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Thymos must have its moment
January 18, 2012 6:40 PM   Subscribe

Do Sports Build Character or Damage It? They foster the warrior within us, for better and for worse. [Via]
posted by homunculus (46 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
I suppose that depends on whether you have character in the first place.
posted by jonmc at 6:44 PM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I really like that article... especially the parallels with Hector and Achilles.
I do think that sports, and the act of winning and losing do wring out what type of person you are.
When you lose you find out what type of loser you are, when you win you find out what type of winner you are. The challenges in sports are often the same as the challenges in life.
posted by khappucino at 7:01 PM on January 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Attitude is everything.

It's a shame because I see that platitude splattered everywhere in locker rooms, stadiums, t-shirts, etc.
But it's a complete truth.

A bit ago we had an intersquad thing. So I knocked one of the opposition down. I didn't know him well, just a guy I see all the time, say "hi" about it.
I help him up (circus grab) and we go on our respective (opposed) ways.

Buddy of mine said "why did you do that? He's on the other team."

If you have to ask, then you'll probably never understand the answer. But hell he wasn't on the other team in the first place. He was on our team.
And even if he weren't - to what lengths does one go to defeat an opponent who one has, by the nature of the game, kinship with?

We RELY on our opposition. They're crucial. Otherwise? There's no game. There's no sport.
That, at the very least, is why we respect them.
Even in pure contact contests of fighting. You respect your opponent.

The people who teach you those lessons have respect for sports, respect for the people who play, and ultimately, respect for you. That's the environment that should exist.

All too often it doesn't. It becomes about ego and twisted pride and a coach pushing a bag full of his own insecurities and inadequacies on some kid.
Those are the guys who destroy sport by instilling some sort of respect for pointless brutality and disregarding empathy.
Best games I've ever played I've been in the heads of the opposition more than in my own.

But it's got nothing to do with war. I've seen two military guys debating entirely stupid things ready to fight. Both of them armed with carbines, knives and sidearms (indeed, let me reiterate how entirely stupid the argument was by going into it for a second, it was possible to stop a .45 from firing by firmly pushing the muzzle so the slide wouldn't move). So they were close to blows, each disparaging the others martial prowess when finally one said - and this is verbatim "I'm going to fucking kill you - (name)" wherupon he dropped his rifle and charged the other guy and they wrestled and punched - still wearing sidearms.

In sports, one accepts that one loses sometimes, as part of the game. In war, the thing goes on because they contest a loss (political or otherwise) and then that loss is contested, and again and again and again until the bloody brutality wrings it out.

Sports is a safe form of experiencing hardship and opposition which does build character.

It's not always done that way though.
posted by Smedleyman at 7:09 PM on January 18, 2012 [8 favorites]


Noam Chomsky on sports.
posted by I've wasted my life at 7:10 PM on January 18, 2012 [6 favorites]


Noam: "it's a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority." sad but true.
posted by facetious at 7:17 PM on January 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think sports are like any number of domain where people can be driven by ego, like art, music, literature, academic research, etc. I've seen larger egos in the academic world than I have in the sporting world (both of which I've experienced first-hand). Not to say that this is evidence that academics are more egotistical than athletes, but that character can be built or damaged by just about any pursuit that requires a certain amount of ego to participate in. What happens to that character depends as much on circumstances, personality, or motivation than the particular way that you express yourself.
posted by marcusesses at 7:30 PM on January 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Doesn't America's obsession with sports have something with Teddy Roosevelt overcompensating for his childhood asthma, kind of like the Spanish-American War and the occupation of the Philippines?
posted by jonp72 at 7:34 PM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like the way in America it is Math and Sports and in Britain it is Maths and Sport. I don't know why I like that but I do.
posted by dng at 7:36 PM on January 18, 2012 [22 favorites]


Whether sports builds character is something to discuss, but I'll say one thing -- after meeting someone and talking and working with them for some length of time, I can tell whether they played any organized team sports, without them actually telling me. I'm rarely wrong. It's in the approaches to teamwork and self-respect. Doesn't make them saints, or even smarter or easier to deal with. But it's there, it's a real thing.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:37 PM on January 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sports is a way to impress members of the opposite sex by demonstrating your physical fitness.
posted by dibblda at 7:39 PM on January 18, 2012


Sports were awesome as a kid but now I just like to toss the ball around. Since we're offering glib portrayals not really related to the article.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:41 PM on January 18, 2012 [11 favorites]


Since we're offering glib portrayals not really related to the article.


We're deconstructing.
posted by facetious at 7:56 PM on January 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


That would be a great euphemism for getting drunk. I'm just saying.

