What Do We Love About Sports?

Lessons from a legendary coach

Posted Apr 24, 2015

Every season, millions of people cheer on their favorite teams, wear their colors, fly team flags from their cars, following their exploits with fierce loyalty and devotion.

What makes sports so captivating? Perhaps it’s because, in this ritualized play on the athletic field, sports portray some of life’s deepest lessons.

Paddy Steinfort, used with permission
Source: Paddy Steinfort, used with permission

Paddy Steinfort has been thinking a lot about this. He’s a professional coach completing his Master’s in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. A few years ago, when Paddy joined the coaching staff of a pro football team in Australia, he thought sports—and life—were all about winning. But his friendship with seasoned coach Dean Bailey took him a lot deeper.

Paddy met Bailey, or “Bails” as everyone called him, the year they both joined the coaching staff of the Adelaide Crows. Talking to Bails over coffee when they lived together, watching him work with the players, Paddy learned a lot about coaching. Two years later, when Bails was diagnosed with cancer, Paddy visited him once or twice a week to lift his spirits and help his friend recover, but the much-loved coach did not recover. In what became a sports version of Tuesdays with Morrie, Bails left Paddy with not only a feeling of loss but enduring inspiration. He’s now writing a book describing his mentor’s lessons about sports and the game of life.

People: “It’s not about you,” Paddy told me. It’s your effect on others. Sports—and life—are interactive. We assume that the team star, “the champion is the most important player. But it’s more about the group than the individual.” A star player may make a flashy shot, score a goal, hit a home run, but only by working together in creative synergy can a team go on to victory. “That’s why Bails treated everyone the same,” Paddy said, “and focused on giving, guiding, and growing.”

Process:  Paradoxically, Paddy realized, winning only comes “when you learn to bounce back—the losses actually lead to the wins.” Players can’t afford to focus on winning or obsess about their mistakes—errors, strikeouts, missed passes. The game goes on, and “all you can do is give yourself a chance by trusting in the process—compete, then repeat, and eventually you’ll rise above defeat,” Paddy emphasized.

Purpose: Paddy learned that “It’s not how much you hold onto. It’s what you pass on that counts.” As a coach, he realized that “your job is to take people where they want to go. That job always ends at some point, but a small part of you lives on forever in everyone you help change.” That applies to sports coaches, positive psychology coaches, and all of us. “Like a coffee cup,” Paddy said, “the purpose of a leader isn’t to hold onto what you have—it’s to pass it on, and pour it into something bigger.” And there’s always something bigger.

This season, when you watch your favorite team, look for the moments of teamwork, perseverance and process, watching your team overcome losses to strive for victory. And then, like the best of coaches, pass on what you’ve learned in the way you live your life.

Paddy Steinfort, used with permission
Source: Paddy Steinfort, used with permission


Albom, M. (2002). Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group.

For the Master’s in Applied Positive Psychology, see http://www.sas.upenn.edu/lps/graduate/mapp/


Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.