Sport is more than a bout of clock-watching

It’s always nice to be recognised. Almost.

The time those three lads outside Fraher Field disagreed with something or other I wrote and were exhaling cider fumes, I of course denied my own identity. (I said I was my own brother, if you’re asking.)

But the polite chap near Waterstones during the week made a fair point about time added on the other evening in one of the football qualifiers. Armagh-Mayo, you’re no doubt aware.

The referee didn’t add on enough time, the Armagh manager wasn’t happy, the call for hooters was sounded again.

What the conversation set off in my mind was a train of thought that choo-chooed in a different direction, though.

Why do sports events take the length of time they do? Why is a soccer game 90 minutes in two halves, but a basketball game is four quarters of 12 (or ten, or eight) minutes each?

Intercounty Gaelic games are 70 minutes but the levels below are 60 minutes: why?

Don’t bury me under a mountain of statements of fact. I’m aware of the evolving 60-80-70-minutes timescale in Gaelic games, for instance.

That’s why my real question, my underlying obsession, is far more basic. Why do these sports events have time limits in the first place?

This question was sparked in part by a Malcolm Gladwell piece I came across which focused on law examinations. He pointed out that the American entry system for law schools revolves around highly pressurised exams, with students doing their best to rocket through dozens of multiple-choice questions against the clock.

Gladwell made a very fair point when asking if that is an appropriate test for potential lawyers, the time element in particular. Why is the ability to perform under SBA (serious but artificial) time pressure a key element in evaluating someone for work in which that kind of serious but artificial time pressure is not an integral part of that job?

And that being said…

Is the expression of sporting excellence under SBA time pressure a real expression of that sporting excellence?

In golf there isn’t an hour-plus-ten-minutes limit on the game. Tennis players don’t have to hold out until half-time to make sure they’ll start the second half with the upper hand.

Baseball and cricket aren’t tied to the clock either. Would hurling be better if it was simply a matter of getting your score to a predetermined level — say 30 points? If FIFA decided to throw those 90-minute limitations in the bin, would the game be better?

Would the skills on show improve if the relentless ticking of the clock were quietened? I think so.

When it comes to the perfection of playing skills, I don’t think a coach stands over a ten-year-old with a stopwatch, screaming for successful execution within a couple of seconds rather than allowing the child to perform the action properly, irrespective of the time it takes to do so.

There’s a benefit to spectators which goes beyond having enough time to appreciate what you’re watching.

There’s a freedom in a non-timed sports environment that doesn’t exist when a whistle is blown and the seconds begin to count.


What's your reaction?