"Doood. I am soo deconstructed!"

(of course, I said the same thing about 'caramelized' so I could be wrong, but what the hell tghe world needs euphemisms)
posted by jonmc at 7:58 PM on January 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Having played sports in high school, i can tell you the people most into it were the absolutely worst people in the school. Some kids got caught drinking on a field trip, i got blamed for turning them in (which i didn't do), and during one football practice one kid decided to call me a "faggot narc" and beat me up. I was in full gear, so i didn't get hurt much, but not one single of them bothered to help me, not even the coach. The athletes also got automatic A's in tests if they fell on the days the teams were playing. This is also why i can't take "scholar athletes" even remotely seriously. :P
posted by usagizero at 7:59 PM on January 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


Do sports build character?

Sure. Everything builds character. Whether it builds good or bad character is mostly dependent on the people involved and what they're putting into it.

I like what sports can do for building a group of people's confidence that a team can do what can't be done alone, and that with enough of the right training, just about anything is possible.

I dislike that there's usually a downside to this. Sports culture, particularly in the Western world, has created a mindset for itself that contains many negative elements. Hockey riots, football hooliganism, locker room machoism. It's sad that I find myself reluctant to associate with the major American professional sports and their fans because of the enforced hypermasculinity.

It should be possible to have the benefits of organized sports without these negative effects.
posted by spitefulcrow at 8:03 PM on January 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think we can all agree that competitive physical activity can be character-building for anyone. At the same time, a culture that venerates star athletes and turns a blind eye to their misdeeds can be incredibly harmful.
posted by sid at 8:06 PM on January 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Depends on:

1) The spectator
2) The community
3) The sport
4) The athlete
5) The coach.
6) The athletic culture of the community, the sport, the athlete and the coach.

In highschool, I =hated= the jocks, and by extension, all sports.* When I was 30, I worked with Steve Howe, who was a brilliant systems engineer, and the first of his line to descend south of the Maine border when there =wasn't= a war going on. He thinks of Babe Ruth as one of the best pitchers the Red Sox ever had, and gets angry when you bring home-runs into it.

Steve introduced me to the intellectual side of sports, the beauty of human endeavor described by mathematics. He showed me the intricate chess game played by intelligent pieces, blessed with supra-human abilities. He taught me that local teams are where otherwise anti-social people find common ground, from the bums in the back alley to the bosses on Mahogany Row.

Yes, sports is math plus super-powers plus class-leveling, AND you get to argue about it with other nerds.

Now... now, I love sports.

* Except for P.J., a wrestler and a lineman, who was always nice to me and looked up to me as a role model because he thought I was smart, wich weirded me the hell out. Looking back, he was wise, while I was merely intelligent.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:06 PM on January 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's sad to me that what so many of my fellow Americans consider as "being into sports" really means just being into watching sports as a spectator. There's a tremendous joy in using your body to some large percentage of its physical capabilities, whatever those may be, and in using the occasional competitive event as a focal point for organizing your training. I can't being to tell you how much more motivational it is, at least for me, to view regular physical work, such as running or weight lifting, as training for some event rather than just exercising. I really wasn't into as a kid, and I had a body to show for it, but now I'm a big fan. Mind and body, together, for sure.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 8:08 PM on January 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


I find it interesting that people say "sports" but that nearly everything that follows is about men's sports. Not because "omg what about the ladies" but because the truths don't reflect what I've seen in women's athletics. The women I swam with, while not perfect, were almost unfailingly supportive, kind teammates who were also tough tough competitors. There wasn't an Achilles among them. I wonder how much of what the article points to as dangers of sports are about a bad combo with male gender roles and expectations than about athletic competition itself.
posted by dame at 8:17 PM on January 18, 2012 [10 favorites]


Great article, but it kind of clumps sports together. Not all sports are face-to-face team sports. Do archery, olympic weightlifting, and track and field have the same downsides?
posted by Hither at 8:24 PM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've wasted my life: "Noam Chomsky on sports. "

All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that. They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal. But they have to get back to the real world at some point. - LeBron James.
posted by Apropos of Something at 8:27 PM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is a great article, thank you for sharing it.

I am currently on the mend from my second serious sports-related injury, so it is a timely read for me. I am faced with the choice of returning to the Judo mat, or not. If I go back, I will eventually be injured again, and possibly lose more than I bargained for. Why would I ever go back?

There are other ways to stay in shape. Safer ways. But although I don't particularly like it about myself, I'm one of the thumotic sorts. I enjoy the struggle and the victory.

