Why sports often doesn’t develop character

The word sport came from a Old French verb, desporter, meaning to divert or amuse or play. Ref a few testosterone-laden soccer games and you’ll see why the “sport of kings” originally referred to war-making.

I have higher aspirations for sport. Can it serve a purpose above the motivations of war? Will it remain the domain of diversion and amusement to pass the time? Or will it simply be a spectacle to be charged for at the gates? I hadn’t considered this question until a recent Artist in Residency partnership with Sport Calgary had me thinking about what sports offer, if anything, to society. With over 500 amateur sports organizations and 80 categories of sports in Calgary alone, there is no doubt it plays a big role in the community.

Unfortunately, in an age where success is often measured by fame and fortune alone, the spirit of sport is lost in the economic drive to commercialize all aspects of life. But I think sport, if properly understood, is a potential vehicle for developing values that make for a strong and vibrant community.

At its core, sport is a form of organized play requiring physical prowess. For some, this form of play may become a lifelong profession. For many others, playing is a healthy form of leisure. But as every child learns, play is a form of practice for the big game of life and it should be taken seriously.

Sports inherently creates conditions where good character could be developed. One may need to overcome fear and stress to overcome obstacles, or compete with intelligence and respect against an opponent, or strive for excellence in one’s ability. But it can just as easily descend into a winner-takes-all attitude where slavish loyalty to the team trumps ethical behaviour. Famous basketball coach, John Wooden, was on to something when he said that “Sports do not develop character. It reveals it.”

The issue is that sports by itself is insufficient for developing character. Sure the structure of the sport, whether team or individual, plays a role in the types of skills developed. Nevertheless, coaches, parents, celebrities, schools, sports films, and news play as much, if not more, of a role in shaping how athletes approach their sport. Imagine a coach who preaches respect and fairplay in the dressing room, but dresses down the ref on a bad call, or parents who pressure kids to win at all costs even if it means sneaking one past the ref. The lessons learned from an activity depends on the culture surrounding the individual athlete.

Yet, even if there is a supportive network of people present to draw out the best in the athlete, there is also no guarantee that qualities developed in one discipline will transfer into other areas of life. You can be disciplined in your training, but undisciplined in your personal relationships. Or you might excel in sport, but lose sight of the bigger picture of life.

Consider the values that could be learned through sport:

  • Resilience – the ability to manage setbacks or failures in productive ways
  • Persistence – the resolve to continue to pursue objectives despite challenges
  • Adaptive Learning – the ability to learn from mistakes or failure and build new skills for changing circumstances
  • Courage – the ability to manage fear and move ahead regardless of it
  • Fairness – the ability to act well despite the heat the moment or the pressure to achieve objectives
  • Respect – the quality of treating people, friends and foe alike, with dignity and compassion.
  • Teamwork – the ability to work with and coordinate with other people to achieve the same objectives
  • Excellence – the drive to continuously improve oneself

At a high level, they make perfect sense. The devil really is in the details. Knowing is not the same as having the capacities. They require as much practice and training in life as in sport. Developing the courage to climb Mt. Everest is different than the moral courage to question your own team, but climbing Mt. Everest might help. The specific disciplines in kicking a ball accurately every time under pressure is different than the specific disciplines of doing an investigative documentary on a corrupt politician. But the general principles of diagnosing problems, self-correcting, pulling back ignorance, and managing the pressures performance does cross disciplines.

I’m interested in hinting at the possibilities that sport offers beyond the vague generalities that sports commercials offer. Hence, the artist in residency. If you have any thoughts on what sport could develop and how, I’d love to hear what you think. Until then, remember that you are what you train in sport and in life.


About the Artist in Residency

Hidden Story Productions and Sport Calgary would like to invite you to participate in an exciting exploration of the true spirit of amateur sport through a series of short documentary films. Our goal is to illustrate in cinematic style these values through the thoughts and feelings of local athletes and the sports that they play. To this end, we are looking for amateur athletes in Calgary willing to share their stories, the behind the scenes of their training, and how it shapes their life. We are now looking for amateur athletes in Calgary of any age, skill level, or sport (except for hockey, soccer, baseball, basketball… sorry too mainstream).

