Bianca Andreescu’s victory over Serena Williams during the 2019 singles U.S. Open tennis final was more than a demonstration of hard work, determination, and commitment. Rather, this historic moment in Canadian sport was demonstrative of the power and significance of play as a cultural phenomenon.
After an eight-day retreat, Deirdre Pike, a freelance columnist for The Hamilton Spectator, reflects on her visit to the Sisters of St. Joseph and the power of what she describes as the mental reset. During her time spent amongst the community of Roman Catholic women, Pike was asked to watch the U.S. Open tennis final. What was initially perceived as a facetious request quickly became the beginning of a more serious inquiry for Pike when Sister Margo delivered her parting words for the evening: ‘I’m serious about the tennis. It is a spiritual practice.’
This leads us to wonder what was so significant about the women’s singles U.S. Open that Sister Margo was compelled to make such a claim? How might tennis, or any sport for that matter, constitute as a spiritual practice? And if it does, how does it influence culture?
In a post-match interview, Andreescu admits that the greatest challenge for her was overcoming the crowd, a challenge that she believes she has overcome by exercising tremendous mental control.
At this level, everyone knows how to play tennis. The thing that separates the best from the rest is just the mindsetBianca Andreescu
It seems that Sister Margo may have been compelled to have Pike watch the tennis match for precisely this reason. This mindset – one which can be described as a mental element of play – that Andreescu attributes her success to, seems to be a point of unity between spirituality and sport with the mental element of play being a shared mindset between both the athlete and the agent of spiritual practice.
What should be of interest to sport sociologists, however, is how this play experience can be interpreted as a cultural phenomenon. Indeed, inasmuch as “it is more than a rhetorical comparison to view culture sub specie ludi”– under the guise of game – Johan Huizinga inquires into the subject of “play as a special form of activity, as a significant form, [and] as a social function” in his effort to demonstrate why ‘pure play is one of the main bases of civilization.’
Further exploring the provocative claim that culture unfolds sub specie ludi, sport sociologist John W. Loy demonstrates conceptually how sport, as a game occurrence, instantiates as both a social institution and a social situation. Indeed, Loy’s thesis beautifully illustrates how culture might unfold under the aspect of game wherein the play experience serves as a fundamental element of any game occurrence.
Although the play experience is not limited to the world of sport, it is surely an experience that most athletes are familiar with. Toward this end, an exploration of the claim that all culture unfolds under the aspect of game should be of great interest to sociologists, for if this claim is indeed true, it seems as though we ought to be taking play much more seriously – perhaps placing it at the forefront of our daily endeavors.