Jody Avirgan learned everything from sports (Transcript)

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How to Be a Better Human
Jody Avirgan learned everything from sports
February 6, 2023

[00:00:00] Chris Duffy:
You are listening to How to Be a Better Human. I'm your host, Chris Duffy. When it comes to sports, I know nothing. I really cannot overstate how little I know about sports. There was a period of several years in a row where I kept putting together comedy shows, booking the venue and the comedians, and then realizing that it was at the exact day and time as the Super Bowl.

I was like, “Why is no one buying tickets for this?” And then it became abundantly clear, and that is why the Super Bowl is now a recurring event in my calendar. And when it comes to playing sports, I am not much better. In high school, I was the first person ever benched on the ultimate Frisbee team. So I think that gives you a really clear sense of the kind of fierce, unstoppable competitor that I am.

If I'm being honest, I have always felt like sports were for other people, not for me. But today's guest, Jody Avirgan, is all about sports. He's also reported on them and built a career around them. And I have to say, over the course of our conversation, Jody really changed my mind. He convinced me that whether you're already a rabid sports fan or if you're someone like me who's kind of a complete novice, sports can be a lens through which we can really become better humans.

Jody hosts a new podcast for the TED Audio collective called Good Sport, which gets deep into all these sorts of issues. Here's a clip from the show.

[00:01:14] Jody Avirgan:
This is the part of the first episode of a new podcast series where I tell you who I am and what we're up to. My name's Jody. I've reported on politics, culture, and sports for a long time. Even better when all of those combine.

I hosted a podcast called 30 For 30. I've done stories about the NBA and Olympics and World Cup Soccer. Every big life lesson I've learned has come through sports, how to channel my competitive fire, how to be a supportive teammate or boss or partner. How to focus on what I can control and try to let go of what I can’t. I've learned all of that by playing sports. I'm not saying it's the only place you can learn those lessons. It just happens to be where I have.

[00:01:59] Chris Duffy:
We'll be right back with Jody Avirgan after this timeout. Timeout. Is that right? Huddle? Uh, break. I, I know that there is a sports joke that I should be making here, but I honestly do not know enough about sports to make the right one.


[00:02:17] Chris Duffy:
And we are back. On today's episode, we're talking sports with Jody Avirgan.

[00:02:22] Jody Avirgan:
Hello there. My name is Jody Avirgan. I'm the host of the new show from the TED Audio Collective called Good Sport. You know, as a kid I played soccer and football in high school and you know, a bunch of sports, and then I eventually landed on a sort of alternative sport called ultimate Frisbee.

As seriously as one can take something, I took Ultimate that seriously, and for about 20 years, it was kind of the most important thing in my life, and I played in high school and college and club and internationally and professionally, and I ended up on SportsCenter once for a highlight.

[00:02:54] Chris Duffy:
Yeah, you had this amazing catch that kind of like went viral.

[00:02:57] Jody Avirgan:
Oh wow, you Googled. You went to the second page of Google.

[00:03:00] Chris Duffy:
I watched the video even.

[00:03:00] Jody Avirgan:
Fair enough.

[00:03:02] Chris Duffy:
I, I feel like you're saying that somewhat facetiously, but truly when, when I look you up and when I learn about you…

[00:03:08] Jody Avirgan:

[00:03:08] Chris Duffy:
Ultimate Frisbee champion, like that is the title that is bestowed upon you.

[00:03:12] Jody Avirgan:
I know, well, maybe I need to, like, pad my resume elsewhere. But, uh, but no, you know, I took it, I took it very seriously and you know, I think, like, I downplayed a little bit ‘cause I know that some people don't think of it as a real sport or whatever, or need a little convincing, but it is a wonderful sport, a wonderful community. So it really was the kind of organizing thing in my life for a long time and continues to be.

I mean, you know, all my friends are folks I played Ultimate with, and so even though we’re… The knees are a little creakier now, and we're not really getting out there and running around, I still feel the legacy of it. And I'm, I'm still a little involved here and there with, with some coaching and some advising and so forth.

[00:03:46] Chris Duffy:
I often, in the narrative I tell myself of my own life., think that one of the, like, defining characteristics of what makes me me is that I never liked and was never good at sports.

[00:03:56] Jody Avirgan:

[00:03:56] Chris Duffy:
And as a result, I had to find an alternative way to bond with other men. And that way was making jokes and cracking jokes and being kind of on the side.

