The coming months will see a lot of changes in my life. The biggest is that my wife and I will be having a son in November, but close behind is the fact that I’m going to quit my job and go back to school in the Fall. In September, I will be entering the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Humanities program in the Philosophy stream at Trinity Western University, with the hopes of entering a Doctoral program upon completion. It’s tremendously exciting, but also tremendously intimidating. As a means of lessening my trepidation, preparing myself for classes in the Fall, and sparking some conversation during the long doldrums of the hockey off-season, I’m going to talk a little philosophy here on Pass it to Bulis. Let’s start with one of my favorite topics: the mind/body problem.
Stated simply, the mind/body problem concerns the relationship between the mental and the physical, the subject and objects. Mental states and processes, aka. consciousness, seem to be very different from physical states and processes, aka. the world. How do these two disparate things connect and co-exist? How does light entering the eye, hitting the retina, resulting in neural impulses in the brain, create the sensation or feeling of sight? When Dan Hamhuis got a groin and abdominal injury from hipchecking Milan Lucic, why did it hurt? We understand everything up until the transition from neural impulses in the brain to the feeling and sensation of “I am hurt” as that is the point at which the situation changes from a physical process into a mental state. Science is good with physical processes. Science can work with objects. Mental states and subjects? That’s a bit tougher for science to handle.
Sports is an ideal field in which to explore the mind and body as both are so prevalent. Sports are physical. Hockey is a physical game that rewards players for having a certain body type, something entirely out of their control. Look at the NHL draft: besides Pierre McGuire constantly shouting out “BIG BODY PRESENCE” and “MONSTER” at every opportunity, there are players like Rocco Grimaldi, who slipped to the second round because he’s only 5’6″.
At the same time, the mental aspect of the game is equally in focus. According to some, the Canucks lost in the Stanley Cup Final due to Luongo’s lack of mental toughness. Wayne Gretzky was a skinny kid who didn’t have the frame of an elite hockey player, but his vision and intelligence more than made up for the lack. Raffi Torres has all the physical attributes, including skill, that should make him a fantastic top-six forward, but he just doesn’t have the “hockey sense” to put it all together on a consistent basis.
To put it another way, there’s a word that people involved in sports love to use that makes stat-heads cringe: “intangibles.” This is a catch-all term for things that can’t be quantified in a statistic: leadership, heart, guts, smarts, etc. The issue stat-heads have with intangibles is that they are so often used to explain why one player who is tangibly worse than another player was signed, drafted, or received more playing time. Team X’s General Manager explains, “Sure, Player Y scored 35 goals last season, while Player Z only scored 12, but it’s Player Z’s intangibles like his leadership and experience that we’re after.” Meanwhile, Team X’s stat-savvy fans are banging their heads against a wall, causing severe concussions (a physical state that severely affects a person’s mental state).
Alternately, intangibles are used to explain why a team is performing so well. These intangibles are things like confidence, chemistry, and momentum. Thus, a physical action like a hockey fight is explained as swinging the momentum in a team’s favor and becomes part of the story of the game. Nevermind that the statistics don’t bear this theory out: teams will keep signing fighters because of this intangible. Also, those types of players are usually “good in the room,” yet another intangible.
The issue is not that intangibles don’t exist. Other minds (I assume) do exist and they are subject to all sorts of mental states that I cannot quantify. Some players are indeed good leaders, others undoubtedly deal with tough situations better, and some players are certainly more intelligent than others. The issue is that the intangible affects the tangible (though we may not entirely be sure how). Gretzky’s intelligence and hockey sense, intangible qualities that cannot truly be measured, led to tangible effects — goals and assists — that can be measured. If a player is a good leader, that intangible quality should lead to tangible increases in his teammates, which should be measurable.
General managers, coaches, and fans that value intangible qualites at the expense of tangible ones are falling prey to one of the issues created by the mind/body problem: the mind (particularly reason) is deemed more important than the body. In addition, the intangible qualities are one of the few areas where a traditional hockey man can go with his gut and make a judgement call. There’s a certain amount of pride attached to finding a player with intangible qualities like guts and heart that isn’t necessarily found in comparing two players’ statistics and having the decision essentially made for you by their tangible, objective qualities.
Of course, you have to be careful not to swing too far in the other direction, ignoring intangible qualities entirely. Because intangible qualities do affect the tangible, and there’s so much tangible to look at, relevant statistics and physical events can easily get ignored. If a player is disliked by his teammates or coaches due to his personality or mental state, his on-ice statistics might not suffer, but the locker room camaraderie can suffer, leading to negative tangible effects later on. Some players (say, Kovalev) are talented (tangible) but unmotivated (intangible): during certain portions of the regular season, they may score seemingly at will, but in close-checking games, they disappear. There is certainly a tangible effect of this intangible quality, but it may be difficult to discern. But a coach certainly notices and they’ll find themselves sitting, quite tangibly, on the bench.
This, of course, barely touches on the mind/body problem and how it relates to sports. Look for posts in the coming weeks on the traditional approach to the mind and body in sport, the phenomenology of embodiment, and the particular instance of the hockey stick as a tool from a Heidegerrian perspective. It’ll be fun, I promise.
Tags: featured, Hockey Philosophy, intangibles exist, Rocco Grimaldi, spotlight