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The Limits of Sport Metaphors

Since there hasn’t been any recent Bucks news to talk about

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Miami Heat Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

I have always been drawn to the idea that sports provide ways of thinking about life. As a tennis player, I constantly intone, “One point at a time.” As a former basketball player (for a mercifully short period), I was likely told, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Sports were first and foremost fun and exercise, but they felt deeper too: they were an arena for learning lessons - “sport metaphors” - about the world outside of sports.

But as I pondered this idea more deeply, I began to wonder about its limits. Sports are not like life in many ways. It follows that sport metaphors encode aspects of sports that may be less applicable to life.

What are these aspects? Other folks have beaten me to it. Bourree Lam provides a nice overview in the Atlantic. Sports are competitive by definition. They are often individualistic, unidimensional, and time-limited. Lam also writes that “they promote the idea that more resources and greater effort necessarily produce better results.” To this list, I might add that sports are typically binary: win or lose, make or miss.

I struggle with this list, though. Life is not competitive by definition, but it certainly has competitive elements. Sports are not a monolith; there are plenty of sports that are team-based and multi-dimensional - basketball comes to mind - and where time is less of a limiting factor - like tennis (at least during points). Effort is indeed extolled in the sports world, but so is “working smarter, not harder.” And sport outcomes may be binary, but “The Process” is important.

In turn, though, I struggle with this response. Sport metaphors can encode their own limits: in rejoinder to sports espousing individualism, one can retort that “teamwork makes the dream work.” In this manner, sport metaphors smack of Freud or astrology; for every metaphor (“shoot your shot”), there is another that speaks against it (“pass the ball”), allowing them to cover all of the bases.

To get off this struggle-bus, I consider the origin of sport metaphors. They emerge from sports, but they also emerge from people; sports are a part of life. In that sense, sport metaphors are just clichés from life adapted to sports. David Foster Wallace wrote that “clichés earned their status as clichés because they were so obviously true.” Although they become cliché through overuse, sports can give them fresh relevance by grounding them in a novel context.

So the limits of sport metaphors are the limits of all clichés: they appear universal but actually aren’t. Sport metaphors are hard to generalize; but even abstracted beyond sports, they are still hard to generalize. What’s important, both in sports and in life, is having a variety of metaphors at hand and knowing when to use them. Sport metaphors can be useful in life. But life is not a sport.