Tuesday, August 21

What can you learn from watching sports?


A night in Pauley: an educational experience? (Daily Bruin file photo)

A night in Pauley: an educational experience? (Daily Bruin file photo)


College is more about learning than getting good grades. I was given this advice at orientation by a professor whose class I’m currently bombing, so I hope he’s right.

Learning can come in a lot of ways. While I may not have put in the elbow grease to keep my GPA up, I have put in a couple hundred hours watching sports. Does that compensate for anything? Have I “learned” anything from watching sports, and more importantly, do they have the ability to make me, or the average person, smarter?

In theory, I believe they do, but I think an important distinction should be made. Being smart about sports is different than becoming smarter because of them. In the current age of analytics, media coverage has gotten increasing brainy, but this is the opposite of my concern. The majority of analytic experts were bright long before they took the deep dive into pick-and-rolls, and while it’s clear that you can apply intelligence to sports, the bigger question is whether you can get intelligence out of them.

What I’m suggesting is that watching a game could make someone better capable of thinking critically in the same way as a nuanced album or an Aaron Sorkin movie. While neither of these things will make someone as smart as reading a textbook or traveling the world, they’re not completely mindless activities either.

Take Radiohead’s album, “Kid A”. People marvel at that record because it sounds beautiful, and it makes them think: What is Radiohead saying here? Why are they saying it? Why am I so intrigued? In that same breath, you say similar things about a beautifully run offense: Why does this work? How are they doing it? Why hasn’t it been done before?

While great albums and sports are completely different, they share the kind of nuance that comes with doing something well. There are thousands of people who coach basketball in the world, and Gregg Popovich of the Spurs is widely considered the best. If a Spur’s play is an extension of his thought process, and he thinks about basketball better than anyone, just watching it feels like it would have some mental substance. It seems reasonable that a good amount of learning may come from watching smart people do things they’re smart at doing.

If nothing else, all sports are dynamic. They change all the time, both in single games and throughout eras. A spectator has to figure out what the change is, and why coaches are making it. Sports may be chess games between coaches and teams, and while a spectator may not be making moves, the observer gets the task of discerning what those moves are. The teams try to change for the better, and that same logic could apply to many realms. They undergo a process of adapting, problem solving and making the best of limited resources, and those things are applicable everywhere.

This is all theoretical. I don’t think it applies to me as much as it could to someone else. Maybe I haven’t watched enough sports to have real mental stimulation. Maybe I’ve just watched too much UCLA men’s basketball and that kind of set the whole process of learning back a stage. Sometimes I just watch my favorite player on a given team run around, completely ignoring the rest of the strategic battlefield. Frankly I think I’ve regressed quite a bit mentally this year, and while sports may not be the cause, it definitely hasn’t filled up the crater of thoughtlessness that is my mind for embarrassingly large parts of the day.

But I’m holding out hope. I do believe there’s an aspect of observing competition that hasn’t been fully appreciated yet. There’s a spark of something separating a competitive sport from an iPhone game. I write for the sports page – I’d like to think so.

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