[00:04:04] Jody Avirgan:

[00:04:04] Chris Duffy:
I sometimes think about it as like, in my mind, there's like two categories of, like, straight male friendships. There's like activity guys who are like, “Let's go play, pick up basketball, let's go do this activity.”

[00:04:15] Jody Avirgan:
Mm-hm. Yeah.

[00:04:15] Chris Duffy:
And then there's like, bullshit guys, which is like the guys who sit around on the side and just like, bullshit with each other. And I am, like, so bullshit.

[00:04:20] Jody Avirgan:
But I like both of those, Chris.

[00:04:21] Chris Duffy:
Oh, I, I'm not sure that it's a, there's a hard line between them.

[00:04:24] Jody Avirgan:
I know. Right.

[00:04:24] Chris Duffy:
But if this is a spectrum, I am on one side of that spectrum.

[00:04:28] Jody Avirgan:
Right? That's a indoor kids, outdoor kids, total kids, and, and running-around kids for sure.

[00:04:32] Chris Duffy:
Totally. Yes.

[00:04:33] Jody Avirgan:
What I hope is everyone finds the world in which they can kind of learn their lessons about how to try and be a, a better person.

[00:04:40] Chris Duffy:
What are some of the most important lessons that you have learned from, from sports?

[00:04:44] Jody Avirgan:

[00:04:44] Chris Duffy:
Aside from like, I think in my mind, the, the obvious, like good sportsmanship, like treating other people well. But like what are the deeper lessons that you've actually taken away from sports?

[00:04:52] Jody Avirgan:
I think that teamwork in the largest sense and how to build a kind of collective, how to work towards a goal together. I mean, I'm now into my professional career where I've had to manage folks, and I feel like I'm often referring back to team dynamics and kind of how to perform under pressure, right? And sort of how pressure, I mean, sports gives you this sort of artificial environment in which like, okay, you have this nice little thing, this collection of human beings, right?

And everyone sort of is their own person and has their own dynamics and their own interp—and now we're gonna put it under a lot of pressure and we're gonna see what happens. And so it's like a nice little test lab for, for that kind of stuff. The other thing that I come back to a lot is, and, and this evolved over my athletic career and my thinking about sports, how I think about achievement and how I think about success.

And I think there's this trap, I think with sports, because there's a score, there's a winner, there's a loser, there's a championship. It feels like, oh, it would be so cut and dry to just say like, this person succeeded and this person did not. And of course, it's much more nuanced than that. And I've come to understand the lessons that you can learn from losses, the way in which achievement is a kind of moving target.

And then the big one for me is also that, like, achievement is a goal in and of itself. And that like clearing a bar teaches you something. And sometimes, how do I put this? Like sometimes you have to move the bar to a place where you can clear it in order to get that feeling of achievement.

And so, you know, a specific example I've had in like, playing sports is like, I've been on teams where the goal has been we want to win a championship, right? All that or nothing. But what happens is year after year after year, if you fall short of that goal because it's unrealistic or just because something happens and you don't, don't achieve that goal, it can get really debilitating.

And I've seen it sort of take the wind out of the sails of a team or a collective that's trying to achieve something together. So sometimes when I've been a coach or an advisor, I've just been chatting with folks, I've said, “Well, maybe we need to come up with other goals, either incremental goals—at this practice, we're gonna do this at this, at this tournament, we're gonna do this. We’re gonna go to easier tournaments that we're pretty sure we can win that are, maybe a little below our level because they give us that sense of achievement.”

Achievement and success is a kind of learned habit, and sometimes you need to put yourselves in an environment where you just feel that sense of achievement and satisfaction and accomplishment, and then you carry out forward and the beautiful, the beautiful trick is that that actually probably sets you up to achieve that loftier goal in the long run, if you kind of learn what it feels like to, to accomplish and accomplish along the way.

[00:07:31] Chris Duffy:
So you host this new show called Good Sport?

[00:07:32] Jody Avirgan:

[00:07:33] Chris Duffy:
What does it mean? I imagine this is a question you're gonna get a lot if you haven't already gotten it. What does it mean to you to be a good sport?

