Finite and Infinite Games: Student Athletes


By: Patrick Brugh, Phd., LDE to Student Athletes

I recently held a workshop with collegiate coaches and athletic administrators on the Life Design concept of “Failure Immunity,” during which I asked these athletics professionals: What if you saw your job not only as helping players and athletes to win games and championships, but also to keep playing their sport (or any sport) for as long as they possibly could? How would that change the way you worked with your players?

Finite & Infinite Games

There are two kinds of games according to James P. Carse in the first sentence of his book, Finite and Infinite Games, “One could be called finite, the other infinite.” Finite games have rules and (temporal, spatial, and numerical) boundaries. They end when the players decide the game is finished (by completing a predetermined amount of time, distance, or tasks). The referees and spectators have no say over the conclusion of the game if the players are determined to play on.

To play, players must choose to play. Even when it seems like we’re forced (by our coaches, our parents, our schools, or our scholarships) to play on, we are choosing to continue doing so. In this sense, all collegiate athletes — and I’m using a very broad definition of the word — are not just engaged in finite games, but really in an infinite one if they so choose.

The Workview & Lifeview

In the text, Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans prize coherency between what they refer to as our lifeview (the things we value in our lives) and our workview (our understanding of what constitutes “good work” and our motivations to work in the first place). They assert that the work we choose to engage in should align with the kind of life we want to live.

For the student-athletes I advise, we break down “workview” into four essential quadrants (moving from I-IV): experience, money, growth, and fulfillment. It’s not a perfect graphical representation of a complex personal value system, but it’s a good way to build a workview compass. (It’s also a good way to help students map their workviews against the workviews of others by having each one “vote” for a quadrant by placing a sticker on it.)

Athletes & The Sportsview

Sportsview can be organized around a similar graph, with some small adjustments to our quadrants:

  • Experience – As a finite mindset, it represents the box-checking element of sportsview. (I played a sport in high school or college; I used to be a lacrosse player; I played AAA baseball.)
  • Money – This is the payoff for playing a sport well, another finite sportsview. (Trophies, championships, titles, scholarship money, and for a small number of professional players, actual money.)
  • Growth – As an infinite sportsview, it consists of experience plus reflection. (I play sports to become better, faster, healthier, smarter, more social, more well-rounded.)
  • Fulfillment – This is an emotional dimension, which also implicates infinite play. (Because I enjoy it; because it makes me happy when I’m playing; because I like being around the other people who play.)

Choosing our sportsview is a matter of identifying the kind of game we think we are playing. If our sportsview is oriented toward finite play, then we are always hunting a fix, a win, a title; if our sportsview occupies an infinite mindset, then we are trying to keep playing the game as long as we can.

In sports, an infinite mindset does not preclude winning. Indeed, as Carse notes, “Finite games can be played within an infinite game, but an infinite game cannot be played within a finite game. Infinite players regard their wins and losses in whatever finite games they play as but moments in continuing play” (7).

Sportsview & Myself

How do I take this thinking and apply it in my own life? Although I was arguably the worst member of 2001-2005 University of Pennsylvania varsity swim teams, my four-year college varsity swimming certificate hangs on my wall because it indicates my ability to keep “playing.” My sportsview took a wild turn from high school to college. Now it hovers somewhere between “growth” (staying healthy, getting better at different events) and “fulfillment” (enjoying the act of swimming).

Since COVID-19, I’ve had to tap into the growth sportsview to keep fit through running (a sport I’ve never been good at). I also take part in at-home body-weight workouts (thanks to the Hopkins strength and conditioning team). Despite the temporary loss of swimming, my growth and fulfillment sportsview has asked me to find ways to make sure that — when the pools open again — I can keep swimming for as long as possible.

For more helpful information, see: Finite and Infinite Games

For Patrick’s virtual office hours go to: https://studentaffairs.jhu.edu/life-design/staff/patrick-brugh/