Essays

why should I learn how to talk about sports?

I don’t like sports, and I cringe when it comes up in conversation. I know I should try to get smarter about sports, but I don’t have time. I wouldn’t know how to get started even if I did want to learn the basics about sports. It’s not fair that I have to learn about sports, and the sports-bros at work don’t have to learn about fashion. Have you ever said or thought one or more of these things? Dear reader, we feel you. We’ve said or thought all of those things and more.

And yet.

There are some really good reasons for a non-sports fan to take the plunge and actually learn a bit about professional sports. We’re not talking about “learning how to fake it.” We’re talking about being sufficiently knowledgeable that you can draw on actual relevant facts, join the conversation, and open up new connections and avenues that will generate benefits that accrue directly to you.

You could invest some time in learning a bit about sports for purely selfish reasons: because it will allow you to climb the ladder at work, or land a new client, or date someone upon whom you have a secret crush, or help you get through dinner parties and long plane rides with a bit less agony.

Or you could do it for more altruistic reasons: because you genuinely want to connect with people who are not like you. Because you want to learn about resilience and perseverance, and athletes and their coaches are generally quite good at both of those. Because you want to be inspired. Because you’re endlessly curious.

No matter which camp you fall into in terms of your motivation, here are 10 sound reasons why non-sports fans should learn how to talk about sports:

1. Because you don’t want to talk about politics. At this moment in particular, whether its at the office, at a wedding, or even at the gym, many of us really don’t want to talk about national politics. Not with our extended family members. Not with the person next to us at the dinner party. And definitely not with the guys at the gym. We’re afraid of what we might learn about someone we thought we knew. We’re afraid that we’ll lose our tempers. Or fall into a black pit of depression. And yet we need to be able to talk about something other than the weather. How about sports? You can happily chat with your Uber driver, your colleagues at work, even your cousins about the Dodgers, or the Warriors, or the Pats. Sure, some people might get really emotional about professional sports – but it’s a lot less likely to end in tears than if you bring up the dreaded words “Supreme Court.”

2. Because you love to talk about politics. Conversely, if you’re a political junkie and you want to deeply engage in the current political milieu, then you need to understand professional sports. The NFL and the NBA have been weaponized in recent years for political ends — and whether its kneeling during the National Anthem, or hurling insults at star players, the line between political action and sports in the US has never been narrower. You need to understand which buttons are being pushed, and why.

3. Because you want to bond more closely with someone you know. Chances are, someone you love is interested in professional sports. Or maybe the person who signs your paycheck is. Could be the person who cuts your hair. Or your father-in-law. You will earn huge points with this person if you choose to invest a little bit of your time, and learn enough of the vocabulary to be able to hang in when the talk turns to sports. It’s an act of kindness, a gesture toward the important role that they play in your life, and a clear investment in your relationship with them. We promise, it won’t go unnoticed.

4. Because you want to be able to shoot the breeze with the sports-bros. Of course, some avid professional sports fans are women, we get it. But for most of us, this is about being part of the sports-bro conversation, whether its at work, the gym, or a professional gathering. A non-sports fan will never truly be a member of that tribe — but you can earn a seat at the table that will provide you with some really important insights. For example, a few years ago our (male) boss invited us into a long-standing friendly football pool at the office. It continues to this day, and we’re struck by how much you can learn about a person when you’re in a sports pool with them: who’s a gracious winner, who’s a good coach, who’s a great strategist, and how each person thinks about risk (the daredevil is not always who you think it is). Another example? A CEO told us that she reads the sports section every Monday even though she’s not a sports fan to be sure that she can talk casually with her staff throughout the week.

5. Because you want to bond with total strangers. It’s remarkable how quickly people can bond over a shared love (or even passing interest in) of the same sport or team. It’s one the most reliable ways to strike up a casual conversation, no matter where you are. Or to whom you’re speaking. True story: one of our friends met one of the former U.S, Presidents at a small dinner party, and he was keen to talk about pro sports. She had no interest in that, and no ability to do so, and to this day she regrets the missed opportunity to join the conversation.

That’s a reasonably unlikely scenario for most of us. A more typical one is one we had on a road trip in New England, when we stopped for coffee at a gas station. The woman at the cash register greeted us cheerfully, and we noticed that she was wearing a Miami Dolphins jersey. We teased her about sporting that in the heart of Patriots Nation. Her quick rejoinder? “Yeah, they may have a great quarterback, but they’ve gotta have someone who can actually catch the ball.” We replied, “Hello, what about Gronk?” What followed was a brief but highly entertaining conversation about the Pats, the Fins, and the weekend’s upcoming games. It’s cool that sports is a topic that can help transcend barriers. 

6. Because you might make some money from it. No, we’re not talking about gambling — although it’s legal in lots of places now, and presumably someone somewhere is making real money off of it. We’re talking about the business of sports, and its role in the economy. If you work at or own equity in a media company, a hospitality firm, a sports equipment manufacturer, or a mass merchandise retailer, then you need to know the impact that certain sporting events will have on the value of your business. For instance, the stock of Callaway Golf Company (NYSE: ELY) jumped the day after Tiger Woods won his first major tournament in 5 years last month. His resurgence drives huge interest in the sport of golf – which is great for their stock price. The news in Boston this week is all about how hotels, restaurants, bars and car services are experiencing an economic windfall because the Sox are in the World Series.

7. Because you will be inspired by the sheer grit that professional athletes demonstrate. Every week, there are headlines from the world of sports about perseverance. Someone playing hurt. Someone playing while pregnant. Someone playing as a tribute to a lost family member, or teammate. Someone playing while being attacked by gnats (yes, that really happened). You think your job is tough? These stories will put it all in perspective. We’re always gobsmacked, too, about the frequency of dramatic come-from-behind victories, like the Pats epic performance in Super Bowl LI. Or just last month, when the Green Bay Packers entered the last quarter of a game down 20-3 and won it 24-23 – it was their largest 4th-quarter comeback ever. It just isn’t over until it’s over, and sometimes dire circumstances bring out the best it people. It’s really energizing to remember that.

8. Because you can learn a lot about strategy, leadership and motivation. There’s plenty to learn about leadership and strategy from the world of sports – particularly from the best-of-breed coaches. Whether it’s Coach K or Coach Saban in college sports, or Belichick and Kerr from professional sports, building a high-performing team is a learned skill, and these guys have mastered it. They’ve also mastered the art of managing stars, devising trick plays, and dealing with boards and ownership groups – all things that come in handy in business and life.

9. Because you can learn a lot about teamwork and team dynamics. At work and in life, it’s important to learn how to be a good coach: when to push, when to comfort, when to let go. And also how to be a good team member: how to build trust, respect, loyalty and collaboration with your peers. Sports is full of examples of people who can do that, and some of them are deeply moving. We just read about a college basketball player who was approaching the school record for consecutive free throws previously held by a student who had died in a car crash at age 20. When he had the chance to break the record, he intentionally missed so that the record could remain in his late teammate’s name. That kind of sportsmanship is needed in many walks of life.

10. Because you might find it fun! Call us crazy, but you might actually start to find it entertaining, interesting, and enjoyable. Lots of other people do . . . why not you?

Whether or not you decide to learn the language of sports, for a weekly dose of career insights and ideas, sign up for our newsletter, Power Uphere.

And if you want to learn how to talk about sports in only 5 minutes a week, read our Sunday sports briefing, TWIST: This Week in Sports TalkSee you at the water cooler.

Forward This Article