This project is sponsored in part by Calgary 2012’s Artist-in-Residency Program. Calgary 2012 is an independent, non-profit organization that helps showcase Calgary’s culture and create legacy projects to encourage future cultural achievements.


Adaptive do-It-yourself? Or next ‘Canada’s Worst Handyman’?

There comes a time in every young man’s life when he must learn how to light a blow torch, to run stone through a wet saw, and mix cement with water. Or so I tell myself as I stumble my way through learning how to redo a part of my bathroom.

And so it begins... no turning back.

Let’s face it. I grew up with a computerized, virtual view of the world. The merest stroke of a key and all can be altered in the digital world with little consequence to the real world except perhaps a numbered software error. But renovating the bathtub faucet and tub surround requires a crowbar and the possibility of wrecking or blowing up your home.

For those that grew up on a farm, you can stop laughing now. And just for the record, I had an experienced farm hand with an eye for design help me with this project.

For others less inclined to take apart stuff, I’d say try it! If possible and if in the right state of mind, try to (as I tell myself) relish the frustrations of discovering your own ignorance, but also know that you can figure it out.

For instance, we initially took apart the walls and waited for the plumber. Then a stroke of good fortune: the plumber did not show up. Which left us to decide whether we could do it ourselves. And you know what, when we looked at the cuts and crimps and solders needed, we got the plumbing job done with only one too many trips to the Home Depot. 

Nevertheless, turning on the water and finding no leaks was sweet victory. What made it truly sweet though was understanding how the flux works and where to apply the heat and knowing how you’d fix it if something goes wrong. It’s knowing that it wasn’t a fluke. At this point, I have to thank my many supporters: Brian, YouTube, Google, and three different opinions from Home Depot.

It’s too bad Do-It-Yourself isn’t encouraged more. In my parent’s day, DIY used to mean frugality and self-reliance particularly during the big recessions. My dad, during one particularly bad year in the 80’s learned to build the garage, renovate the basement, and make furniture. Nothing unusual.

These days, DIY has become fodder for reality TV shows. Why do it yourself when you can hire someone to do it all better? Why take the risk? Isn’t it a waste of time?

Which is unfortunate, because DIY is not about efficiency. It’s about learning how to figure things out and developing a sense of power over the world around us. It’s also my way of battling against the age of over-specialization. In a world, where we have delegated our powers to grow food, make things, and fix things to other people, what skills are we left with?

Water-resistant Kerdi membrane installed on bathroom wall.

Once we got the rough-in valve installed, it was time to take off the tub surround. We expected the worse… black mold, rotten beams, a dead rat maybe. Instead we discovered old, but dry boards. No problems. Up goes the new water resistant boards and a special pink membrane to block moisture. Measure twice, cut once… unless of course you use the exact same erroneous process both times you measured.

Peer learning was what rescued me from certain disaster. My partner / mentor and I constantly bounced our understanding of the situation off each other. With his experience and my naivete, we were miraculously able to correct each other’s assumptions. I get now why the trades have an apprenticeship / journeyman system. It’s the best way to learn.

So when it came to planning the tile setting, I jumped into action with my computer skills and created for us a model.

Scale drawing of tiles taking into account grout lines. Framing tiles could be adjusted to get less cuts.

Overkill? Well, you must understand that our hubris from our plumbing success led us to set our sights higher. We wanted to install stone tiles in a diagonal pattern. Two choices that made this job three or four times harder than installing waterproof porcelain in a standard grid pattern.

Laying out some of the tiles on the living room floor to get a feel for the look.

But when I saw the natural stone, I was mesmerized by the unique organic patterns in each tile. I felt as if each stone had a story. For a moment, I rediscovered my childhood inclination to pickup colourful stones from the alleyway.

As it turns out, the computer model made it very easy to choose the right sized tiles. We could move tiles around, decide on grout width, number of cuts and tiles needed, and even plan our approach to allow for variation in reality. That is afterall what a good model helps one to do. The resulting layout, however, has to be checked against the actual wall which is neither flat nor square. Nowhere is the refrain “the model is not reality” more apparent.

