I don’t play sport; I’m a bad loser. I think, when I was a kid, I disliked not being on the winning team and, subsequently, not being chosen for any team. My experience of games lessons at school was one of ungainliness. I stopped playing sport; I cut it out of my life. To a lesser extent, I have done the same with games. Although I have happy memories of playing Mastermind and a home-made 3D noughts and crosses with my brother Raymond, I stopped playing Axiom with Magdalena when I realised she was beating me most of the time. With Axiom, I was interested in exploring different dynamics of a game in which the board moves as well as the pieces; I was too impatient to stick to winning strategies. And despite not being very motivated to win, it still stung when I lost. So I quit.
Of course quitting is a strategy of mine. From 1977 until 2000 I refused to dance* because some girls laughed at me once in a high-school disco (ah the cruelty of schoolgirls). And when, finally, I allowed dancing into my life, at the age of 34, I found that I enjoyed it very much. Dancing has contributed enormously to the richness of my present life. So what about sport and games?
Lately I have been considering the following theory about games and sports: Wanting to win is part of the rules of the game. Maybe you already knew this. I don’t think I did. I thought that one chose to play games for with the intention of winning. I was confusing loosing in the game with failure in life and making an identity issue of my winning or losing. But now I think it more useful to consider attempting to win as just another of the rules that some games happen to have. Some games entail taking turns, others entail continuous play, some entail moving balls, others entail speaking words. It varies. Some, but by no means all, include the notion of a winning player or team and rules that define the winning conditions; when playing such games, it is usual to adopt an attitude of attempting to win. Indeed not to do so may be interpreted as patronising by one’s opponent; it may spoil their enjoyment of the game, even if they win. Enjoying the game, I like to remind myself, is much of what play is about (learning is, I think, what most of the rest of play is about).
Now, the interesting thing about this is that winning and losing crop up in life, together with their close cousins failure and success, in places that I don’t always think of as games. I’m taking a bit of a liberty here by extending win and lose to succeed and fail, but a lot of what contributes the mix of choice making in my life, and I suspect of yours too, is fear of failing and not wanting to be a loser. So I am extending my theory about winning and losing to failing and succeeding and, when I hear those words, looking round to see what the game is whose rules entail becoming successful.
When we step into the frame of a competitive game, we put on the games kit or thinking cap we find there and get ready to play to win. And when its done we take off those things and step out of the frame. Whether we were on the winning or losing side, what counts is whether we enjoyed the process (or learned something). What if the same were true for all those situations in life where we are in danger of failing? What if choosing to try and succeed is just one of the rules of a game by which we may choose to play? And what if it meant nothing, when we step out of the frame of that game, whether or not we were “successful” as defined by the rules of that game.
I am listening for times when I hear myself saying something like “I want to be a successful ….” or “I feel like such a failure”. According to my theory, these are not conditions of affecting me objectively, they are winning or loosing conditions determined by the rules of the games of life that I find myself playing. Now I’m looking out to see what those rules are, and whether or not I am enjoying the game (or learning something from it). This gives me a broader view of my situation and more awareness of my choices: quit, try harder, change the rules….?
* Except, under very special circumstances, and under the influence of alcohol, to the Blues Brothers soundtrack.