There's another Greek word that could have made it into this article, pleonexia, which also shows up in the Republic. It means "a desire to outdo others" or "to get the best of them."

I think that thumos is the comparatively benign face of sport. Pleonoexia, with all its connotations of callous egoism, is the really dark side of it. In sports like mine where the entire point is getting the best of someone and dominating them, you see a lot of barely-checked interpersonal violence.

I'm gonna go ahead and say, after six years of doing them, that fighting sports do not build good character. Let's include football in there, since it's basically war over a ball.

I know that martial arts often claim to instill important values of self-control, discipline, respect, whatever. That's about on the same level as what this author notes about charitable football stars: it makes us feel better about what this really is. What you learn in a fighting sport is how to hurt people. And, as he says, once the punch in the face enters your repertoire, it doesn't go away.

I started martial arts when I was a teenager because I wanted to defend myself from thugs and bullies. I was scared and felt weak. Five years later, I sometimes find myself contemplating violence myself. What changed? For one thing, I became a good deal more capable of it. My chances of winning increased, as did my ego.

But I'd like to think my reason for eschewing violence before wasn't merely because I was weak or wasn't "up to it." I think it was learning to fight that first put fighting on the table for me. Before, violence always seemed like something that could happen to me without my permission. After, not only did I have a say in whether I got beat up or not, I could reliably beat up a fair number of people myself.

So what started as an attempted cure for fear turned out to be a pharmakon that poisoned as well. Sports that encourage aggression and mimic real violence churn out aggressive people more capable of doing violence. Of course, that might be the character that some people are trying to build.

There still exists today a certain cynical idea of "zero-sum-ness" in human interactions, in which everything is Heraclitian strife, or a Hobbesian "war of all against all", and only those who are strong and clever survive. Many still ascribe to this, implicity or explicitly, and I think that this admiration for power accounts for much of our love of sports.

Add in Nietzsche's concept of the slave morality, and you also have a class of quasi-pacifists and "spiritual" folks who, in their own way, also suffer from pleonexia. Their resentment towards their own weakness inspires them to decry the virtues of the powerful, and with those virtues, violence itself. They want to win the battle by shifting it to the battlefield on which they can be victorious: they want to fight with words.

If we buy into that, boxing is to rhetoric as rhetoric is to boxing. Both physical violence and ostensibly reasonable discussion then have the same goal of dominating other people. Violent sports do little to teach us peaceful conflict resolution, so much is clear. But if verbal conflict resolution just amounts to more coercion by other means, then it is only better by virtue of its bloodlessness.

Personally I like to think that there is another paradigm through which we can view the world, other than that which to some degree conflates war, sport, and debate. At the same time, I think it is naive to simply set up discussion and debate as the cure and foil to physical violence and aggression. What is called discussion and debate can be coercive as well. And when you are used to that in the ring, or on the ball field, you will be used to that when speaking.

What I think violent sports do is acclimate people to the act of coercion. And that can bleed over into other areas of your life. You develop what I gather is called "steeliness," and you become better at causing pain and harm. If you are squeamish, or reluctant to possibly injure someone, you will be a poor football player. Likewise with boxing, wrestling, and so forth. You will eventually get used to hurting people, which might make you powerful, but I do not think it makes you good.

I don't think that's a thing sports can do.
posted by edguardo at 8:29 PM on January 18, 2012 [26 favorites]


Also, for those who appreciate serendipitous timing, I was watching the Chomsky clip when the University of Washington announced classes would be shut down tomorrow due to snow, but that the basketball game with Cal was still on.
posted by Apropos of Something at 8:33 PM on January 18, 2012


From the article:

Plato believed that war was sometimes necessary, but that going to war should be up to the rulers, the philosopher kings, who have developed their minds fully. Some of us, Plato says, have a hunger for martial renown that surpasses others', and those people are very valuable and very dangerous. They need praise when they fight well (material rewards don't mean much to them), and they need something to keep them occupied when no war is at hand. Sports are a way to do that.

Plato would probably approve of the way athletics function in our culture—they let the most thymotic of us express their hunger for conquest, rather harmlessly, and they allow the rest to get their hit of glory through identification. The yelping fan, painted absurdly in his team's colors, cavorting half-naked at the stadium, stinking of beer, is still expressing a critical part of his inner life. Let him have his Saturday afternoon, worshiping his heroes.


Plato's view is more nuanced than Chomsky. Of course poor Plato was not exposed to the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, and Division I college football and basketball.

