Knowing the Score

What Sports Can Teach Us About Philosophy (And What Philosophy Can Teach Us About Sports)


By David Papineau

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In Knowing the Score, philosopher David Papineau uses sports to illuminate some of modern philosophy’s most perplexing questions. As Papineau demonstrates, the study of sports clarifies, challenges, and sometimes confuses crucial issues in philosophy. The tactics of road bicycle racing shed new light on questions of altruism, while sporting family dynasties reorient the nature v. nurture debate. Why do sports competitors choke? Why do fans think God will favor their team over their rivals? How can it be moral to deceive the umpire by framing a pitch? From all of these questions, and many more, philosophy has a great deal to learn.

An entertaining and erudite book that ranges far and wide through the sporting world, Knowing the Score is perfect reading for armchair philosophers and Monday morning quarterbacks alike.



SOMETIMES I WISH I had been more of an athlete and less of a philosopher.

I have worked most of my adult life as an academic philosopher. I have written several books and many articles. A number of learned societies have elected me their president. And I am still employed as a professor, in two well-known philosophy departments, in London and New York.

My sporting career has been rather less distinguished. This hasn't been for lack of trying. I have competed at tennis, soccer, golf, cricket, rugby, squash, field hockey, and sailing. And that's not just in high school—I have played organized versions of all these sports as an adult, not to mention recreational fishing, sailboarding, and bodysurfing.

My enthusiasm, however, has always outstripped my success. It's not that I'm a duffer, but I have never risen above the lower echelons. I have scored centuries at cricket—but most were for teams of journalists playing village sides. In my time I was a force to be reckoned with in the fourth division of the North Middlesex Tennis League. I am still competitive off my golf handicap of 17. You get the idea.

Perhaps I wouldn't have enjoyed life as a serious sportsman, even if my abilities had allowed it. One of the themes that will emerge in these pages is that top-level sports demand a peculiar mind-set, a blinkered focus on physical routine. It's not clear that it's a natural life for someone with philosophical inclinations. Still, this hasn't stopped me spending a large proportion of my waking hours playing, watching, and thinking about sports, rather than working at my day job.

Until recently, it never occurred to me to combine my two enthusiasms. There is an area of my subject that goes under the heading "philosophy of sport". But it has never excited me. Central topics are the ethics of drug use, sport and politics, disability and enhancement, the definition and value of sport, and so on. The normal strategy is to take some contentious topic that exercises sports practitioners or administrators, and then analyse the solutions implied by different philosophical theories. It is all a bit earnest, as if the writers want to counterbalance their frivolous subject matter with the sobriety of their prose. I have always kept away. I enjoy sports, and this seemed to make it dull.

Then, a few years ago, Anthony O'Hear, Director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, asked me to contribute to a lecture series he was organizing on Philosophy and Sport. It was the year of the London Olympics, and he thought it would be a good idea to devote the Institute's annual programme of lectures to the subject. I couldn't really refuse. I agreed it was a good idea, I was on the Council of the Institute, and I had an extensive knowledge of both philosophy and sport. If I wasn't going to say yes, who would?

So I set to work. I read some of the philosophy of sport literature, and started sketching out some thoughts about the definition and significance of sport. But nothing much happened. I couldn't get beyond the most obvious truisms, and was starting to have bad dreams about finding myself in front of the audience with nothing to say.

After struggling for a while, I made a decision. Instead of writing about one of the topics that philosophers of sport are supposed to write about, I resolved to write about something that interested me. If it didn't count as philosophy of sport, that would just be too bad.

The topic I chose was the peculiar mental demands of fast-response sports like tennis, baseball, and cricket. When tennis star Rafael Nadal faces Roger Federer's serve, he has less than half a second to react. That's scarcely enough time to see the ball, let alone think about how to hit it. Nadal can only be relying on automatic reflexes. Yet at the same time his shot selection also depends on his consciously chosen strategy, on that day's plan for how best to play Federer in those conditions. This struck me as puzzling. How can unthinking reflexes be controlled by conscious thought?

I had great fun addressing this conundrum in my lecture. I didn't try to hide my enthusiasm as a sports fan, and I included as many anecdotes as seemed relevant. But I also ended up with a series of substantial philosophical conclusions. Even though I started with nothing but a few sporting incidents and some everyday questions, I was led to think hard about the connection between conscious decision-making and automatic behaviour, and the result was a series of ideas about the structure of action control that has opened up a new area of research for me. (If you want to read a written version of the lecture, you can find it as "In the Zone", in Philosophy and Sport, edited by Anthony O'Hear and published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.)

