The Opportunity Cost of Playing or not Playing Sports

Have you ever asked yourself, “Why can’t I play this sport to the level that I’d like?”  Have you also observed folks very proficient in a particular sport and noticed that they have no life outside the sport?  This two-way phenomena is known as opportunity cost.  From our Economics 101 text book, opportunity cost is defined as:  “The loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.”  It is the chief reason why people underachieve in recreational or competitive activities, and why some who excel in those same activities, may suffer from the failure to take care of themselves in other areas of their lives.

Opportunity cost is not good or bad, it’s just a judgement call each of us make every day about many things.  The opportunity cost of an avid football fan who watches 15 hours of games every weekend might be that he has a poor golf game.  The opportunity cost of a mom or dad shuttling their kids to youth soccer games, practices, and tournaments every hour of every week might be the inability to work, socialize, or exercise.

To get more clarity, I’m reading Dr. Bob Rotella’s “How Champions Think.” This book gets in the minds of competitors from several sports who’ve made it to the top and identifies some common recurring themes.  Single-mindedness is huge.  These folks dedicate a good portion of their lives to mastering a craft and it often comes with significant opportunity cost.  There are ruined marriages, neglected children, repetitive stress, and burnout, and they are a bit disturbing to read about.  If you’re looking to become a champion, this book provides an uncommon but necessary view.  Rotella advocates for single-mindedness, but points out it takes very special individuals to manage the competing factions that this level of dedication requires.  He cites Jack and Barbara Nicklaus as two of the best in handling them.  Unlike a lot of marriages and relationships with tour players and spouses, Jack and Barbara understood how their significant other needed to operate and made it work so that Jack enjoyed the greatest golf career ever, and mostly Barbara raised a wonderful loving and understanding family.

I also just finished Bob Ladouceur’s “Chasing Perfection”.  Ladouceur was the head football coach at De La Salle High School in California and led his teams to 12 consecutive undefeated seasons and accumulated a record of 399-25-3 during his tenure.  I wanted to know what his secret sauce was.  In one passage, he discusses the desires of other kids to transfer to De La Salle and become part of the winning tradition.  Most of these transfers washed out when they discovered the level of dedication and demands he placed on his players and coaches for single-mindedness and preparation.  These were eerily similar in effort and opportunity cost to the athletes Rotella describes.  This book is an eye-opening read.

As an avid golfer, I’ve dedicated more than my fair share of time to gaining and maintaining the skills I need to play to a certain level.  I have also suffered the opportunity costs.  Let’s face it, golf is a game that requires a lot of time.  Each of us has a level of dedication and desire that we need to apply to satisfy ourselves, and mine is more than the average player, but doesn’t come close to the extremes I’ve recently read about.  I would be very uncomfortable ignoring key factions of my life to become the best player I could be.

Have you experienced this dichotomy?  What’s your level of dedication and single-mindedness?  Suffered any significant opportunity costs?

11 thoughts on “The Opportunity Cost of Playing or not Playing Sports”

  1. Brian

    This is a fantastic article! Opportunity costs are all around us and yes, I have given up in other areas to play golf. Interestingly, I have followed my passion in other sports earlier in my life and do not regret any moment. Both basketball and golf, (not to mention others I have played) opened doors at work much later in life, so is there such a thing as a delayed opportunity cost? I will now have to read both of these books, I am intrigued. Thanks.


  2. Brian,

    Very thoughtful stuff here. It’s funny, Beth and I were literally just talking about this over post-round dinner at the club last night. We didn’t refer to it as opportunity cost, but just how tough it can be to practice “enough” (to get our games to where we think they could be) during the summer with being busy at work and also enjoying other elements of life, whether they’re active or social.

    I think for the working stiff that is the main restricting factor. For us to play or practice every day right now, the opportunity cost would be high, because we have a limited window of free time during the week. If we were retired, we could practice every day, but the opportunity cost wouldn’t be as high because we’d still have time to also do the other things we enjoy.

    I was having a beer with my instructor the other day and he mentioned how all the greatest players to come through our club (those who played at a high amateur level, the Canadian AM, etc) were all very single-minded and were at the club practicing every single day without many exceptions, even in the winter when all they could do is hit balls inside into a net. He was definitely making a point to me about what it takes to get to that level because relative to that my practice routine is quite lazy. Ultimately everyone needs to find their own balance that leads to happiness, and find a level of golf they can have fun playing while not sacrificing everything else.


    1. Josh, talking golf at the dinner table post round would constitute an opportunity cost in my house. It’s wonderful that you and Beth can get away with that!

      You’re right. It’s all about balance in every decision you make. I’ll push the envelope as far as I can in the golf direction but know my limitations.



  3. Great post. Dedication to the game of basketball cost me lots of time and energy in my youth that I could have spend in other areas but it has paid off beyond measure. I can see how it effected me negatively in other areas though. With anything thing you spend time on there are pros and cons. Love the article.

    1. Clayton, thanks for stopping by and for commenting. At the end of the day, it’s all about balancing all aspects of your life to become a well rounded person. Like the analogy Stephen Covey uses in the 7 Habits book about “sharpening the saw”.

      Good luck in the work that you are doing with the youth in your community!


  4. I play golf three days a week and being retired I find this is about the right balance. Any less and my wife would be frustrated in having me around the house getting in her way as well as my own frustrations in not being out there on the course. Any more and I would not be able to fulfill my domestic responsibilities and I am sure my aging frame would start to creak even more than it is.

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