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Sports – A Vehicle for Happiness

By on January 10, 2007 – 4:47 pm  5 Comments

John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

John's articles are here.

            Sports can be a vehicle for happiness. Although the purposes of sports are varied and mean different things to different people, many would agree that organized sport participation can be intrinsically valuable and may bring authentic happiness to a wide range of participants. As a former athlete at the high school, college, club and professional levels, and current coach and sport psychology consultant, I am attentive to the issues that currently exist in sports. However, when sports are done right, we can learn the joy of movement and the challenge of taking risks.  We can learn something about our strengths as well as our limitations.  We can learn to work cooperatively toward a common goal.  We can learn the importance of teamwork.  We can build our communication skills.  We can develop or reinforce confidence, trust and humility.  And if we weren’t confident, trustworthy, and humble before we started playing or coaching, maybe we learned a little about these qualities on the field. 

             Well-being in sport can best be understood through its deconstruction into more distinct pathways such as: the pleasurable life, the engaged life, and the meaningful life.  The pleasurable life encompasses the positive emotions that are by-products of athletic participation.  Engagement or flow may be categorized as being highly connected and totally absorbed in the sports activity.  Establishing a sense of purpose and meaning in sports participation reinforces the pursuit of pleasure and engagement.  Ed Diener, a pioneering researcher on well-being from the University of Illinois, claims that fun and enjoyment may predict daily satisfaction; however life satisfaction is predicted by the quality of one’s purpose and meaning.  By investigating the three pathways to happiness, it allows us to look at satisfaction and enjoyment in sport through a wider lens. 

            When we demonstrate our “best effort” as a coach, player, administrator, official, parent or spectator, we also become fully engaged in the game and have the greatest opportunity to enjoy the process.  As human beings, we have many aspirations, motives and desires that drive our participation in sport, either from the field, sidelines or stands.  This motivation can’t be totally deciphered or illustrated from a brief bio sketch in the team program, blowing the whistle or cheering from the third row.  Understanding motivation can come from the rich stories of sport participation that have inspired belief and a sense of purpose in many of us.  As we listen to the cues that uncover the beliefs and meaning, we are more able to empathize with the joys, elations, and even the frustrations of playing, coaching or spectating.

    One great example is the story of Jason McElwain, a 2006 graduate of Greek Athena High School in Rochester, New York.   You may have seen the clip on the news last year.


High School Basketball

High School Basketball

A highly functional autistic young man, Jason was the manager of his high school basketball team.  A very enthusiastic supporter of his team’s efforts on the court, Jason was allowed to dress for the last game of the season, without any promises of actually playing.  As one watches the video, the coach stands up with several minutes left in the contest, and motions for Jason to go into the game.  You can hear the roar of the crowd in anticipation as Jason steps onto the court.  His first two shots miss, but his third shot is  charm as well as the rest of his baskets, which included six 3-pointers!  You can hear the excitement of the crowd explode each time, coming to a crescendo as the final buzzer sounds and players and the spectators mob Jason.  What a moment!

            When I show this clip to my sport psychology classes and to other groups of all ages, I am in awe of the expressions on their faces as they watch this wonderful event.  It is obvious that it brings great pleasure to these audiences, as it did for Jason, his teammates, his family, and the entire crowd.   Watching the clip also permeated a sense of engagement or “flow,” and gave us all a chance to reinforce “what matters most” in respect to the purpose and meaning of sport – that sport is relational, it is a collaborative experience.   

             Drew Hyland, a notable sports philosopher, once said that the goal of sport is to attempt to feel a sense of “completeness” as a result of the experience.  When all sport stakeholders collaborate in the competitive environment and “all the planets are aligned,” we have the greatest opportunity to experience the pleasure, to be fully engaged in the process and find a sense of purpose and meaning in what we do.

             The nature of sport challenges all of us every time we step on to the field, coach from the sidelines or cheer from the stands – a special space that invites us to experience a balance of positive emotions and pleasure, engagement, and purpose.  Play well and savor the moment!


Thoren Bradley Shoots courtesy of Velo Steve


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