But that wasn't the end of it. Now that I had found a way of combining philosophy and sport, I was keen to do more of it. It struck me that there were a number of other sporting topics that could benefit from similar philosophical scrutiny, and that I was as well placed as anybody to supply it. I had recently built myself a website, and so I started posting a series of essays on sporting themes. Within a few months the subjects included the rationality of fandom, road cycle racing and altruism, national identity and sporting eligibility, and the moral standing of different sports.

This volume is the eventual upshot of those early efforts. It contains eighteen chapters on interlinked aspects of the sporting world. I think of them as telling us as much about philosophy as about sport. If there is a common form to the chapters, each starts with some sporting point that is of philosophical significance. A first step is to show how philosophical thinking can cast light on the sporting topic. But in nearly all cases the spotlight of illumination is then reversed. The sporting example tells us something new about the philosophical issues, by highlighting ideas that are obscured in more familiar contexts.

The chapters fall into five sections: Focus, Rules, Teams, Tribes, and Values.

Part I, Focus, is about the mental side of sport. The chapters in this section take off from my original interest in decision-making and fast sporting skills, and go on to an analysis of choking and the yips, the twin perils that lie in wait for every unwary sports performer.

Part II, Rules, asks about the norms that govern healthy sporting competition. It distinguishes between the regulations in the rulebook, the varying conventions of fair play across different sports, "gamesmanship", and downright immoral practices.

Part III, Teams, analyses the logic of fandom, the survival of teams over time, and the rationality of collective decision-making in team sports.

Part IV, Tribes, brings in a number of wider political and social issues, including citizenship, national identify, racism, and the debate about nurture versus nature.

Part V, Values, is about amateurism, the organization of professional sports, and the importance of tradition. A final chapter then attempts to explain why sport is so important to so many people.

One problem facing anyone writing about sport is geography. Even in an age of increasing globalization, sports enthusiasts are fiercely protective of their local codes. They will insist that their own games are the pinnacle of sporting endeavour, while those played in other places are little better than children's pastimes. Americans are mystified by cricket, while baseball is a closed book to the rest of the English-speaking world. Soccer is an obsession in Europe and Latin America, but in North America and the Antipodes it is regarded as an alien intruder. Sometimes these rifts are found even within countries. As I explain in a later chapter, "football" refers to one game in Sydney, but a quite different one in Melbourne (and in neither place does it mean soccer).

This diversity creates a dilemma for any writer aiming to make general points about sport. If you illustrate your arguments with examples from particular sports, you are in danger of alienating many of your potential readers, as they will quickly lose patience with someone who takes silly games so seriously. But if you omit sporting illustrations altogether, you risk having no readers at all, for your arguments will become too abstract to hold anybody's attention.

I have aimed to steer a course between these two dangers. When a contract for this book was initially being discussed with my American publishers, Basic Books, we addressed the issue. "We love your proposal," said my prospective American editor, Lara Heimert, "and we'd like to do it." "But there's just one condition," she added. "No cricket!" In her view, any mention of the sport would make Americans put the book down straight away.

I assured Lara that I understood the problem, but pleaded for a little leeway. I told her that I was familiar with many sports from around the world, baseball as well as cricket, and all the many varieties of football, and that I would try to make sure that everybody had a look-in. I would do what I could to make sure that no readers felt alienated by my choice of illustrations.

I hope I have gauged this right, and that readers of this book will enjoy my range of references. I have used sporting examples to illustrate my arguments whenever I can, but aimed to avoid any bias in favour of particular traditions. Inevitably some readers will be introduced to games that they don't know well. I can only ask them to be tolerant. Perhaps this book will make a small contribution to the harmony of nations. Sports play a large part in many lives, and it will be better if they can unite people rather than divide them.



Chapter 1


GREAT ATHLETES ARE mentally as well as physically exceptional. They are capable of feats of concentration beyond the reach of ordinary people.

All sports fans have their own examples. Muhammad Ali outwitting the fearsome George Foreman in the jungle. Curt Schilling pitching seven innings with sutured tendon and bloodied sock on the way to the first World Series trophy for the Red Sox in eighty-six years. Nick Faldo grinding out eighteen successive pars to win his initial major on a windswept day at Muirfield.

My favourite is probably the sixteen-year-old Monica Seles beating Steffi Graf in the 1990 French Open. The previous year she had lost to Graf in the semis. But this time there was no stopping Seles. In the first set tie-break, she went 2–6 down but saved four set points, blasting the lines with her two-fisted ground shots. She went on to win her first grand slam final in straight sets.