I enjoy playing tennis, running races, playing handball, watching pro football, watching pro basketball, watching pro baseball. I don't like watching television commercials or touchdown dances or players penalized for taunting. I hate everything about major college football and basketball. The article was OK. If students want to play on teams I say good for them. First they have to have passing grades on their report card (that they earned).

The people running college sports don't appear to care about the students or their character or anything else but the money the television broadcasters and advertisers pay.
posted by bukvich at 8:42 PM on January 18, 2012


I had a wrestling coach in high school, a man of direct action and bluntness. I'll never forget what he said one day:

"Sport doesn't build character. It reveals it."

It is one of the few modern environments in which people are regularly placed in physical stress. For all we extol the virtues of the mind, we are physical animals, and there is a fierce, vibrant joy in excellence of the body.

"As Joyce Carol Oates says, you play football, baseball, and basketball, but no one "plays" boxing."

I have always been drawn to the 'verbed' sports (wrestling, boxing, the martial arts, track, swimming) and have found this to be almost universally true.

"But at the same time, sports often brutalize the player—they make him more aggressive, more violent. They make him intolerant of gentleness; they help turn him into a member of the pack, which defines itself by maltreating others—the weak, the tender, the differently made."

With good coaching, good leadership, this can be circumvented. It is incredibly difficult, and I have only seen it done a handful of times.

An excellent essay, thank you.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:47 PM on January 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


What I think violent sports do is acclimate people to the act of coercion.

Livy called it "The War Season." Farmers would give up their vineyards and fields, don their panoply, and go murder their neighboring community.

Picture, if you would, Boston heavy artillery shelling the Bronx... just because the weather was favorable and you needed to know that =your= city was better than =their= city, even though you shared the same values, culture and history. Countless thousands of innocents dead, simply because that was how scores were settled, year after year...

Save the fourth year. When the cities would send their best and brightest to compete, without killing each other. The Olympics.

Here in the USA, Boston does not bomb Manhattan, Atlanta does not march on Jacksonville in the name of the Georgian League, SanFran and Seattle don't mount punitive raids on the OC.

Sports does that, fills that need, scratches that primal, violent, bloody itch. It's terrible and beautiful and necessary. Maybe once humans stop needing to be humans, we won't need sports... until then, I like it better than the alternative.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:51 PM on January 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


It is a nice article but terribly narrow--the author's experience seems to be mainly with contact-focused team-based sports. What of tennis, golf, lifting, more individual sports or sports with less physical contact with someone from the other team? I can say as far as lifting is concerned many top lifters are positively cerebral, the exact opposite of the muscle-bound lunk stereotype. Especially once one is past one's early twenties, continuing to make progress when one's already been lifting for 5, 10, 15 years requires patience, very careful planning and consideration of one's program, an intimate knowledge of one's body, and terrifying focus during a lift in order to succeed at it. If you watch the faces of top lifters attempting a new personal record it is clear from their eyes that they are no longer in the room but have gone somewhere else entirely.

The exclusion of women's sports, except for the casual mention at the end, is also pretty serious. Without fail the women I know involved in athletics are pretty humble and ridiculously supportive of even their biggest rivals. You don't see any of the enmity you might see between two top male athletes. Perhaps, like he says, this will change as women in sports becomes more and more accepted--certainly part of the supportive culture is born because we all feel we need to stick together.

Honestly, while well-composed it seems like this guy started from the premise "Football made me disciplined in high school but golly now I like punching people" and just ran with it.
posted by schroedinger at 9:19 PM on January 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


I should also mention that a supportive culture did not necessarily mean in competition the women were any less fierce!
posted by schroedinger at 9:20 PM on January 18, 2012


George Orwell: "Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting."
posted by dhens at 10:59 PM on January 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


the man of twists and turns: " but no one "plays" boxing"

From my short experience with boxing a long time ago, I agree. Technique, fitness, cunning, speed, mental stability etc are all important, but at the core of it there's nothing more critical than a complete and unequivocal willingness to fuck the other guy up. Before and after the bout you can be friends and all, but in there you pull your punches and you lose. In the few fights where win/loss actually mattered, I was pleased if my opponent did some trash-talking beforehand, because it made it easier to smack him.

If it's an expression of a character trait, I don't think it's a positive one. The term "killer instinct" is accurate.
posted by vanar sena at 2:57 AM on January 19, 2012


This was a really great article, well-written and thought-provoking. Thank you for posting it.
posted by Poppa Bear at 5:22 AM on January 19, 2012


I think the problem is that sport of the standard team formats appeals to alpha individuals; it's just feeding their chimpy urge for conflict and rising up a hierarchy.

