Defining Sport, Play, Game, and Athleticism

Date: Mon, 22 Jul 1996
From: John Byl
Subject: defining sport, game...

A couple of weeks ago there was a discussion on defining play, game, sport... Let me add to this list the definitions I work with and have found to helpful and I think workable.

Play = A freely chosen consciousness intent on the enjoyable and non-traditional use of resources primarily committed to instrumental purposes. This is best realized when personal conflicts have been resolved. (to put it simply, play = goofying off).

Game = The voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles-hindrances. (I have borrowed here from Suits)

Playful game = A greater commitment to play than to successfully overcoming the unnecessary obstacles.

Sport = A roughly balanced commitment to play and to successfully overcoming unnecessary obstacles.

Athletics = A greater commitment to successfully overcoming unnecessary obstacles than to play.

To put this in model form it would look something like what I've tried to present below (a modification of a model Salter used).

|                                          /|
|                                  Athletics|
|                                      /    |
|        Play                        /      |
|                                  /        |
|                                /          |
|                           Sport           |
|                            /              |
|                          /                |
|                        /                  |
|                      /                    |
|                Playful                    |
|                 Game                      |
|               _/__________________________|
|               |                           |
|               |            Game           |

I would tend to agree with Morrow that whether an activity is a playful game, or sport or athletics, depends on the attitude one has during the activity. A game of basketball can be done as a playful game (if you do not really care if the ball goes in or not, nobody keeps score...), as sport (we'll keep track of the score, but we will also goof around a bit), as athletics (this one counts, and the ball better go in).

Chess, as I see it, is a game, that could be participated in as a playful game, as a sport, or as an athletic contest. What distinguishes chess from basketball is that physical activity is not important to the outcome of the contest.

I would probably view competitive bodybuilding as a game requiring physical activity, which could be done as a playful game, as sport, or as athletics.

This position is explained further in a paper I wrote ("Coming to terms with Play, Game, Sports and Athletics") and included in a book by Heintzman, Van Andel and Visker, "Christianity and Leisure: Issues in a Pluralistic Society," Dordt College Press, 1994

John Byl
Department of Physical Education       At Home
Redeemer College
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Date: Tue, 23 Jul 1996
From: Tim Morris

I found John Byl's heuristic grid of athletics, sport and game very interesting.

I tend, in teaching, to define sport as a cultural thing--something that people meet to agree about, but in different ways (different sets of rules)-- and as somethign that is always "emergent," that is, more than the sum of its rules and its parts (players). Sports are like natural languages and, in some senses, like biological species.

Athletics connotes for me something entirely and "naturally" physical, though that's an oversimplification and I doubt that any activity can be "pure" athletics without any cultural context.

Chess is a game, and perhaps a sport. But it is extremely stylized, and it doesn't evolve very readily. Cultural contexts have little impact on chess, and it tends to operate as a mathematical system, which is why computers are very good at it.

Sports evolve, like languages or species. They have rules, but the rules keep changing.

I *think*--

Tim Morris
Arlington, Texas

Date: Tue, 23 Jul 1996
From: John Bale

In response to John Byl's classifications of play, games, sports, and athleticism:

You have, of course, raised a perennial problem in the study of sports. My feeling is that messing around with a basketball is actually FUNDAMENTALLY different from the thing that Michael Jordan does. Each is part of a quite different CONFIGUATION of related attitudes, ideologies, buildings, facilities, landscapes etc. etc. Perhaps it is useful to start with the different ways the body is 'cultured' physically. To race is different from to run. To run with achievement in mind is different from running with P.E. in mind; each is differeent from zen in mind - and the configurations of each are resultingly different.

I have found the work of the German 'cultural sociologist' Henning Eichberg immensely useful is working towards an understanding of different forms of sport body culture. This idea is excellently reviewed in the early chapter of Susan Brownell's 'Training the body for China', Chicago U.P., 1995.

Good luck with your work.

John Bale

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