Seles knew why she had won the second time. As she explained at the press conference after the match, "As a 15-year old, I couldn't beat her mentally.… But today in the final, my strategy was to just play as well as I could… and not be afraid of her." It's understandable that a fifteen-year-old should be overawed by perhaps the greatest woman player in tennis history. But it takes a freakish sixteen-year-old to beat that same opponent by power of will.

Supreme athletes can fix on a goal and pursue it with every sinew, even in the most testing of circumstances. This kind of mental steadfastness is not to be taken for granted. It is one thing to formulate a plan, another to stick to it in the heat of competition. In the words of another great champion, Mike Tyson: "Everybody has a plan, till they get punched in the mouth."

Curiously, there are experts who downplay the mental side of sport, and hold that athletes perform best when their minds are empty. As they see it, elite athletes have honed their bodily skills in many thousands of hours of practice. Given this, they will do best simply to think about nothing and give their physical reactions free rein.

The Hall of Fame Yankees catcher Yogi Berra was very much of this opinion. Berra was notorious for swinging at bad pitches. According to one much-cited anecdote, his manager told him not to be so eager, but to "think, think, think", His next time at bat Berra struck out ignominiously. He stormed back into the dugout, complaining, "How the hell can you hit and think at the same time?"

Berra has plenty of distinguished support. Hubert Dreyfus, a professor of philosophy at UC Berkeley, has long argued that conscious thought is the enemy of physical expertise. Dreyfus appeals to the classic twentieth-century phenomenologists Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who held that physical skills are guided directly by the physical environment, without the intervention of conscious thought.

According to the phenomenologists, skilled performers like athletes and musicians do not think about what to do. Rather, they respond directly to physical triggers. As Dreyfus puts it, "Skillful coping does not require a mental representation of its goal. It can be purposive without the agent entertaining a purpose."

Dreyfus quotes Merleau-Ponty: "To move one's body is to aim at things through it; it is to allow oneself to respond to their call, which is made upon it independently of any representation." From the phenomenological perspective, conscious thought only interferes with immediate reactions. "Just do it." The Nike slogan perfectly encapsulates the phenomenologists' message:

Dreyfus supports his case by citing the unfortunately named "Chuck" Knoblauch, onetime second baseman for the New York Yankees, who after years of exceptionally reliable fielding started spraying around his throws to first base. He had to be moved to left field and his career tailed off. According to Dreyfus, Knoblauch's decline was due to a destructive self-consciousness about his performance. Once Knoblauch started thinking about what he was doing, he couldn't do it anymore. What he needed was to empty his mind and go with the flow.

In her book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, the psychologist Sian Beilock investigates how pressure can undermine performance across a variety of fields. She argues that in sporting contexts this typically involves what she calls "paralysis by analysis". Athletes underperform because the stress of competition makes them start thinking about what they are doing. Beilock cites a range of studies showing that athletes perform better when they are distracted from their own actions by some irrelevant task, like counting backwards or singing a song.

I'm going to call the view taken by Berra, Dreyfus, and Beilock the "Yoga" theory. In their view, athletes will do best when they emulate the disciplines of meditation practised by Eastern religions, and clear the mind of any intruding thoughts.*

Not all theorists are persuaded by the Yoga theory. An opposing school of thought insists that skilled athletic performance relies crucially on mental control. In her book Thought in Action, Barbara Montero, my colleague at the City University of New York Graduate Center, emphasizes the role of the conscious mind in skilled action. As Montero sees it, athletic skill is a matter of intelligent agency, not brute reflex. "Just do it" is a myth.

A significant number of contemporary philosophers side with Montero on the need for intelligent control of sporting reactions. As they see it, a mindless athlete is a poor athlete—you can't simply leave it to unthinking reflexes to decide which shot to play, but must actively control your performance.

In my view, both sides of this debate are right, and both wrong. There are some things that athletes must think about, and others that they must keep their minds away from. If you think about too much, you will become disabled, just as the Yoga theorists insist. But at the same time, if you think about too little, you won't perform to the best of your ability, in line with Montero's view.

Let me start with the danger of thinking too little. This hazard will be familiar to anybody who has competed at any sporting level. It really isn't a good idea to empty your mind completely and just go with the flow, whatever the phenomenologists and other Yoga theorists may say. You will only end up doing the wrong thing. We don't need iconic triumphs like Ali, Schilling, or Seles to make the point. Even at the most mundane sporting level, you need to get your mind right if you want to win.

