In a funny twist of irony, we now think of robots in more human terms than we do each other. Or at least this is true in the sports world. Movies like Ex Machina and last year’s Her explore the human relationship to machine intelligence. Children’s movies go even further by humorously inspiring us with machine heroes (Big Hero 6 and Wall-E come to mind). While there is an ever-growing complex relationship between humans and artificial intelligence (the drones are coming!), what I’m more interested in is how we’ve come to think of athletes more as machines than people.
Perhaps this is all due to the burgeoning interest in statistics across sports. We have more sophisticated measurements for almost every athletic event than ever before. Every game of every sport, at almost every level, is televised and broadcast, and oversaturation has slowly eroded our empathy and human connection to the players themselves. There is hardly a day in the year without some significant sporting event vying for our attention, and leagues hungrily clamor to make their offseasons as exciting as their regular seasons. It is clear that sports executives who work for the various leagues of interest all want one thing: to make (their) sports a higher priority in our lives.
I enjoy digging deep into websites like Fan Graphs and Basketball-Reference to find interesting observations and analysis, but I’m increasingly seeing that the new breed of sports-writers in the internet-era have a tremendously difficult time thinking of athletes as human beings. How come that dominant pitcher is having a slow start to the season? He’s been producing years of consistent excellence? How in the world is that guard scoring so much more in the playoffs than the regular season? He was terrible all year! We have no room for the non-statistical category of life.
Imagine if someone followed your every move during the day and provided statistical feedback on every area of your work performance. “Wow, Mark’s productivity really dropped there on Tuesday morning”, they would write, maybe with a neat graph depicting said plunge in productivity. But they wouldn’t know that Tuesday morning my coffee-maker suddenly decided to stop working and I ventured into the beginning of my day in a decaffeinated haze until the office Keurig machine finally came to the rescue halfway to 10. There are a thousand unexpected occurrences every day, and athletes, while being significantly richer than the rest of us, still have to deal with them too.
But we don’t think of athletes this way. Converging with the rise in statistical analysis has been the growing idolization of sports in our culture. As these two forces collide, we place an ever-growing demand on athletes to perform in a way that fits our understanding of how we think they should perform alongside a similarly ever-growing demand on athletes to provide meaning for our lives by their performance. All of this pressure is crushing sports joy. We have become maniacal fans, unbalanced in our perspectives, without even knowing it. We post ranting messages on social media and sports blogs that prove St. Augustine right when he said “I failed to recognize the whirlpool of disgraceful conduct into which I had been flung, out of Your sight.” (The Confessions, Book 1).
Steve Kerr offers us some much needed perspective. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlights how Kerr, head coach for the Golden State Warriors, has team officials send him a reading list of articles covering a broad range of topics. The writer is admittedly a bit baffled as to why Kerr does this. After all, what does reading an eclectic assortment of material do to help Kerr become a better basketball coach?
Bruce Bochy knows the answer. The equanimous manager of the World Champion San Francisco Giants doesn’t have people send him articles, but he finds balance by taking long walks to clear and refocus his thoughts. Both Bochy and Kerr know that the secret to great performance is often found in not taking it so seriously, realizing that there are greater things in life than sports. One reads articles that help him get out of his own circumstance and see the world through another writer’s eyes, while the other takes walks to get away from the swarm of activity and pressure around the clubhouse. Both know that having the right perspective is what’s important.
What’s that thing that has become overlarge in your world? What have you allowed to dominate your mind, your heart, your life? What do you need to adjust so that you don’t completely burn out? Heed Jesus’ command: “Come to me!” (Matthew 11:28). Find your rest in Him, find your balance in Him. Find the perspective that you’ve been lacking.