The Sports Sermon: The dark side of pickup games

October 23, 2014

Playing pickup sports might be one of the most dangerous choices you can make. If you’re choosing to participate in that type of setting, chances are you don’t play on a collegiate or professional level. No one wants to risk their health in a game that doesn’t matter, but when it’s all someone has, these competitions become all or nothing.

I hate playing pick-up soccer on Kehoe field. If you try and start a game with your friends, eventually strangers show up, ask to join the game, and the dynamic completely changes. You’re no longer aware of everyone’s skill level, people are trying to prove themselves to those they don’t know, and the danger factor increases tenfold. Especially in the wake of the World Cup, everyone’s Ronaldo, everyone’s Messi, and every game is a final.

This phenomenon happens everywhere. I once joined a game of soccer at my local gym in Vermont and almost came to blows with three Bosnian men (spoiler alert, I would’ve lost handily). Why? Because I wasn’t running hard enough for their liking. That would’ve been cool had I been a player in the Bosnian national team setup. I understood where they were coming from, but we were alone on turf on a Saturday morning, and mine were the only soccer socks that matched on the whole field.

Now I’m a grouchy kid, so normally I’d be willing to chalk this issue up as a “me problem.” But I’ve seen enough games to know that this phenomenon affects even the most level-headed participant.

I recently played a game of pick-up basketball. Admittedly, I am not cut out for the baller life, and prefer to play a rather understated game. I don’t have the shot, I don’t have the swag, and I certainly have no desire to be any better than I am. That generally keeps me from trying to be like Mike.

That didn’t stop some of my teammates (some of the smartest kids I know) from knocking into each other more than a few times in the name of looking hard. They were good friends and yet, there they were bumping chests and staring each other in the eye. And to be honest, although I don’t like it, I understood where they were coming from.   

The problem is that if someone isn’t playing at a higher level, and pickup is all they have, that’s the competitive pinnacle of their athletic career. Consciously, or subconsciously, the seriousness becomes second nature, and that can become dangerous. I’m just as guilty of this oversight as anyone else. I stopped playing soccer five years ago and have pretty much regretted it every day since. Every time I go out to play pick up, it’s not just to beat the other team, but to prove to myself that I could’ve continued on if I’d wanted to.

That’s just the nature of the game. It’s the nature of sports. We’ve deified athletes. We are at a point where Tom Brady, LeBron James, and Derek Jeter have a place in the American Pantheon along with Jesus Christ and good ol’ Honest Abe. Our glory is earned not on the battlefield, but on the court or rink or turf. That’s how we become great. So when pick-up is the only chance to get out there and show your stuff, you better believe everyone gets right down to business.

That sort of feeling is what makes pick-up fun, but also a little dangerous. Taking things too seriously can lead to unnecessary injuries, all in the name of living for a little glory of our own.  Let’s be real, without that little bit of competition, these games aren’t fun at all. But with competition has to come a little perspective. You might be playing a game of football on Sunday, but you’re still going to have to study for that midterm, or head into your nine-to-five this week. It’s a downer, but it’s worth keeping in mind before someone can no longer participate thanks to the dark side of casual play. Leave the intensity to the professionals, the injuries to their trainers, and the field at the end of the day having enjoyed yourself.


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