When I play tennis, it is competitive even if not hugely accomplished. We warm up first. It can be very pleasant in England in the summer. I sometimes think how enjoyable it is to be knocking the ball back and forth with my friend. Then we start playing a match—and suddenly, to my dismay, I notice that I am three games down.

I have forgotten to start concentrating. Instead of stroking the ball cooperatively back in roughly my friend's direction, I must now hit it as hard as I can to where I know he doesn't want it hit. This doesn't happen automatically. I need to keep my game plan in the front of my mind. If I start daydreaming about what's for dinner, or worrying about tomorrow's lecture, I will stop playing properly and start throwing away points.

Examples like this show that the Yoga theory is wrong to hold that athletes must empty their minds completely. But at the same time it also contains an element of truth. There are aspects of athletic performance that it doesn't pay to think about.

To properly sort out what is right and wrong in the Yoga theory, we need to introduce a theoretical distinction. Philosophers differentiate skills from their components. A skill is something that you know how to do, without having to think about how you do it. Its components are the more specific movements that you perform when you are exercising that skill.

Walking is a skill. If you decide to walk down the road, you don't then have to consider how to do it. You just walk down the road.

The components of this skill are the more specific movements involved in walking. You raise one foot, move it forward, put it down, raise the other one, move it, put it down, and repeat until you're there.

Athletes must not let their minds wander from the skills they are aiming to exercise at any given time. If they lose this focus, their bodies are likely to betray them. This is where the Yoga theory falls down, and its opponents have things right. Athletic performance calls for precise focus, not an empty mind. That's the reason why serious athletes need to be mentally exceptional. They need to devote their minds entirely to the skills they are exercising, often for sustained periods.

But at the same time, athletes must not think about the components of their skills. Any concern with these components will hamper their performance. To the extent that this is their message, the Yoga theorists have it right. Thinking about the details of your technique is incompatible with sporting success.

Not all skills develop automatically, like knowing how to walk. Most of them are deliberately learned. We need to practise them explicitly before they become automatic. For example, when we are young, we learn to tie our shoelaces. We lay the two ends of the lace one over the other, form a loop in one, and so on. After a while, this sequence becomes automatic. Once we have learned to tie our shoelaces, we don't need to think about the sequence of components anymore. We simply decide to tie our shoelaces, and then do it—no more thinking is needed.

When you become expert in some sport, you acquire a new repertoire of skills. This is what distinguishes top-level athletes from novices. Accomplished golfers can hit a power fade at will, tennis players can play a forehand slice, gymnasts can perform a backflip, and so on. These are skills for the sporting performers, but not for most people.

Sporting skills, like shoelace tying, also derive from practice. You have to learn how to hit a forehand slice, just as you had to learn how to tie your shoelaces. And when you are learning to hit a forehand slice, you will need to think about its behavioural components. You must cock your wrist, open the racket face, and hit down on the ball. The learner will be instructed to perform each movement deliberately and in sequence.

But after a while—after hitting hundreds or thousands of balls—the sequence becomes automatic, and you no longer have to think about what movements to make. It is enough simply to form the intention to "hit a forehand slice".

No doubt, even after such skills have been learned, performers will still be able to perform the component movements separately. Learning to hit a forehand slice doesn't stop you being able to cock your wrist as such, or to deliberately hit down on the ball. Still, once you have learned to hit a slice, its execution will proceed quite differently—more automatically—from performing its components in sequence as separate actions.

In effect, there are two very different options here for a trained athlete: you can simply execute the skill that you have learned—hit the slice; or you can perform the components in sequence in the way you did when you first started learning the slice—cock your wrist, open the face, hit down on the ball.

It would not be a good idea, however, for expert tennis players to choose this latter option while competing. This would throw away all the benefit gained from those hours of practice. It would reduce them to the level of the novice who has not yet learned how to hit a slice and still has to do it by numbers. That is the whole point of practising—to take a physical process that is slow, halting, and imprecise, and render it fast, automatic, and reliable.

Andre Agassi's father understood the principle well. In his autobiography Open, Agassi described his childhood practice regime.

"My father says that if I hit 2,500 balls each day, I'll hit 17,500 balls each week, and at the end of one year I'll have hit nearly one million balls. He believes in math. Numbers, he says, don't lie. A child who hits one million balls each year will be unbeatable."

Not only must experts not revert to rehearsing the components of their skills, in the manner of a learner, they mustn't even think about those components. To be aware of the angle of your wrist, or the plane of your backswing, when you are playing a forehand slice, is to tempt your conscious mind to start trying to control these components directly.

