Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sports and the Natural World

Sports were born in nature where humans practiced the skills needed to survive in the wild. Just as pups practice joyfully pouncing, fighting, herding and pulling, young humans played everything from throw, catch, run, to hide and seek or treasure hunts honing their skills. They play and learn with a innate joy and satisfaction that inscribes the learning. Outdoors created sports as it has evolved and provides a critical aspect to athletic endeavor that is often missing when we sanitize or move competition inside.

Wild nature plays no favorites. The uncontrolled physical world  serves up chaos and unpredictability. Play in nature requires intense cognitive and perceptual skill as well as physical and mental adaptability. Athletics grew from this play into competitions linking and sharpening survival skills. Early sports evolved with the satisfaction of refining skills through competition outside in nature. Intrinsically people competed not only against themselves and others but against the vagaries of untrammeled nature.

Being outside in uncontrolled world intensifies the challenge of athletics. Nature plays no favorites and throws surprise and serendipity at humans. It ambushes humans with wide ranges of conditions that demand strength and preparation but also adaptability. The ability to compete under different conditions—heat, cold, humidity, rain, snow, sun and shadows, wind and beyond--all challenge people to develop sophisticated situational awareness of their environment when they compete in the “open.” As conditions change, humans need to adapt their skills on the fly to achieve their goals which puts more pressure on adaptive intelligence.

Nature does not value perfection, nature values selection and adaptation. Men and women who compete in real nature learn this. 

Outdoor action adds layers of complexity and surprise. Any simple action such as  running, throwing, catching or jumping require  added attention and revision in light of unexpected conditions. A golfer's swing must adapt to sun, shadows, humidity, wind direction as well as length and condition of the grass and roughs. Athletics in the natural world adds a dimension of test and challenge that is lacking when sports move indoors into more controlled and staged environments. We lose something even as we gain in spectacle and predictable execution.

Indoor sports in general such as track, volleyball or soccer differ acutely from their outdoor siblings. The indoor games tend to be faster with more regular and precise hitting given how controlled indoor conditions are. Indoor competition permits a level of execution and skill where protection from the vagaries of nature will not throw off a leap, hit, routine or run. Inside may amplify crowd noise and other participatory aspects of the game and fans, but it minimizes the extraneous impacts.

The move to indoor sports and climate and condition controlled obsessions minimize the impact of nature and serendipity on athletics. It strives towards a Platonic ideal of perfect form unleashed by perfectly controlled conditions that foster flawless execution. In this model, getting rid of wind, rain, sun, snow, temperature even humidity will create as close to frictionless ideal conditions as possible. These laboratory conditions permit a higher chance to achieve perfection. Pure form and technique unfold with exactitude untouched by the eddies of the natural world. 

This impulse to produce platonic conditions lies behind domes and similar buildings such as modern swimming pool design. The domes obviously have huge economic aspects and during their heyday permitted the illusion of perfect conditions. Domes also permitted baseball and football and sometimes basketball to cohabit the same fields. At the same time dome sports sobered and took away so much from games meant to be outdoors. Indoor play  eliminated the natural conditions that gave levels of excitement and test to sports. Indoor domes staged games but made them less real.

Disgust with this hyper-controlled approach to staged sports helped account for the growth of modern X sports that sought unmediated relations to nature such as surfing or snowboarding. These modern new sports that have evolved to embrace nature again. Most extreme sports grew up as embracing snow and concrete and differences. Parcours takes not only the natural world but also the lived city landscape to carve out a challenge on the run. This stresses cognitive training, scanning and pattern recognition far beyond what predictable weather and climate controlled situations demand.

I can understand the impulse to minimize the impact of nature on athletic competition for three reasons:

  1. Indoor creates a different sport. Indoor volleyball becomes fundamentally different from outdoor volleyball just the same with soccer, or track or swimming.
  2. Moving indoors makes sense when the basic skills of the athlete will be compromised or endangered by moving outdoors. Not having swim meets or soccer fields during lightening storms makes sense. Similarly asking gymnasts to compete outdoors endangers them given bar and beam and other exercises. The danger in addition compounds the inability to perform with precision and delicacy that is required of the sport. 
  3. Indoors or artificial elements might make sense to level the playing field or make it possible to compete more for simple reasons. Artificial grass fields make strong sense at so many lower levels of sports so that sports can be played with consistent integrity and level during rain and dry weather. Often the economic or weather requirements of grass make it uneconomic and unfair. Keeping fairness also matters in areas such as grooming ice or snow to ensure that the advantages of the draw do not only go the starters. Artificial fields matter to level the field across a season so that later teams on a day or during the season have equal and reliable fields to play on. All these involve attempts to limit outdoor nature on sport makes sense for reasons of danger, a different sport and a level playing field.

Domes symbolize this drive to escape nature of economic reasons. Ironically domes generate their own "weather." Air currents in the fan-based domes could be notorious. The ceilings made it hard to see and track balls while many of them played like pinball machines on the field and early generation grass. In addition they changed the entire noise dynamic of crows and atmosphere and in the old Kingdom balls regularly careened back after hitting the hanging scoreboard.

Done right, modern stadium construction permits best of both worlds. Baseball can cover itself for rains and be open for the rest. In baseball simple rain, unlike soccer and football, compromises the skill sets such as gripping a ball to pitch or holding onto a bat to swing. The rain and slipperiness can make the game dangerous for both batters and fielders. So the technology developed to permit the best of both worlds. 

Other sports, however, such as soccer and American football are built to stand the assault of weather conditions. In fact athletes revel in their ability to play in all conditions. I remember, not fondly, sinking in the mud on the side as our children played mud bowl soccer games. Thankfully in these areas artificial turf makes games possible. I can remember sitting in blinding snow storms "watching" Michigan and Ohio State slug it out in a unique midwestern approach to the game. Neither wind, rain, snow, heat, cold stop these games, although tornadoes might.

More interesting the reality of natural conditions generates real regional styles and challenges. Wild west coast pass happy offenses grew as much from weather possibilities as cultural proclivities. In the upper midwest, however, is much easier ito build a game around running and defense which thrive in  25-degree weather and snowy conditions. Similarly hot weather teams headed to cold weather and vice versa pose unique acclimation problems for teams that extend the range of their tasks and preparation. Home field advantage can vest as much in weather as fandom. The University of Washington teams would wait for sun conditioned warm California teams to travel to the misty wet northwest. Both the south and the Midwest touted and waited for out of region battles with their home field weather advantages.

I see this aspect of sports as fundamental to a deep split in philosophy and how one approaches sports and life. Plato would love domes and closed centers or pools that have exact temperatures and minimum waves and no wind. The first swimming Olympics in open water would appall him. For him the essence of sport lies in the approach to perfection of form. The essence lies in execution of form in space in time.

It's the difference between what an experiment looks like on a frictionless plane and what happens in real life. For Plato excellence would be expressed in how close to perfection in execution and precision one can come.

For Aristotle excellence consisted in how one adapted pursuing ends to the conditions a person faces. This approach generates  supple and intelligent virtue. Achieving a goal and win depended not just upon endless practice and preparation but also upon the ability to engage surprise. This can be what the opponent throws at you, but also the conditions that nature throws at you. This is life.

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