make the playoffs next year people will be especially disappointed. I won’t have that expectation, just anticipation. So I’ll avoid the roller coaster. But I might join it for the playoffs, voluntarily. Why? Because it’s fun. And because, when it comes to true spirituality, even when you’re out you’re in. This is the yin and yang of life that we all must accept before we can live in peace. Here’s hoping this lesson helps you understand how that state of mind works. Have a great weekend everyone.

peace. s

Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.

Understanding Sports Fans

Through the links you’ve shared on your blog I’ve begun to listen to a lot of the same CBC radio programs you sometimes refer to. One of those very programs recently had quite an interesting documentary on the psychology behind being a fan of a sports team. I am not really a big sports guy but the documentary was excellent except that I do not feel that it succeeded at truly explaining the psychology behind what I would call the truly rabid sports fan. Watching people reacting to the Olympics exposes the fact that this behaviour seems almost primitive to me. My hope is that you can provide me with more positive ways to
look at the antics of some of these people who otherwise look slightly insane from my perspective. Thank you very much Scott. I appreciate your assistance on this matter.

signed,
Confused by Sports

Dear Confused,

Thanks for the question. Hey, you’re from Jamaica or Guyana or somewhere in that region, aren’t you? If I guessed right then I’m pretty sure you know what group of accents I’m talking about. They’re all quite unique, but they have certain qualities in common. You guys mix the precision of proper English speech with a reggae meter—I absolutely love your writing. Sorry—I digress. I love accents and words and anything “languagey.”

325 Relax and Succeed - Shout out to the loversYes—I heard part of the documentary you’re referring to. It was on the program Ideas, on CBC One—one of my favourites. It was very interesting and well done, but I didn’t hear all of it so I don’t know what sort of explanations they provided. Regardless, I can definitely find something very positive in the behaviour of sports fans for you.

The basis of the documentary’s premise was: why do people volunteer to be fans of teams even though on average they’ll lose and suffer about 50% or more of the time? (A lot more in some cities… ahemo.0) Because this idea was at the core of the premise of the show I’m going to presume that’s the part you didn’t feel was explained. I’m glad you asked, because after considering it for a while I came to realize that it’s actually as heartwarming as it is interesting.

To start with let’s consider our nature. Before we lived alone or in very small groups in houses, we were collections of people. We were tribes and clans and bands. We were together. 80% of the world still group sleeps. Before that we were somehow contained in the unified, ethereal energy of the universe. We were united in our Oneness. And there are aspects of us that know and remember that. It’s just our conscious minds keep blabbing about our separateness so we can’t hear our own knowing. (If this all seems too abstract, stick with me.)

People pair off. They have friends. The vast majority would rather work in groups, people consider loneliness something unpleasant, and around the world solitary confinement is the worst possible prison to be in. So we naturally fit together. We’re a pack animal. But in a world with no packs—in a world with no tribes or clans, we opt instead for teams. We voluntarily 325 Relax and Succeed - Life is like a roller coastercombine our interests with those of others. And why? In the hopes of winning? Maybe our egos think that. But the centre of us—the part that’s still plugged in—knows that we’re not there to winwe’re there to play.

In the confines of the arena of play we will very informatively allow and surrender to the vagaries of sports. We’ll love it even though the outfield is uneven, or the court is slippery, or there’s the uncertainty of injuries etc. It is so easy for a good guy to lose—but that’s precisely what makes it exciting. Like we do with movies we choose to engage in a roller coaster ride. We ride the downs because we accept that they are a fundamental aspect of the ups. Andy Kaufman knew that the more you hated his character the happier you would be when he got beat up (The Man In the Moon). The fact that we volunteer for those experiences represents an enormous lesson if we choose to meditate on it closely.

Now, can an ego get this all muddled? Absolutely. They won’t be participating in this spiritual way, they will be participating in an egotistical one. They won’t want an exciting interesting game, they’ll want to win. They won’t want to share your pain, they’ll want to unload all of theirs onto you. They will feel separate and in opposition. For them the game is a mask—an excuse to indulge in tantrums. For the average person and the spiritually wise alike, fandom is merely a form of remembrance of who we really are and that’s why it feels so invigorating to us no matter what direction things are going. Whether we are cheering happily together or wailing in agony, the point is that it’s a collective experience. That’s what we like about it.  Not the winning or losing.

This surrender into co-experience allows us to join and meld with others. We melt into stupendous cheers, we get chills up our spines together, we become one with the entire experience. We forget there is an us. We do not use our thoughts to create an ego—instead we are simply Being. This is no small thing. This is why people say things like we won,” or “I can’t believe how terrible we’re playing.” There is no separation between us and the group. And the 325 Relax and Succeed - Be thankful for the things you don't enjoyathletes themselves are more like the elders around which the tribe convenes. But everyone is an equal part. Everyone feels the sting of defeat and—by contrast—the elation of victory.

This is actually an excellent lesson in what enlightenment truly is. Enlightenment is not being happy all the time. Enlightenment is being okay with anything. Even death. Because the real you knows that this game goes on long after time appears to run out. So actually comprehend the fact that you choose to suffer when you engage as fan. But because you chose it with your free will you have no resistant thoughts and the result is that you enjoy the experience not for its result, but for the experience itself. Because your spirit is not an ego. An ego does things, but a spirit has experiences. And as long as the experiences are intense and amazing and rewarding then you’ve done the only kind of winning that anyone can ever really do. Have fun playing. 😉

peace. Scott “Slap-Shot” McPherson 😉

PS Here’s the link to the documentary if anyone’s interested:

A CBC Ideas Documentary on Sports Fans: Catching the Game