This is the rationale for Beilock's idea of "paralysis by analysis". If you start analysing the exercise of your skills, it will have a paralysing effect on your actions and reduce you to the level of a beginner. To perform well, you need to forget what you did as a learner, and allow the unconscious mechanisms honed by those hours of practice to take over.

Yet the Yoga theory is quite wrong to say that any kind of thinking will undermine your performance. It is crucial that you do think about what you are trying to do, as opposed to how you do it. You need more guidance than "Just do it". You need to form a plan, to have a clear idea about which skills you are going to deploy. Are you going to try slicing low to your opponent's backhand, or will you stick to the topspin?

What is more, you need to hold your plan firmly in mind, for reasons that will become clear over the next two chapters. You can't start daydreaming, or the contest will get away from you, as happens all too often in my park tennis games.

Where exactly is the line between the skilful plan that you must think about and the components that you mustn't think about? This is an important issue for high-level athletes and coaches. Attention needs to be directed at fruitful plans, but not at destructive details. But there is no hard and fast rule about where the difference lies. It will depend on the specifics of exactly what skills have been learned, and this will vary from sport to sport and even from individual to individual.

If there is a pattern here, it is perhaps that expert athletes will think of their skills in terms of the results they are aiming to achieve, rather than the bodily movements involved. When I hit a forehand slice, my focus is on the anticipated trajectory of the ball, not on the arc of my arm or racket. What I have learned is how to slide the ball low over the net with backspin, and in order to do this well I have to aim to do just that—without thinking about how I do it.

When asked how she could vary between fading her drives from the left and drawing them from the right, the three-time golf major winner Nancy Lopez is reputed to have answered, "I just think fade, or I think draw." Lopez simply needed to visualize the ball trajectory she was aiming for, and the unconscious techniques instilled by her training would take over. (Nancy Lopez is also supposed to have said, "To me every putt inside four feet is straight." She just rammed them all into the back of the hole. I can't say it worked for me. When I tried to follow her advice, all I got was lots of long return putts.)

Can athletes really leave all the details of their techniques to automatic control? What if they need to attune the components of their skills to the specific conditions of the game? A tennis player notices that the ball is holding up on this court and lengthens the backswing accordingly. The golfer notes that the greens are fast, and reduces the club speed on putts. Don't examples like these show that competitors need to be consciously aware of the detailed movements they are making? How else can they modulate their techniques, except by consciously figuring out how to deal with the conditions?

But this isn't how it works. Perhaps explicit instructions played a role when the skills were being learned. "You need to lengthen your backswing on these courts," your coach tells you. Or, "Slow down the putter head, but make sure you still follow through." Still, with training these adjustments too become automatic. The unconscious systems that manage your sporting techniques learn to take the conditions into account, and to adjust your shots to suit.

So, for example, it would be fatal for golfers to start thinking consciously about the speed of their putters when addressing putts. Sure, they need to make sure that information about green speed is made available to the automatic systems that control their putting. Some time on the practice green will help; it will be even better if one of your playing partners hits a similar putt just before you.

But once this information has been absorbed by the unconscious processes that execute the stroke, the golfer must simply focus, as always, on hitting the ball into the middle of the hole at a moderate pace. Opting for some specific component of technique—slower club speed—in the context of a fast green is something that can be—must be—left to the automatic procedures that have been shaped in previous practice.

What if there is some flaw in your technique? You aren't playing the forehand slice well. Your doubles partner suggests that the problem is that your grip is too far forward. Won't you do better to rotate your grip backwards, in the hope that this will enable you to execute the slice more effectively?

Almost certainly not, if you start doing it in the middle of a match. All that will happen is that you will lose control of the shot and start making unforced errors. Your current execution of the shot is geared to your faulty grip position, so simply altering that without changing the rest of your technique will only foul things up.

What you need is practice. You need to try out the new grip against a hitting partner, or a machine, or a tennis wall, exploring the further adjustments that it demands, and then repeating your new shot until it becomes automatic. When you next play a match with your adjusted grip, you want to be thinking about where the ball is going, not how you are holding your racket.


  • Wall Street Journal:
    "Mr. Papineau's engaging book takes a look at a philosophical problem presented by a sport and links it to phenomena in the wider world."

On Sale
May 2, 2017
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

David Papineau

About the Author

David Papineau is a professor of philosophy of natural science at Kings College London and a distinguished professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. The author of eight philosophy books, Papineau lives in London, United Kingdom.

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