Alpha individuals tend to be the ones who rise to positions of power and decision-making, from which they get to perpetuate policies fostering the alleged value of that type of sport.
posted by raygirvan at 6:42 AM on January 19, 2012


I can tell whether they played any organized team sports, without them actually telling me. I'm rarely wrong. It's in the approaches to teamwork and self-respect.

What about Trivia night: does that count?
posted by octobersurprise at 6:58 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


First, AWESOME article. And from it:
Do sports build character? Sports are what Derrida, in an essay on Plato, associates with something called the pharmakon, a substance that is both a poison and a remedy. Sports can do great good: build the body, create a stronger, more resilient will, impart confidence, stimulate bravery, foment daring. But at the same time, sports often brutalize the player—they make him more aggressive, more violent. They make him intolerant of gentleness; they help turn him into a member of the pack, which defines itself by maltreating others—the weak, the tender, the differently made.
Everyone interested in this thread are hugely encouraged to head right for the book Spark: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey. Exercise, even moderate exercise, supercharges the development of new brain cells (look back at the title). Kids in crap schools
who have PE first thing in the morning improve in test scores. Mind-blowing books the first time I read it.

The human brain is a motion-processing engine. The brain needs physical exercise in order to *spark* it to life. Plants don't have brains because they don't move beyond the most rudimentary ways. To have a brain is to be a moving, autonomous being (from an evolutionary standpoint). Sponges lose their brains once they go from motile to sessile.

Jack LaLanne was absolutely right; you cannot separate the brain from the body. From an evolutionary point of view, from a physical one, they are inextricable from one another. Physical exertion strengthens the body AND the brain.

Here's the thing: Ratey suggests we go back to "Physical Education" and away from "Sports". Sports is about competitions. PE is about developing the movement and strength and agility and coordination and all that for their own sakes.

He gives and example of a PE teacher who got a fancy set of heart monitors and strapped them on his middle-school students. And he was surprised that the skinny girl he thought was just phoning it in, her heart was BANGING away. That WAS about as hard as she could push. She was just terribly out of shape. Teacher went on to rewire the whole class framework.

Every kid got a monitor. Go pick an activity. Running, DDR (srsly), 3-on-3 mini-soccer, rope climbing, whatever. Every class where the kids maintain X heart-rate is baseline. Every time they score a personal best on the heart-rate monitor, they raise their by (I think) 1/3. Now students are graded by how hard they're working, how much progress they're making, and on a much more individualized level.

This is PE as athletics, not sports as tribal reinforcement. Development of the person as individual, rather than cog in the machine. Training the "Scholar-Athlete" rather than for an "Athletic Scholarship". Plato would approve.

And they didn't have team sports (or clothes) in the original Olympics.

Besides, violent, ground-acquisition games that are really nothing more than a crypto-fascist metaphor for war. ;-)

If you value your brain, read Spark. Because once you do, you will feel a compelling urge to find some manner of physical activity to partake in to keep the synapses growing and strong as you age.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:54 AM on January 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


The human brain is a motion-processing engine. The brain needs physical exercise in order to *spark* it to life. Plants don't have brains because they don't move beyond the most rudimentary ways. To have a brain is to be a moving, autonomous being (from an evolutionary standpoint). Sponges lose their brains once they go from motile to sessile.

I'm pretty sure sponges are consistently brainless. Are you thinking of the sea squirt, by chance?

Spark sounds awesome. I recently started reading Merleau-Ponty, and as an early contributor to the embodied mind thesis, his psychology is very ... bodily, to say the least.

His theory of language begins with gestures and bodily signs. It all seems very primal and deep.
posted by edguardo at 9:14 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure sponges are consistently brainless. Are you thinking of the sea squirt, by chance?

Probably. Don't have the book to hand.

I recently started reading Merleau-Ponty, and as an early contributor to the embodied mind thesis, his psychology is very ... bodily, to say the least.

Oooh.... Okay, adding new subject to the reading list...
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:20 AM on January 19, 2012


Reminded me of that post about "pukes" from last August -- insight into the jock's head.
posted by Rash at 10:30 AM on January 19, 2012


I had a wrestling coach in high school, a man of direct action and bluntness. I'll never forget what he said one day:

"Sport doesn't build character. It reveals it."


I hope he didn't pass it off as his own aphorism. ;) The quote is from (legendary UCLA basketball coach) John Wooden.

And it's true, IMO (and I also used the quote as a basketball coach). I adore graceful losers and consider myself one, ever since I cheered on my little friend Doug after he beat me in the standing broad jump during first-grade field day.

