On Sunday night I watched the final of the European Championship with my son and a group of intensely passionate 16 year olds.
Other members of my family stayed in their rooms. They never watched a single kick.
To the boys in my front room, the result left them distraught. To others upstairs, it meant almost nothing.
The contrast is not just one of personal preference or interest. It illustrates an enduring ambivalence around sport: on one level it matters hugely, in another it matters very little.
In one way, sport is meaningless. It is essentially a contrived contest based on arbitrary physical activity: in this case 11 people against another 11 trying to kick an inflated object into a net.
In of itself, none of this activity changes much. No land changes hands. No one’s liberation depends on the outcome. It is not The Hunger Games. Military language such as clash, battle and army may be used, but this is not actually life or death.
But in another way, sport matters hugely because of its manifest power.
Sport creates joy, stress, happiness, belonging and excitement like few other things can. The boys in my front room last night were not pretending to be happy when England scored, or gutted when the penalties were missed. It was deep and visceral.
What other kind of event can create such passion? And what else could produce the kind of hope and positivity in our country in the last few weeks? This is why politicians continually attempt to lever the power of sport for their own ends.
The key to sports meaning
This ambivalence about sport is because its meaning is wrapped up in meaninglessness. Society has chosen to inject significance into activities which are essentially unimportant because they enjoy playing and watching them.
But the qualities that sport demands and develops could not be more important. Sport develops teamwork, dedication, focus, ambition, physical and mental resilience, restraint, humility and self-awareness. Sport can help us deal with failure and accept defeat graciously.
These ‘sporting’ attitudes can make us better people.
Over the last 40 years, sport has given me an incalculable amount. I will never forget the joy of being part of my 6th form school football team or my University cricket team. And some of the most rewarding times I have ever had have been coaching kids football and cricket teams.
I still play league cricket every week and love the competitiveness. Winning is so much more fun than losing and if I have done badly on a Saturday, it takes me until at least Tuesday to get over it.
I am continually reminded that sport generates strong emotions that need controlling and managing.
Life and death
Often, these emotions are not managed well. Abuse and hatred are stoked by competitiveness. Sport is used as a vehicle for sickening racism and violence.
The legendary Liverpool FC manager, Bill Shankly, famously said:
Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.
Sport is never more serious than life and death: but it can help us deal better with both.
Today, I read this quote (from US President Teddy Roosevelt) shared alongside the photo above of Gareth Southgate hugging 19 year old Bukayo Saka:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
Nothing is easier than being an armchair critic or keyboard warrior. Its far better to be challenged and inspired by those whose teamwork, talent and dedication means they are representing our country on the biggest stage.
After all, everyone has their own arenas in which we need to strive more valiantly and to dare more greatly.