The Sporting Psyche



I must admit that even though I’ve only spent a fraction of my life living in Seattle, I’ve become pretty emotionally invested in the Emerald city’s crown jewel, the Seahawks.  

And last night game…was rough. 

It’s not like I’m a stranger to heartbreak, I’ve participated in or watched as my team has lost championships in the last second several times.  I’ve felt the agony of defeat in many different contexts…but this game was different.  It affected me in some ways that I’m still processing.  Few times have the collective hopes of a place been more unified and apparent than in the moments building up before the end of Super Bowl XVIX.  All the tension of a strange and complex season was held in the balance waiting to be released.  The fireworks and confetti, champagne and celebration, all awaiting one final yard before we could all break out into a joyous exhale.  

2nd and goal at the 1 yard line.   20 seconds, one timeout………………………………Interception!?


No.  Was there not a flag….please?


What played out on the field after Russell Wilson’s interception seemed to symbolize exactly what every Seahawk player, coach, and fan was struggling to deal with; how do we hold all this confusion and disappointment?!  How do we deal with all the tension that just moments before was almost certainly going to be allowed to release!?  It was like we were all waiting for some great revelation that would finally affirm our identity.  Like somehow the victory would secure something in us that had come into question over the past year since we were last able to call ourselves “champions”.  Suddenly, all we had hoped in and for was over and we were left with nothing but, well, ourselves. 

What played out for each of us in this aftermath is quite different, but all of us who allowed ourselves to invest in the foolishness of hope were left to deal with the pain of this disappointment.  I don’t mean to be crude, but the experience in almost every way mirrored an emotional “blue balls”.  The building excitement and fantasy, arousal, dopamine, the immense tension and expectation…and then!!!…nothing.  Nothing is not what any of us were hoping for.  This was not the revelation that any of us knew how to comprehend. 

This morning I walked my normal route to work and found myself so very aware of the reality that this game had invited me to.  I didn’t know what to do with the game, but much more deeply, the game had revealed that I wasn’t really sure what to do with myself.  I was not released into the identity of a “champion”, and because of this, was once again invited to deal with regular ole me.  In that place I have to begin answering a question for myself that no championship could ever answer. 

And the power of that question, if I let it sit long enough, invites me to take another step into this mo(u)rning and the day that is in front of me. 



IMAG0492For the last two nights my wife and I decided to bundle up and watch the primetime NBC broadcast of the Sochi Olympics.  This year the Olympics are featuring a couple of new events including a sport called snowboarding slope-style which is essentially a snowboarding competition that involves both jump elements and rail elements.  Each athlete tries different combinations of tricks on these elements in order to attain the highest score from a panel of judges.

The sport is quite entertaining to watch, but it wasn’t the actual competition that captivated my attention and left me in awe.  I’ve played and watched sports for long enough to have seen most things under the sun, but what shocked me during this high stakes competition was what transpired between the competitors during the event.  The only way I can describe the environment was that it was full of celebration.

Now this makes sense to me if you have just won.  Everyone loves winning and the emotional cocktail that is a sporting victory is a potent party mixer.  Most sporting celebrations are filled with a certain kind of relief that is unique and different from what I witnessed between these Olympic athletes.  This relief is heavy and exhausting, it is an exhale not unlike passing a final exam.  The celebration on the faces of these snowboarders was not filled with exhaustion though, it was filled with freedom and pure pleasure.

Every single time a rider would come down the hill, whether they nailed their run or crashed, they would be greeted with hugs and congratulations from all the other competitors.  One rider (from an opposing country) ran out to celebrate her competitor who just beat her to win the Gold.  That doesn’t happen in the sports I know…disappointment, regret, and shame happens when you are defeated in the sports I know.

In the major sports that dominate the American cultural landscape there are clear messages that are given about competition.

Second place means first loser. 

Nobody remembers the first loser.

Win at all costs. Etc…

In the sports I played, if someone celebrated the victory of another they would have some serious questions to answer in the locker room.  Did they really care at all?  Obviously if they are okay congratulating the other team they must not have really given their all…lower your head and think about how to make sure you never fail like this again.  This is what I remember.  You either get to exist in the minds of others or you don’t…this is your fight.  You will be deemed valuable depending on your performance.