I'm also extremely competitive (probably comes from having an older brother) and enjoy competing hard, playing 100%, whatever. I'm not above a little gamesmanship (pulling shorts, flopping on a charge) and I can work myself into a bit of a frenzy hating my opponent during play, but that's only within the frame of the game. Once it's over, it's over.

Likewise, I'm able to drop my pro/college sports allegiances pretty quickly. I care very deeply about whether some teams win or lose, and if I'm sitting with/near a fan of the opponent, I'll give them all sorts of friendly hell, but once it's over, either way, there's no sour feelings. (I had a friend who wouldn't talk to me for weeks after the Pistons beat the Lakers in the finals.)

I still remember the lump I felt in my throat when Doug beat me that time, and the forced smile and cheers I gave him. And I'll never forget what my P.E. teacher said to me next. She said, "I know that wasn't easy to do and you feel bad, but I am so proud of you." It really inspired me to be a good sportsman (sportsperson), or at least whatever that means to me.

Not sure what I'm saying--I suppose the effect of adults on kids at early ages is immeasurable, in sports and in everything.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:17 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


edguardo, your experience in judo could not be more different from my experience in judo's cousin, brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ) -- I'm fairly puzzled by your post. Indeed, I think one of the most beneficial, almost spiritual aspects of BJJ is that it "fixes" bad (agressive, angry, unwilling to admit mistakes) personalities.

I think this is because it's impossible to progress in the sport if one does not keep one's ego in check; one has to be willing to "lose" hundreds, thousands of times and to truly listen to the advice of others in order to improve your skill. Or maybe it's because the stakes are too high. (One can literally have a limb broken, pretty easily, if one's partner was better and chose to ignore the "tap out".) Or maybe it's a self-selecting process, where the folks with fragile egos drop out early, so you're left with people that are more mellow. Honestly, I'm still puzzling over the "why" of it.

You'll hear the same thing from BJJ players all over the world. (A google search for "bjj ego" returns over 500,000 hits, if you care to read more about it) I've trained a few other martial arts (tae kwon do, muai thai, and krav maga), and none of them have the same ego-calming effect, but I thought judo would be similar to BJJ.

FWIW, I've played a number of team sports as well (baseball, basketball, football, etc.), and they do seem to make egos worse.
posted by LordSludge at 2:22 PM on January 19, 2012


tl;dr sports are fun

I think hockey is a pretty fascinating sport after taking it up around a year and a half ago in a rec league, and before that barely being able to skate before lessons and drop ins. I think in trying to describe my experiences with the sport from the perspective of this forum I don't really have the words for it, it's more like a painting worth a thousand words, or literally, something that has to be experienced to be really understood. It's fun to see older civil men that work as engineers or bankers or whatever they do drop all of that and suit up for a simple competition.

You see these men and a few women go through some of the more basic emotions, they get excited to win, sad to lose, sometimes frustrated and angry at other people, sometimes there's yelling, usually there isn't. I wouldn't have thought a couple of the more successful people that play funnily enough have the shortest tempers. Some of the people on the ice that seem the most intimidating players, when you have to play with them later or another day on the same team they are the most friendly and respectful people. To me it seems everyone agrees on a basic level what you will and won't do, we don't fight, we all have day jobs. We don't want to get injured and really all the games only mean as much as they do to us as a peer group. We go to have fun and get exercise and compete for some insignificant token that only means anything to someone in the group, maybe like school kids fighting over who gets cake first.

The league I'm in is of course a 'no-checking' league, but it's funny how that works out. Of course there is checking, just if it's caught and the ref wants to call it you get a penalty for it, and there is tons of 'incidental contact', and that's how it should be, it's just part of the game. Separately there is also the required team aspect, you absolutely have to work with your teammates or your team at a whole is at a severe disadvantage, you can't win without working together, quickly, all the time.

The simple basic acts of aggression and competition and teamwork and camaraderie that make up the game make it a beautiful thing, at least for someone from my perspective. I know that individual people can help ruin it, and I'm sure there are entire rec leagues out there that have abominable atmospheres that are toxic, but I optimistically think those are exceptions to the rule.

Like some above posts, I think the informal nature of this being a rec-league thing help it maintain a very healthy atmosphere. I think and it is easily argued once you are doing a sport (or many activities) purely to win, or to be the best like a job, it starts to become a negative influence.

