In the space of 12 hours last week I witnessed two different basketball games. One was a school ‘house’ competition match, in which the ‘combatants’ laughed when the opposition scored, or when they made a silly mistake. The ball was often thrown out of bounds instead of to a teammate, and many shots missed the ring by a long way. The other was between two professional teams, fighting for a place in the playoffs. The skill level was high, such that even small mistakes were sufficient cause for expressions of recrimination or frustration. Both matches were entertaining in their own right, if for different reasons, but there was an important connection between the two.
Hard as it is to imagine, but all sports people spend some time in the category represented by the first game mentioned above – where skill levels are low, but enjoyment levels are nonetheless still high. Watching professional sportspeople ply their skills on the sporting field, we easily forget the breeding ground on which these skills were first attempted, then refined. Every achievement and step forward was celebrated and encouraged, breeding enthusiasm and deeper commitment to improving.
But there are many who do not proceed much beyond the initial levels. Even after years of playing the sport, they are unable to develop the skills beyond the basics. Yet the enjoyment level is not abated. They love the sport, and love the mere challenge playing each week represents.
In this age of professional sport, it is easy to elevate one over the other: to see the fine exposition of skill and fitness as the only one worthy of celebrating. Some decide not to continue in a sport when they reach the limit of their ability, at a level far below that which is displayed on our television screens.
But perhaps we are better served by feting the amateur, by encouraging the novice, whose enjoyment stems from participation. Too often we diminish the value of just taking part, or of the comparatively small achievements of the novice. When I read the stories of Jesus, I marvel at the celebration of the common efforts over the professional, of the undignified over the refined.
Perhaps we do have our priorities the wrong way around.
March 2, 2003