As I watched the strange, beautiful, counter-cultural display that was slope style I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have been like to feel celebrated regardless of outcome.  These riders were not burdened as they flew through the air.  They didn’t seem concerned with proving their existential value or inherent worth through their performance.  From the look on their faces throughout the competition all they seemed to care about was having fun.  You know…fun…that thing that used to highlight the reason we played sports?   Most of us got to have it for a while until some adult told us sports were really about winning.  “What is important is that you win, Knox…nothing else matters.”  I believed this and have let it guide my play ever since, but something about watching these snowboarders reminded me of another reality.

Believe it or not, I actually used to be pretty good at slope style myself.  We didn’t have snow in South Carolina but we had sand and rails and big jumps!  Every day at recess we would all run to the playground to begin to create our routines.  We incorporated twists and turns, grinds and grabs, jumps and slides.  We were all really talented, come to think of it pretty much everything we did on those sand hills was awesome.  We were young and we were free from pressure and performance and the demons of others shame.  We were alive…oh so alive…and full of reasons to celebrate!

This is what I know of celebration, it is always sweeter to be celebrated when you haven’t done anything to deserve it.  Or said in a different way, when others applaud you regardless of the outcome because the object of celebration is you…not what you have done.  In this reality your inherent value always outshines your best and worst performance because you are what is glorious.  You.

I long for the day when I can allow the joy of play to find its way, once again, into the fields of my heart.  When I can celebrate myself and others regardless of the quality of our play because we, God’s glorious beloved children, are worth celebrating. IMAG0494


Rio Secreto

A year and a half ago my wife and I had the privilege of doing some underground cave exploration near Cancun Mexico at a place called Rio Secreto.  The underground caves or more correctly “cenotes” were believed to be a holy place to the Mayans that once inhabited the land centuries before.   The Mayans came to understand and describe this underground world as a sacred realm that influenced and mediated the land it sat beneath.  As we wade inside the belly of the earth we saw sights that an unaided human eye would never be able to see.  There were roots that seemed to stretch from eternity in search of any drop of water deep below.  There were animals that lived inside the pitch black sanctuary without eyes, living entire lives without coming into contact with another living being.  It was amazing to realize that a whole world existed beneath the one that I knew and understood and what I saw was only a small portion, only the tip of the iceberg.

During our initial descent our guide asked us how long we thought people had known about this particular cenote.  We all assumed it was found decades prior, believing that a discovery of this magnitude couldn’t have escaped modern man for long.  Upon hearing our guesses the guide, with the kind of smile that holds a secret, told us that the cave was found by accident by a man who was chasing after a wild boar.  The ground had given way and one of the largest underground cenotes in the world had been discovered…a discovery that had happened just 4 years prior!  4 years!!!  I was baffled that something could have existed in our midst for so long undiscovered.  In my surprise was a sense of disbelief that modern man could have missed something so huge and important for so many years.  I thought to myself, “How was this not explored long ago?!”

I don’t feel like it is necessary to craft some hyper-meaningful comparison between this reflection and the psyche of athletes other than the simple thought that I continue to be amazed at how little research and exploration has been done around what lies beneath the world of athletics.  As I’ve turned my attention to this work I have often found myself thinking the same thoughts as when I left Rio Secreto.  “How is it that we have missed these realities for so long!?”

One of the goals that I have set for this work is to begin telling the stories of this hidden world to those who have never seen it.  The words of this blog are my first attempts at narration.  Thus far it has been a collection of stories and insights from my own history and those I’ve worked with…but I want it to get bigger.  My hope is that by categorically naming the realities of sports and sporting culture we can begin to truly see the impact participating has had on so many of our lives.  Instead of just blindly continuing to play out these realities in the lives of the next generation, we can hold athletics up to the light to see what parts of it are pure and what parts are marred.  This is how generational cycles are broken, with courage and the freedom to question the status quo.

The link below connects you to one of many surveys I’ll create over the next few years.  Most of them will be very short and all of them will be anonymous.  My hope is that they will help us draw a map of sorts to a very new and unexplored world.  One filled with darkness and glory…a world full of secrets.  One that demands the efforts of many to map the whole.

Will you help us explore?