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Monday, August 13, 2012

Badminton, the Philosophy of Purpose, and Alfie Kohn

Part I: Olympic Badminton

So, with all the coverage of the Olympics, there has been one story that has really given me pause for consideration: the badminton cheating "scandal". If you're not familiar with the situation, it's pretty simple: some really good badminton teams intentionally lost matches (after they had ensured that they would advance to the next round) to get seeded against easier teams in the next round. Apparently the intentional losing was blatant with these elite badminton players (yes, I am fully aware of how ridiculous that phrase sounds) hitting shots into the net and wildly out-of-bounds. The teams were disqualified from further competition and sent home.

I would like to point out this simple fact: they were playing by the rules set-up by the IOC. Which is more ridiculous: a player who tries to lose in one match to improve her/his chances of advancing further in a tournament OR an organization that creates a tournament style that rewards losses and then complains when players throw games? The answer: they are equally ridiculous, and I expect more from the players and the IOC. For you Bogart fans out there, I liken the IOCs response to this "scandal" as follows: "I am SHOCKED, SHOCKED to find gambling in this establishment!"

Part II: The Philosophy of Purpose

One of the great legacies of ancient philosophy is the idea of "purpose" and how it should reflect our beliefs and guide our actions. As Marcus Aurelius, an emperor of Rome, once wrote, "For even the least things ought not to be done without relation unto the end." ("end" here means purpose or goal) I'm going to use this wonderful badminton situation as an example. One should always begin by saying: "Why am I doing this? What is my purpose?" When it comes to playing Olympic badminton, there are a few likely answers: 1) to win ; 2) to prove that I/my country am/is the best ; 3) because I LOVE my sport and my native country, and I want to play the best badminton I can play and continually improve my technique and skill through practice and play at high levels against other highly skilled players.

Okay...let's get serious, how many sports-people are actually driven by #3? Certainly not these athletes who got kicked out. (And I would go further and say that not many professional athletes in general are guided by reason #3.)

Thesis #1: If the IOC had examined players' purposes, they never would have set-up a tournament that rewards losing.

Thesis #2: If players really played their sport for reason #3 above, the world would be a better and happier place.

Part III: Alfie Kohn

Much of what Alfie Kohn says in "Punished by Rewards" (click here for an link) addresses this issue. Kohn essentially says that instead of teaching people to love what they do (be it sports, learning, work, reading, etc.) we bribe people to do what we want them to do, and when we do that we inherently devalue the thing itself. Allow me to give an example: John doesn't want to do his homework. So his mother says, "John, if you finish your homework I'll give you a cookie." John loves cookies, and so he does his homework and gets his cookie. Mom is happy and John is happy. John has also learned a valuable lesson from Mom: homework has no inherent value, it's only worth doing if he's going to get a cookie out of it (this could also transfer to the whole concept of school and learning, giving John the idea that knowledge has no value unless it "gets him something"). Oops! [By the way, John has also learned that his mother is more interested in controlling him than in helping him become an independent and self-regulating human being. The "control" factor of "rewards" (also known as bribes) is particularly pernicious and typically leads to resentment on the part of the person who was bribed.]

Let's apply Kohn's thinking to the badminton players: these players were not taught to love their sport (or respect themselves as sportsmen/sportswomen) and to constantly seek to improve their skill and challenge themselves; they were taught to win. Every win was congratulated and every loss was considered a failure. Unfortunately for them, losing is an important tool for improvement: it guides you along the pathway to better play. These players have been thoroughly trained to "win" at all costs. In the Olympics, what does it mean to "win"? Winning means getting the gold medal. Their thinking: "If losing this match, gets me an easier match in the next round, then I should lose this match, because it puts me in a better position to win the gold."

It might also be interesting to consider the implications of Kohn's "No Contest" (click here for an link) in the Olympics. Perhaps I'll consider that in a future post...

Keep reading!

1 comment:

  1. I have nothing to add to this except that I love this post!!!