Games, Sports And Athletics

It is human nature that dedicated managers and staff become absorbed in their work and increasingly view their chosen field or profession as all encompassing. While this focus can produce commendable satisfaction for all parties, it also can lead to a type of myopia that blurs important distinctions among various service categories, such as games, sports and athletics. The connection among these three activities is clear, but recognizing the differences insures fulfilling experiences.

The Difference Between Play, Recreation and Leisure

The broad concept that embraces parks, public recreation, commercial recreation and the like is leisure. Although this term’s intended meaning never gained popular acceptance, its noble underlying ideal -- the freedom or ability to intelligently choose (among life’s many options) -- remains the heart of service provision.

Just as the words sports, games and athletics are sometimes used interchangeably, leisure often is confused with the concepts of recreation and play. Reviewing their similarities and unique qualities allows managers to re-focus organizational philosophy to produce outcomes compatible with each category.

While play, recreation and leisure seemingly defy precise defining, their general relationship can be visualized in Figure 1. Play is a form of leisure and recreation featuring an imaginative, uninhibited, spontaneous and unstructured expression of one’s pure self. Play is most closely identified with children, who are allowed freedom unconstrained by adulthood norms and expectations, and represents the joyful purity of leisure.

Recreation is a form of leisure and play that involves more structure, and as a result, more planning and more “rules” (but not necessarily less imagination or inhibition, as anyone who has observed the outrageous behavior of some participants can testify). It retains some of the joy and purity of play, but also incorporates order and regularity, beginnings and endings, and the steps between.

Leisure, as freedom of choice, is partially expressed in recreation and play, but it also envelops them and sets limits. In turn, leisure itself is profoundly influenced by its surrounding culture, civilization, and society. (For example, kite fighting is popular in Afghanistan, but almost unknown in America.). As similar as they may seem, play, recreation and leisure actually represent different philosophical positions supporting different programmatic approaches and outcomes.

Matching Philosophy and Intent

In many respects, games, sports and athletics represent aspects of play, recreation and leisure, and can be separated from each other on this basis. The word games probably is the most troublesome, ranging in meaning from the blissful chaos of children running around the park to the “take me out to the ball game” associated with professional baseball. These two types of games are very different, and are a perfect example of the need for managers to be more precise with their definitions.

Figure 2 shows how games, sports and athletics can be thought of as a continuum of choices based on the relative amounts of play, recreation and leisure present within each. Thus, games are influenced most by leisure and play, and programming should emphasize imagination, spontaneity, happiness, and self-expression supportive of cultural values, while de-emphasizing structure.

Sports takes games to the next level by adding a framework of regulations and norms, incorporating recreation with play to produce a “love of the game”: the notion that one benefit of sports participation is a respect for the rules themselves as a means of achieving self-expression. Sports programming must honor that respect for structure and history by emphasizing the activity rather than “victory.”

Athletics is a marriage between society and sports: between leisure and recreation. Its distinguishing feature is the emphasis on competition: on victory, sometimes at all costs. Athletics are “played” in the sense that human variables especially are not absolutely predictable, and unscripted events often become critical turning points. It is also “recreation” in that structure is abundant, and history and sportsmanship are acknowledged and given at least token value. Nevertheless, athletic programming usually emphasizes a winner-take-all attitude, frequently at the expense of almost everything else, including the participants.

Given this scheme, a manager should not program athletic contests for pre-schoolers, but should acquire room for appropriate play (indoors and out, psychological and physical). For recreational sports, round-robin tournaments should be considered rather than single-elimination formats; and athletics must be recognized for both its beneficial and detrimental competitive potential.

Much of the trouble surrounding programming (abusive coaching, and parent and spectator violence come to mind) is related to the conflict between philosophy and intent – when folks are watching or coaching a sport or a game, but treat it as an athletic competition, which is by definition more competitive. For managers, there should be no “play”-ing around…unless you mean it.

Kim S. Uhlik is Assistant Professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at San Jose State University, where he coordinates the Leadership and Administration emphasis. He can be reached via e-mail at