Why We Play: Max Spencer

Courtesy of David Hartnett

Most student-athletes at Vassar have spent the majority of their lives dedicating themselves to their sport. At some point, it became more than just a childhood hobby. Becoming a successful NCAA athlete requires an immense amount of dedication, hard-work and commitment. It involves hours in the weight room, longer than long practices, bus rides to road contests and all of the other things necessary to successfully balance our athletic and academic schedules. So why do we put ourselves through all this work for the sake of a “game”? 

People usually pick hobbies and activities that offer them entertainment and the opportunity to connect with other people who share our interests. When we were younger, our parents signed us up to play soccer, to learn an instrument, or take an art class. As we got older, we continued with the activities we enjoyed, most likely in areas where we excelled and felt we had found a place. 

Unlike most hobbies, playing a sport comes with a more explicit promise of, often public, failure. Anyone who has watched a high-profile sporting event has witnessed the anguish of defeat. Those athletes probably aren’t having fun, and they definitely aren’t always happy with their performances. So why would they willingly engage in activities that come with the looming threat of defeat? 

It is because, when we play, we are not just chasing the thrill of victory. Don’t get me wrong, most of us are competitive, and we all enjoy winning. But if given the option, most athletes would choose to play their sport and lose over not playing in the first place. If the only rewarding thing about athletics were the exhilaration of victory, then teams engaged in losing seasons would simply decide not to play anymore. 

We choose to play sports because of the satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from playing the game. This includes the moments during competition. But this also includes all of the things that are done off the field. 

When we lift weights or study film, we gain a sense of satisfaction. Same for when we wake up for 7 a.m. conditioning or head out for practice in the snow and rain. These things may not make us happy at the time, but we do them because we feel a sense of accomplishment knowing we have created goals and are working hard to achieve them. 

This summer, I was the head coach of a baseball team in Switzerland, the Hünenberg Unicorns. It was a local team filled with players of a wide range of talent and experience. Some team members had been playing baseball for more than 40 years, and others played their first game during my tenure. 

The players may have looked very different out on the field, but they were all there for the same reason. They were there because they wanted to play baseball and to be part of a team. They believed that playing baseball could fulfill them in ways other hobbies could not. And for the three months I spent with the Unicorns, I was constantly bombarded with the reasons why I love the game. I witnessed players working hard to develop their own individual skills, but I also watched them learn to play together and be successful as a team, despite their varying levels of talent and experience. 

During my time in Europe, I also played myself in a few international tournaments. I was the only player that was still in school. Most of them were recently graduated collegiate baseball players, who had chosen to extend their careers by playing for European baseball clubs. 

These were not the famous, wealthy baseball players of the MLB. They lived extremely unflashy lives, earning break-even money with very few amenities. One of my teammates lived in the storage shed next to the field. They play because—for this moment in their lives—they view the game of baseball as the entity that is more fulfilling than anything else. They will all eventually move on from the game and will likely begin careers unrelated to athletics. But for now, they are content continuing to play the game. 

Back at home, as Vassar students, our lives are complicated. They are busy and demanding. When we choose to play a sport, we willingly sacrifice much of the scarce free time we possess. We accede to long meetings, grueling practices, late nights and early mornings. And we consent to participating in a few things that, in the moment, may not make us happy. 

However, we also sign up for team dinners at the Deece and the conversations with teammates walking to and from classes. We sign up for the opportunity to play the game that we love in front of our families, and for the lifelong friendships we make. We seek the opportunity to win a game, a tournament and maybe even a championship. We chase the thrill of victory and we are motivated to work harder after a defeat. We know that these are the things that give us satisfaction and our lives fulfillment. 

That is why we play. 

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