Appreciation through Basics

Football started last week. I’m happy to say that both the Ravens and my fantasy football team were victorious in week one. Sadly, I couldn’t see the awesome season opener for the Ravens on Monday night because I was attending a writers meeting. (One has  to sacrifice for one’s art sometimes.)

Mom was watching though. Well, at least the first half of the game. (She goes to bed kind of early, given her work schedule.) These days, she doesn’t like to miss a Ravens game, and sometimes, if I am in the living room, she will watch other games that are on as well. (Especially if one of my fantasy players are involved.)

This has only been true for a few years, though. There was a time when she didn’t follow football at all. “Too many rules,” she once told me. Not like baseball which she found easier to follow. (As do many people, let’s face it.)

That was fine by me. I had no need for mom to enjoy football. Still, one day I decided to explain the basic concept of football to her. Not so she would become a fan, but so she would perhaps get an idea of what people were talking about when the subject came up, or at least be able to follow the gist of what was happening if a game was on TV somewhere. Using the visual aid of a Ravens game that was on TV, my lesson went something like this:

When the Ravens first get possession of the ball, they have four chances to move that ball ten yards from the location they took possession. They can either throw it to someone, or they can let someone run with it. Either way, the other team tries to stop them from getting those ten yards.  If the Ravens make it, they get a whole new four chances to go a whole new ten yards. We call that a First Down, and teams want a lot of those.

If the Ravens fail after four chances the other team takes the ball where it sits. Nobody ever wants that. So after just three of their four chances, most teams decide to do one of two things if they think it will be too hard to get the First Down:

1) They can punt the ball to the other team WAY down field so that team has further to go to score.

2) If they are close enough  they can try to kick a field goal for three points.

But it’s better to get the ball into the endzone for a touchdown, because that is six points. So most teams prefer a touchdown, which is why they want to make a lot of First Downs…so they can get close to the endzone.

After a team scores in either fashion, they kick the ball off to the other team, and it all starts over again. Referees can move the ball around based on penalties they give out for illegal plays. They usually explain what the penalty is when it happens, and how many yards they are moving the ball. Team with the most points when the clock runs down wins.

“I can follow that much,” she said. She didn’t know it could be that straight forward.

In subsequent games to which she paid more attention, she’d ask questions about certain situations that I would explain as best I could, and she would build on the basic information I had already given her to understand such things as sacks, safeties, off sides, and other aspects of the game that I didn’t get into when I first explained its mechanics. And now she can enjoy a Ravens game on her own if she chooses so to do. (And often she does for at least a half, and sometimes more.)

Now, contrast my approach with how I see many zealous football fans try to explain what is happening to a newcomer.

Okay, the offense is now on third down. See they’re on third down? Third down and 8. We call that third and long sometimes. Okay, if they are on third and long, they like to use two tight ends to take the pressure off of the wide receiver…that guy on the far right. See the defense, they know the offense has two tight ends, so they are setting up in the nickel formation. You almost always use a nickel formation in four kinds of situations…

To begin with, by the time you get through all of that, the play is going to be over and you’ve lost your visual aid. Secondly, 99% of newcomers will glaze over at such an explanation, because there is too much new information at one time. If they have to keep all of that straight, they will lose interest.

The trouble here? When people do this, they are explaining how to play football. What I did with mom was explain how to watch football. How to enjoy it. I explained to her what is happening on a football field that people are yelling about 90% of the time.

It was a judgement call to a degree, of course. Some people would have included certain things I left out. Yet by not including scenario specific details in my initial lesson, and talking only about the prime motivation of the teams, (offense tries to move the ball forward while defense tries to stop them) I gave mom something she could relate to right away. And as a result, she has since built on that knowledge, and has come to enjoy watching games.

I think this is a good way to introduce people to new things that have multiple layers, not just sports. When we do so, I think we need to remember a few things that I remembered as I explained football to mom.

1) Keep your passion in check a bit.

You love this activity, and you want other people to perhaps love it, or see why you love it. Fine. But resist the temptation to throw it all at them at once. Pick the easiest, most obvious aspects of what you do, and let them chew on those for a while. If they follow that then…

2) Wait for questions.

People remember information they receive as the result of a question far more than information that is just given to them. If an aspect of your activity doesn’t have to come up until someone asks, wait.

3) Let them figure out nuance.

People won’t know the fine details of what makes a beautiful play as opposed to a serviceable play in football right off. So just teach them what the play is supposed to do, and let them find out what makes it special. They often will.

4) Be content with whatever level of interest they develop.

In most cases, people are just curious. They may never develop into a superfan, or any kind of fan at all for that matter. Be all right with that. If you explain it and they get it, great. Consider that a victory. If they begin to enjoy some of it, it’s just gravy. But by no means double down on the information if they don’t start to love it. Nothing will drive people away faster than someone who insists that they begin to love something.

Be happy if after years of going shopping while you watch the game your spouse will now sit and watch one half a football game with you. That could be all the interest they will ever have, but it is more than they used to have. All because you remembered to be simple, patient, wait for questions, and remain content with whatever the results.





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