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School of sport: The game of life


OSCAR Wilde is often attributed with the statement that “Rugby is a good occasion for keeping thirty bullies far from the centre of the city”, though others may disagree, as we will recall when thinking of the old maxim (said to have been coined by Arthur Tedder, a chancellor of Cambridge University) that “Football is a game for gentlemen played by hooligans, and rugby union is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen.”

In recent years, other sports have entered the debate, with some claiming that “Cricket is a game for gentlemen played by gentlemen”.

While leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions on that matter, we may consider which sport or game best depicts life.

Some would argue that rugby does so, for it is a game that requires tall and short, big and strong as well as light and fast; everyone can be involved.

Some will see athletics as being analogous as if we cannot run fast, we can run far and, if we cannot run, we can always jump high or far or throw far and wide.

Others will no doubt refer to cricket and highlight how we can be bowled over by decisions, caught out by knowledge, stumped for answers and run out of ideas.

Perhaps though we might look not at sports but at games. Maybe we see life as being like ‘Snakes and Ladders’ or chess; some will view it like ‘Solitaire’ or ‘Risk’ or even ‘Monopoly’ (Ted Turner is quoted as saying “Life is a game – money is how we keep the score”). Boards in business do seem to like to play such board games.

The fact is though that we do often speak of the ‘game of life’. Some say life is a game as it is competitive, quoting the legendary golfer Bobby Jones who stated that “The secret to golf, and business, is to turn three shots into two.”

However, in that statement he is implying that it is business, not life, that is competitive.

Life is a game because it has rules and consequences, because it requires determination, perseverance, perspective, commitment, teamwork and so on.

Life has wins and losses; again, Bobby Jones famously said that “Golf is the closest game to the game we call life.

You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots – but you have to play the ball as it lies.”

We play one shot at a time and we take one day at a time.

Other great minds allude to this imagery. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying that “Life is just like a game – first you have to learn the rules of the game, and then play it better than anyone else.” Such comments echo those already stated above.

However, we do not need to be a genius ourselves to note that the genius Einstein said that “life is just like a game”; he did not say life is a game but it is like a game. In that regard, therefore, there is no ‘game of life’.

Perhaps we may look at life more accurately in the same way we view the game of tennis where the game is not everything but is a part of the journey to ‘set and match’.

The problem with speaking of the ‘game of life’ is that we take games (and equally sports) too seriously and conversely we take life too casually or lightly.

We cannot and must not trip out the same line that we use for sport – “it’s only a game!” Life is not a game; we do not play life but we live life. We do not play with people’s feelings for as Shakespeare is quoted as saying, “Never play with the feeling of others because you may win the game but the risk is that you will surely lose the person for the lifetime.”

Life is not about winning and losing. Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool manager, famously (and perhaps cheekily) said that, “Some people think football [soccer] is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” Oh, no, it is not! We must not take sport too seriously.

At the same time, we must not take life too casually. A game may “only be a game” but life is totally life.

Life is not a pastime, a hobby or a business. We do not live for sport but we live for life, with sport being an enjoyable part of life.

We do need to be very serious about life as we only have one chance with it; there is no replay.

Life is not a game and equally a game is not life. Love in tennis is meaningless and empty; in life, love is powerful.

Whether we are gentlemen or hooligans, we must see sport in its true context; it has great lessons that are applicable to life but life is not a game. It is so much more.

  • Tim Middleton is a former international hockey player and headmaster, currently serving as the Executive Director of the Association of Trust Schools Email:

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