The anticipation of seeing whether one’s best laid plans were accurate is thrilling. Perhaps it’s the strumming of that thin, invisible link between one’s thought and one’s actions. To know that you can work through a two-week process of planning and learning and doing makes you think that you could do the same over a lifetime.

Not bad for the first time. But it took much longer than expected.

And the result? Well, so far it looks great in the photo. But it belies the little frustrations of imperfections inherent in the stone, the wall, the cut, the human hand multiplied by a need for perfection. My role was modest in this part. Mostly I was the apprentice that cleaned tools, ran errands, and more importantly observed closely. On occasion I got to make cuts and lay tiles that weren’t critical to the overral pattern.

The renovation continues, yet I already feel a sense of pride. As Ken Low would say, achievement is success hard earned.

Testing Irrational Passionate Ideas

What if you were seized with a crazy desire to buy a video camera and tell stories, but you don’t have a clue how to make a film let alone hold a camera? That’s the question I was faced with a few months ago.

The idea smacked me across the face. Video is a beautiful intersection between my techno-geek, story-teller persona and the needs of projects I was involved in. So how to travel down this path a little further? Or as Savage Garden once sang, “I don’t know if I love you, but ooo I want to find out.” Here are some of my first steps down in that journey.

Is this idea even feasible in my life?
I started thinking about what kind of video equipment I needed (versus wanted which was unlimited). Not the necessarily best place to start, but it leads to questions of purpose for the camera and me in the short-term as well as what I wanted to grow into in the long run.

But how to pay for this venture? Fund raising was a possibility, but knowing nothing about that, I settled on starting a small business in videography. What set of skills did I need? How could I get them? What kind of work could I get? What can I learn from other videographers out there? And in the context of other things I could be doing, is this worth while for me to do?

After seeking answers to those questions, there was only one thing to do: get my company started.

Logo and name for the basic conceptual idea

If yes, ramp up and get started
Convincing myself (or perhaps rationalizing) that it could work, I proceeded to build my own action-oriented curriculum since film-school was overkill at this time for my little side project.

  • Learn Basics of Editing – Luckily I had hours of raw footage from my wedding that I could use. It was perfect for practice and my anniversary was coming up in any case.
  • Practice Basic Camera Work – Incidentally EMMEDIA had an Intro to Videotaping workshop. But as it turned out there was more than enough resources on YouTube and the web that explained the basics of videography. Here’s an oldie but a goodie: http://www.video101course.com.
  • Do Live Shooting – Nothing brings out a keen desire to learn like pressure, and that means weddings. Weddings are one of the most difficult kinds of events to shoot. Poor lighting, high expectations, long hours and you only get one shot. Fortunately, my friends Lindsey and Mandy were willing to be my guinea pigs for my first creative production. Here was the result:

  • Discover Audio and Lighting – Lighting properly and getting good sound was a whole other world. Purchasing the camera was only the first third of the expense. The second third was lights and microphones. I now understood why people specialized in each of those areas. Small tip: purchase cheap daylight bulbs and reflectors from home depot; they work great for simple setups.
  • And the Third Third? – High definition means high computing requirements which means high additional costs for new software and computers.
  • Learn from Other People’s Work – Pretty soon, I couldn’t watch a movie or a show without noticing the camera work, how the cut was made, and what filming techniques were used. Documentary films took on a whole new meaning for me.
  • Seek Out Mentors – As I started telling others about my plans, I met a number of people working in the field many of whom were helpful in giving me a feel for the industry. I’m still seeking the right guild of people you might say who will provide the kind of feedback I need to get to where I want to go.

The experiment goes on. There’s storytelling and storyboarding to learn. There’s shooting mini-documentaries. I feel as if there are invisible lessons everywhere to be learned. Some significant, some not. Now if I can only find them.

I have to admit that I like learning my way versus the school way. It takes more discipline, but it is also vastly more liberating, and it has to lead to interesting collaborative and creative projects such as this one. Try it out with your irrational idea.

