A friend and I were marveling at the people who love to watch football from the very beginning of the season. We agreed that our interest in football was not nearly so constant and was directly proportional to what was at stake. For us, the playoffs and Superbowl could be exciting, but we were mostly bored by all the games getting there. Like most people, we found an 80-yard pass or a touchdown against all odds thrilling. But all that positioning back and forth? All that inching toward an elusive line? It’s like watching paint dry. What keeps football fans so transfixed for months on end?
So I asked a fan what was so entertaining about the time-consuming struggle for a few yards at a time. He said it was the process. He explained that watching the process was as fascinating and important to him as how many points were scored. That slow gain of territory was the drama of watching highly motivated people overpowering other people in order to get where they wanted to go, their opponent’s end zone. The penny dropped, and I discovered the deeper truths that football had to teach us.
It is uniquely human to enjoy challenging pursuits that involve long periods of process with no immediate payoff. There are lots of activities—writing, art, raising children, fitness, and business, to name a few—where it matters a lot what you do on the front end, long before you reach the final payoff or finished product. For instance, in art every brushstroke is either taking you toward or away from your ultimate goal. You can look at it and tell right away. It’s the same for any long-range pursuit. You want to keep trying, even if your progress is glacially slow. There’s happiness in meaningful struggles, even when the going gets rough.
Football shows us that. The slow, brutal work of football is exciting because it is about attaining a difficult goal by giving it your all. Football abounds in persistence, strategy, tactics, and resilience. Football is all about bouncing back. Football players also show us how to look confident when we are not, and they never give up prematurely, even if the writing’s on the wall. The ritual of positioning for the next down with seconds on the clock demonstrates how to keep our intent, even in the face of defeat. These are the kind of strengths that keep your purpose clear and your mood up, whether inside or outside a stadium.
Football shows you how to keep going when you’re getting roughed up by other people who want their goals as much as you do. It tells you your desires are just as important as everyone else’s and therefore worth fighting for. Football affirms that you are entitled to go after what you want. More importantly, football counsels you not to feel victimized when you start losing or if other people are mean to you. Football teaches that the correct response to an unfair play is to hope the referee saw it and redouble your efforts next time. Eking out a few yards at a time against a running clock is a fantastic metaphor for adult life.
Football shows you that winning is hard because lots of other people are also trying to win. You must be willing to fight for your own yardage because other people are not always going to step in and help you out. Even if you feel embarrassed when you miss a catch or trip downfield, football shows you what to do next: set up your next play and keep pursuing your goal.
Football also teaches you to accept all parts of yourself. Sometimes in life you are that star quarterback throwing a transcendent eighty-yard pass in the last minutes of the game or the running back in full stride who catches a ball looking backwards. But you also need parts of yourself to be like burly linebackers who will halt the momentum of any opponent or adverse circumstance. As a player in the game of life, you will experience shame when you drop, fumble, or miss a pass, but don’t let that hold you back. Nobody does it perfectly all the time. Remember that in sports, you’re killing it when you are doing well most of the time.
If you want to enjoy football more, look for these lessons in how to conduct yourself when it feels like life is blocking your every move. Watch and appreciate the boring but necessary positioning, the strategies that don’t pay off, and the determination to keep pushing forward. More than that, let those guys show you how to manage yourself when life tackles you, even if a flag is thrown. Perhaps the biggest lesson you will learn is that even if you only get four chances to go ten yards, you can make all of them count.