Mimetic Play: Why’s it Worth the Pain?

Risk, pain, and injury, have become accepted components of the sports realm.  Despite the fact that pain and injury from sports can be permanently detrimental to a person’s health, people continue to worship, watch, and participate in a variety of sports at varying levels of competitiveness.   Why?

To understand why so many people accept the seemingly barbaric concept of pain as part of sports, you need to explore the need that sports fill.  As Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning examine in their book Quest of Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process (2008), today’s society stresses the suppression of necessary exaggerated moments of excitement, energy, and expression.  They assert that these necessary exaggerated actions are released through the avenue of mimetic play. 

Private work and family matters, rest, catering for biological needs, sociability, mimetic play are all avenues of necessary leisure time, according to Elias and Dunning.   A few examples of mimetic play are general play, hiking, music, theatre, and sports.  Mimetic play is considered to be one of most important kinds of leisure time because it is the release for needed exaggerated actions.

Sports fill this niche for out bursts of exaggerated energy and emotion because they still fit within the structured aspect that today’s society craves.  Pierre Bourdieu explains “the space of sports is not a self-contained universe.  It is inserted into a universe of practices and of consumptions that are themselves structured and constituted in a system…sport consumption cannot be studied independently of food consumptions, or leisure consumptions in general” (1988:155).  Sports provide a perfect balance of structure and control, while at the same time allowing for variation and change, aka mimetic play. 

This need and drive for mimetic play comes out in many different ways in sports.  One example in which the need for mimetic play outweighs the pain, risk, and injury aspects of sports is in women’s soccer, particularly in relation to Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury (ACL).  After interviewing four collegiate women’s soccer players who had torn their ACL, three common reasons arose for why they continued to play soccer after such a difficult injury, showing their need for mimetic play. 

 The first reason was that soccer had become an integral part of their identity and community.  One interviewee stated “It’s (soccer) a huge part of my identity that I’ve had since I was six, it was really hard to realize I’m more than just the soccer part of me.”  For all four women soccer was who they were and participating in it they received extreme amounts of happiness, even going as far as say playing soccer again after an injury was “like a kid in a candy shop.”  The second reason was that they didn’t directly blame soccer for their injury, despite the fact that they did sustain the injury during their participation in soccer.  All four of those interviewed repeatedly insisted their injury could have easily happened outside of sports or non-sports related factors contributed to their injury.  The third and final reason that revealed a sort of need for mimetic play was the need to prove their strength and resilience through recovering from their injury and play soccer at the same level as before their injury.  One interviewee stated, “If I can play through the pain, I can probably work up to being a started again.”  In that pain wouldn’t even get in her way from proving she could play as a starter again.

Overall these women and the three reoccurring variables are a perfect example of how despite an otherwise natural instinct to stay away from risk, pain, and injury, many people still play sports.  It is interesting to think that instinctually people avoid risk, pain, and injury, but indirectly attract it because of other fundamental needs.

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