Chris Hsiung
U Venture
Better Life… Better Business

The “I can’t focus” Syndrome

One of the most common challenges raised by business owners and other people pursuing a venture is the “I can’t focus or do things consistently” challenge. This is another variation on the classic problem of not being able to get to the gym often enough.

The common solution? Discipline. This word is often linked with the ability to focus or to do things consistently to reach a goal. It’s not a bad definition. It just doesn’t tell us what discipline is for or the many ways discipline goes wrong. In addition, we carry childhood baggage associating discipline with a form of punishment. It’s why going to the gym, writing on a blog regularly, or doing your marketing can feel like a form of punishment.

Discipline has a higher and far more powerful meaning. Consider the discipline of medicine or the discipline of masonry. In this case, we are referring to the accumulated knowledge and skills obtained over generations of inquisitive scientists or stone craftsmen.

Seen in this light, we can find some clues as to how and why people focus. On the radio, I was listening to an interview with internationally renowned chocolatier Bernard Callebaut. It turns out that he is continuously evolving his recipe, trying different cocoa beans, different formulations, adding or removing ingredients. He does so because it is his craft. He does so to create better chocolates and (I would assume) to elevate his skill. Focusing is a by-product of the desire to do better.

Although the disciplines of chocolate-making, medicine, and masonry are all very different in its output, the learning process is much the same: develop understanding, practice well, learn from others past and present, experiment and test, take on progressively more difficult challenges. Discipline is, at its core then, a continuous process for figuring out what is helpful and what isn’t.

How the boundaries of “helpful” is defined makes a big difference. Let’s say that you had difficulty getting to the gym. The reasons you give might be, “I don’t have time.” or “I can’t get up in the morning.” However, the underlying cause could be a lack of a good reason for exercising in the first place. Perhaps you don’t know how to exercise. It could be that you haven’t had a lot of practice doing things without being told to do.

The problem is most people (including me) don’t understand how they develop good habits or disciplines. We’re use to someone telling us what to do. So when someone comes to me and says, “I can’t focus”, what I really hear is “I don’t know what the discipline of discipline-making is.”

Medicine didn’t sprout from one person’s head in a moment of inspiration. It took a long time to figure out how disease is transmitted or that vitamin deficiency is a different form of illness. Likewise, it takes time to figure out how we work and what keeps us focused or not. Maybe you need to sleep earlier, or you need a partner to train with, or you need a compelling reason, but that is up to you to figure out.

Try this exploratory question. What if you viewed the work of “making yourself” as a craft? What if you are in the process of shaping and molding your own thoughts and feelings? Then, like Mr. Callebaut, you would be patient, be focused, and be endlessly curious in the pursuit of a better self.

Chris Hsiung
U Venture
Better Life… Better Business

How to Leave Your Job (Tip 1)

Imagine if you were laid-off today. What would you do?

If the prospect frightens you or the only response you have is to madly send out resumes for job postings, it might be time to do a checkup on your capacities and see which ones need a tune-up or an upgrade.

Check your Financial Gauges

I was once told by a manager that a mortgage is motivation to perform well on your job. In other words (I thought cynically), one is not a slave to the job; one is a slave to the mortgage! It’s no wonder that the word mortgage comes from the French meaning “dead pledge”.

What dead pledges have you made? Is your lifestyle such that you cannot possibly afford it with any other job? If you made no other income starting today, how long could you last?

The recession has shattered the illusion of the “you can have anything you want” attitude of financial management. As it turns out, every dollar spent on a credit card is another tiny ball and chain snapped on to your neck. What freedom is there when you can’t leave your job? How maneuverable are you if you have no savings?

I use to think that paying down debts, saving money, or cutting expenses was an obligation. But today I see every dollar saved or paid down as building my “freedom” capacity, that ability to respond to challenges or take advantage of opportunities.

Take stock of your financial books, and make some decisions!

Fortunately, finances aren’t the only measure of capacity. If you’re low here, you can draw upon other capacities which will be covered in succeeding blog posts.