Going decidedly off-track, if I was the ruler of America I'd work up some means of eliminating all school sports and replace it with local community-center or rec-league run programs that would be required on a limited level to fulfill some kind of school PE requirement. Better players play in better leagues, normal people play for fun at lower ones, and money for sports goes to sports, and money for schools goes towards schools and education and not busses for football teams when the band marches in rags or the English department can't afford enough textbooks for each student in a year.
posted by BurnMage at 4:01 PM on January 19, 2012


You'll hear the same thing from BJJ players all over the world. (A google search for "bjj ego" returns over 500,000 hits, if you care to read more about it) I've trained a few other martial arts (tae kwon do, muai thai, and krav maga), and none of them have the same ego-calming effect, but I thought judo would be similar to BJJ.

I also have a blue belt in BJJ, as it turns out.

The vast majority of grapplers I meet are good people, but it is not because they are grapplers.

I think it is not that BJJ "kills ego," but that it sublimates it. If you are smart, and a real contender, you channel your desire for victory into becoming a good training partner, which eventually makes you a better grappler. As you say, ego can become an impediment to progress.

But this is only so if that ego, or that callousness towards training partners, is checked by others in the gym. More often than not I have seen big egos checked first by means of grappling prowess, rather than by any kind of reasonable discussion or through social means, such as chastisement or verbal warnings.

That's not a great way to prevent injuries, I think, but I see it all the time. Using technique to "set someone straight" gives them the opportunity to be better at that than you, and to hurt you or someone else before someone wises up and throws them out.

So I think BJJ and Judo do not "fix" anything about someone's personality, but rather, hopefully, separate those smart enough to play nice from those too dumb or impulsive to check themselves.
posted by edguardo at 8:05 PM on January 19, 2012


Last thing: There's an old saying that is attributed to Wellington, but it's likely apocryphal, and it goes like this:

"The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton."

Meaning, it was the teamwork learned in sports that led the British to success.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:56 PM on January 20, 2012


Slap*Happy: Livy called it "The War Season." [...] Sports does that, fills that need, scratches that primal, violent, bloody itch. It's terrible and beautiful and necessary. Maybe once humans stop needing to be humans, we won't need sports... until then, I like it better than the alternative.

You've made this argument in a previous sports thread, as I recall. Is there a more fleshed-out version of it somewhere? It's interesting and I'd like to learn more, but as presented here, it has some pretty big gaps.

(Gaps: Just because the ancient Greeks went to war every year except when they had a sports festival doesn't mean that sports served the same needs as war for them, and even if it did, that doesn't mean that those needs are so recalcitrant that the only way to handle them is to give them outlet, and even if they are, that doesn't mean those needs are universal, or even so widespread that every culture needs an institution to give them outlet, and even if they are, that doesn't mean that sports is the only non-war institution that could do the job, and — getting back to some of the issues discussed in the article — even if sports really is the only feasible non-war outlet, that doesn't mean that it only ever manages people's putative innate brutality instead of stoking it.)
posted by stebulus at 9:06 AM on January 21, 2012


(Late thread BJJ derail time!)

I also have a blue belt in BJJ, as it turns out.

Ah, great, I'm a blue belt as well (out with an injury myself). I won't, then, try to translate my BJJ perspective to judo because hey no point.

The vast majority of grapplers I meet are good people, but it is not because they are grapplers.

Completely disagree. So many folks I've talked with who play BJJ talk about how they used to have a temper and they no longer do. It's certainly true of myself.

I think it is not that BJJ "kills ego," but that it sublimates it. If you are smart, and a real contender, you channel your desire for victory into becoming a good training partner, which eventually makes you a better grappler. As you say, ego can become an impediment to progress.

There's so much more to it than that. It's not just about playing nice and not getting ostracized from your training partners for being a jerk. To get good, you have to not only contain any anger and resentment of whomever kicked your ass and perhaps made you look foolish, you have to accept that their technique is BETTER than yours. It's like a physical argument, and when you get submitted, you just lost the argument. There's no question, no wiggle room (often literally!) for you to rationalize it away: They are right, and you are wrong. So you can keep your ego, keep thinking you're right, and keep getting your butt kicked..., or accept that you're wrong, learn from your "rivals", see how their game beats your game, and start seeing improvement. But you can't fix the holes in your game if you won't first admit to yourself that, well, you suck at certain things that you may have thought you're good at. Learn to control your ego, or you cannot improve. Partner with people you know will kick your ass. You'll learn even more. You even learn to enjoy losing, failing, because this is where you learn the most.

If you're smart, you swallow your ego even deeper and humble yourself enough to actively solicit advice from other people on their technique where they are better than you. Even if they're lower rank than you. (And they love to give it, because now they get to feel like the expert -- win, win: they get their ego stroked and your technique improves!) Ego gets squashed further.

