Do I play? Do you? What does it really mean to play?

Do I play? After reading Johan Huizinga’s article, I don’t think so.

Like many other young boys, I played a variety of sports growing up. Baseball, football, and golf were the main three. Once my mom realized how easy it could for me to get hurt in football though, she quickly killed that possibility. So I was left with baseball and golf. I loved both, but in different ways. In baseball, I could play with my friends and feel a sense of team, regardless of a win or a loss. It wasn’t all on me. But with golf, it was the exact opposite. Very few of my friends played, but my dad did almost every day of the week, so I got to enjoy countless hours of father-son bonding. If I played well, I could take all the credit, and walk off the course knowing my hard work paid off. But when I played badly, it was like the world was coming to an end. It was all on me, and all my hours of practice weren’t paying off.


When I reached high school, I made the varsity golf team as a freshman. I decided to drop other sports, and focus on only golf. That year I did not play in a single match, simply because our team had so much senior talent that I was not needed, and I was ok with this because we were so good. Once they graduated, it was my turn. My sophomore and junior years were successful by my standards, and I was looking forward to ending my competitive career on a high note. To my surprise though, I greatly struggled, and didn’t come anywhere near my expectations. Practices became a never-ending grind, and with more struggles came more nerves about matches. I didn’t have confidence in my swing, and it was harder to make myself play.

Play. Until this past week, the word meant very little to me. It seemed like just a word you use to say when you want to talk about a sport you’re involved in. But Huizinga’s article made me question what I thought I knew. He says that play is voluntary, separate from ordinary life, limited in time, limited in space, and creates, or is order. I applied these all to my experiences with golf, specifically my senior year, and the results weren’t what I expected.

I always volunteered to play golf, but felt a bit of pressure from my dad, a golfer for almost 30 years, to practice hard, and as a captain, I couldn’t just not work hard. I had to set an example.

Golf, at times, was an escape from other things I had going on in my life. But when I struggled, it was harder to keep a positive attitude towards things like homework and class (it’s worth noting that this is the case for all seniors, not just me). So it was not separate from ordinary life.

When I wasn’t doing homework or with friends, I felt like I had to practice. The time limit never ended, and it was ongoing until the season ended.

It was limited in space, and did have order, so I was meeting those two criteria. But it was still daunting to think that I had not actually been “playing” a sport that I thought I enjoyed for so long.

In my Comparative Literature class, we also read the Huizinga article, along with Randolph Feezell’s “A Pluralist Conception of Play”. Feezell broke down play differently, and frankly, in a much more understandable way. He named five approaches to play, one of which was “play as motive, attitude, or state of mind”. Every other way to put play made the concept seem hazy, but this clicked. If you have a positive attitude and don’t care what happens, then you are playing. But if you’re out there beating yourself up, you’re not. I thought to myself, “I only care about results. I have never ‘played’ a day in my life”.

But I thought I was being too hard on myself. I knew I loved golf, and was still confident that I did, in fact, “play”. So I thought that maybe Feezell, and especially Huizinga, were thinking too much into the concept of “play”. Obviously a 19- year old college student does not have the authority on this topic that two proclaimed authors have, so I run the risk of sounding like I think I know much more than I actually do. But it seems to me that it can be boiled down to much simpler terms.

What are your intentions? Do you play to play?Golf course at Green Lakes State Park, Fayetteville, NY

By my own standards, I did not play. I competed. And I am ok with this. I was on a team, and I wanted to win. But I still wish I had “played” a little more.

I will strongly advocate that whether or not you play is based on your intentions. Now that my intentions are to have fun with my dad doing something we both love, I believe that I do now play. However, I still care about results. Does this mean I still don’t play?

It is too hard to not care about the score when playing a sport, because that is basically what it is all about. Did you “play” well enough to win, or no? Few people care if they “played” or not when the final score is the main focus. So if the results are the only thing you care about, then you’re not playing. It is alright to care about them, but to “play”, they should not be the focus. In my opinion, I now “play”, but in my own way. If attitude is the key focus, as it should be, I play. If Huizinga were still alive, he would likely disagree, but with something so subjective, who’s to say there’s only one correct view on the matter.


One thought on “Do I play? Do you? What does it really mean to play?

  1. It is interesting to see you write these words about golf. Golf, for me, has always been a sport that I play purely recreationally. It is very much a game for me as I am not wholeheartedly invested in the outcome and I play solely because I get entertainment from it. Conversely, I relate my high school basketball experience very much to your’s with golf. I took it very seriously and leisure would never be a word I attach to it. It never seemed much like play out there on the court because if we screwed up, we knew we were going to get it from our coach at the next practice. Its funny how all of us can have such different experiences and feelings within the world of games and sport.


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