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Sports Fandom: Do You Know How To Play The Game?

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On this gorgeous Seattle day, I spent a few minutes outside with the soccer ball. Like most suburban Americans, I grew up playing soccer, running around the field with a bunch of other uncoordinated children. But sometime after the age of 12, I left the soccer pitch and have rarely returned since (unless I am hopping fences at Starfire).

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Because I left the sport so young, much of the terminology didn’t sink in. When I started paying attention to soccer again, I learned everything as an abstract concept: First touch. Flick. Feint.

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And while it’s fairly easy to realize how a flick is different than a cross, or recognize the skill of a well-timed fake, there’s something about actually playing the game that drives home the concept. It really is difficult to control the ball, to block the ball carrier, to shoot with accuracy. Yet most of us are perfectly willing to sit in judgment of players who can’t execute plays with precision.

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So what role does athletic ability play in being a sports fan? In my opinion, I don’t think you ever need to have thrown a baseball, shot a basketball, strapped on ice-skates, kicked a field goal, any of it to enjoy being a fanatic. After all, sports is really about the competition, about picking one team and cheering for them above all others. How much does it matter, after all, if you can identify a perfectly executed strike but that strike is blocked by the goalkeeper, and your team goes on to a draw rather than a win?

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Deeper knowledge of a sport is necessary when you’re trying to impart that knowledge to others. It’s tough to commentate on a sport if you don’t understand what makes one pitcher better than others or why a certain football player is favored over others (which is why so much of the World Cup coverage was utterly awful). Obviously knowledge of a sport can come from simply watching as much of that sport as is humanely possible. Pay attention and the little details come together. But something about actually participating in the sport—even if it’s just playing catch or trying keepie-ups or shooting hoops—grounds the sportswriter and reminds us that it’s not all an abstract concept.

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For any sports fans: as much as we’d often love to believe that sports will either make or break us, will give us total happiness or bring utter despair, just a few minutes out in the sun really does remind us that it’s a game. Take a few minutes and enjoy playing around in the Seattle sun. Just please, well-meaning partners and friends, don’t try to cheer us up after a loss by reminding us that “It’s only a game.” We can’t be held responsible for our replies.