All this translates DIRECTLY and POWERFULLY into life in general. Carry these habits in your home life, public life, and especially your work environment and yes I think this actively makes you a better, kinder, more effective person. The black belt Pan Am champ at my gym? One of the nicest guys I've ever met in my life.

Joe Rogan (yes, the UFC presenter guy) is a BJJ brown belt and talks about it from a different angle** here:
- Joe Rogan Podcast - Benefits Of Learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
- Joe Rogan Podcast - Benefits Of Learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu part 2
**For those who don't want to sit through 15 min of Joe Rogan, he's saying that, essentially, if you walk through life thinking you're tough and better than everyone else, getting your ass kicked is good for you. BJJ destroys any illusion that you might be a badass (and a lot of us -- esp guys -- harbor that illusion), thus destroying your ego. Also, OMG HOW COULD YOU TURN DOWN AN INVITE FROM RENZO GRACIE????

But this is only so if that ego, or that callousness towards training partners, is checked by others in the gym. More often than not I have seen big egos checked first by means of grappling prowess, rather than by any kind of reasonable discussion or through social means, such as chastisement or verbal warnings.

That's not a great way to prevent injuries, I think, but I see it all the time. Using technique to "set someone straight" gives them the opportunity to be better at that than you, and to hurt you or someone else before someone wises up and throws them out.


I've never seen somebody lose their shit so bad that they were actively trying to hurt their partner -- e.g., punches, kicks, genital strikes, eye gouges, biting, etc. Never. And anyone who is decent at BJJ would never try to hurt their training partner via BJJ. Partnering a "spazzy" newbie with a technical purple belt is a great way to teach the newbie what BJJ is all about. (Or in my case, pair my spazzy 220lb 6'4" self with a 160lb black belt multiple Pan Am champion -- talk about a change of perspective!) I've never once seen an injury from this. Only injuries I've seen, and they are somewhat common, were completely accidental. (Saw a guy get his tibia snapped pulling guard. PULLING GUARD!!!)

So I think BJJ and Judo do not "fix" anything about someone's personality...

I wonder if you'll still be saying this when you get your BJJ black belt.
posted by LordSludge at 9:09 PM on January 26, 2012


Partnering a "spazzy" newbie with a technical purple belt is a great way to teach the newbie what BJJ is all about. (Or in my case, pair my spazzy 220lb 6'4" self with a 160lb black belt multiple Pan Am champion -- talk about a change of perspective!) I've never once seen an injury from this.

1. I've had my trapezius torn from a larger, newer grappler sprawling on me to prevent a shoulder throw. That was carelessness and ego; he already knew better.

2. I've had my shoulder separated and my rotator cuff torn---while being nearly knocked out---because another guy spiked me on my head/neck during wrestling practice, presumably because I had submitted him and taken him down earlier that day. That was maliciousness; I stopped training there.

3. I've been kneed in the face during Judo hard enough to chip my teeth. That was inexperience.

These weren't all deliberate injuries to me. But what they were was a deliberate lack of care and concern. It takes a while to weed out the people who aren't like you, Sludge. Until then, they can do some serious damage. And you can't always avoid them.

You were made better "by BJJ" because you're the kind of person who wants to become a better person, not just a better grappler. You used BJJ as a world in miniature to learn some life lessons, as I have, and as many others have. Go looking for life lessons for self-improvement and you can find them in all kinds of places.

But can BJJ make you look for them? I really don't think so.

You've described an effective way to approach the sport, and if you stick with it, you'll probably get good at it. I'd be happy to roll with you; we'd learn shit and have a good time. But the conclusions that your experiences have led you to reach say more about you as a person than about the sport you practice.

I concede that, to some degree, being a vicious person will prevent you from being a good grappler. Obviously you will lose all your training partners to injury or insult (or at least the good ones) and eventually stop getting better.

But merely being a good training partner doesn't make you a good person. It makes you, at the bare minimum, clever and interested in improving. Humility used as a means of attainment is just another kind of self-aggrandizement, or an effective species of pride, perhaps.

So what you've described looks to me like an effective learner, not a good or morally excellent person.
posted by edguardo at 5:13 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Learning to control one's ego not only makes one a better learner, but a better, more ethical person. Angry outbursts because of some slight don't happen. Conversely, there's no need to insult or hurt others to feel better about oneself. Those are just basic examples. I feel ego control is at the very core of what makes a good person.

Now auto racing... That seems to encourage the opposite - win by any means necessary!
posted by LordSludge at 2:41 PM on January 30, 2012


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