[00:07:39] Jody Avirgan:
Oh gosh, I, you know what? You're the first person to ask me that. Not just because oh wow, this is the first interview I've done with that, but I have really, I love the name. The idea behind the show is that sports can be a force for good and that it can make us better people and better citizens, and that we should kind of like embrace that wholeheartedly. And I kind of think of the show in some way as a, “We're gonna plant our feet and we're gonna make a defense of sports as something that is messy and wonderful and full of lessons and full of complexity in all the wonderful and messy ways that life is.”

And my kind of, what I've been thinking about is just like, what a blessing it is in some way that, like, this thing that I do where I get to run around and stay in shape and get competitive and like, just like breathe hard and sweat and be on a team is also a thing that can, like, teach me all these lessons about the real world.

Like what a, what a great, what a great gig or what a great offer. People either fall into this binary of, like, the real world intrudes on sports and makes it not fun and, and so, like, we feel bad in some ways when we talk about sports, and then the reaction to that is like, “Well, shut all that off and just like make it mindless and stick to sports,” as they say.

And I'm just kind of like, no. Like the, the real world should intrude on sports, and sports should bleed into the real world. And that's kind of what's so wonderful about it.

[00:09:02] Chris Duffy:
What are some of the negatives in sports that you're combatting?

[00:09:04] Jody Avirgan:
We have a whole episode about how kind of the way that we talk about sports has become the way that people talk about almost everything, right?

And so you look at political talk or social media and it really, really feels a lot like, “Oh this is, this is the way people talk about sports.” You know, it's trying to score points, it's trying to drive a wedge, just trying to get as heated as possible. It's all about my team versus your team. And if you're not on my team, then I'm just gonna dismiss you out of hand.

So yeah, there's a lot that’s, like, worth reckoning with in sports. But again, at the end of the day, I find that, I think of that as a positive, right? It's like here's this little world, here's this little ecosystem that refracts all these other larger things that we have to work out for ourselves, and so we can work them out in the world of sports and learn some lessons there and carry them forward into, into the rest of our lives.

[00:09:51] Chris Duffy:
I’m curious, ‘cause listening to you talk and hearing the topics that you cover on the show, it seems so much of what makes something a good sport and teaches these lessons is really present at even the lowest, most casual levels of the sport.

[00:10:04] Jody Avirgan:

[00:10:04] Chris Duffy:
Like it does not in, in fact, in some ways it's actually harder to find to them when it gets to be, like, professional big money sports. I don't know. Maybe you disagree with that.

[00:10:12] Jody Avirgan:
No, I, I think that's, that's right in a sense. And you know, we, we on the show go back and forth a lot between like, “Oh, is this a show that's about watching sports and seeing the lessons in there? Or is this a show about playing sports?” And we were a little worried that like, “Oh, it needs to be one.”

And then we just realized, like, it can just be both, and it can float back and forth. More often than not in the episodes, in the sort of conversations that I've had, it does float a little bit more towards the lessons that you learn by participating in sports. And that often starts when you're kind of forging yourself as a human being and learning all the lessons about the world anyway. And that's, you know, when you're, when you're a kid and moving through your twenties. But you know, the beautiful thing about sports is you can carry it forward. And you still see that though in professional sports.

I'll tell you like one of my favorite things that happens almost every year when someone wins a championship. Often it's in the NBA finals, I'll notice it. But like someone will win an NBA final championship, and they'll just like go and sit on the bench and put their head down and everything around them is chaos and exuberance, and people are going crazy and they're just, like, retreating into their own heads.

And when I see that, even among the best of the best in the world, I kind of see a little of myself and I see a little of all, all the things that I'm, that we've been talking about in there of just kind of like, oh, what really matters in this moment is that this person, something changed inside of this person, and they're sitting there with that in this moment.

[00:11:40] Chris Duffy:
Can you tell us about one of those moments that stands out in your own mind as like a moment that changed you and taught you something?

[00:11:46] Jody Avirgan:
I mean certainly coaching has been incredibly satisfying to me. You get a bunch of people who come from different backgrounds and are bringing their, their selves to this team enterprise and you bring 'em together, and you try and get them all on the same page, both in terms of strategy, but in terms of kind of what kind of team are we gonna be?

What are our goals? How do we communicate? And you build this little ecosystem within the team. You kind of have to put a lot of that on your shoulders early in the, in the season or early in the tournament to just kind of like, set the agenda and so forth. In an ideal world, there's always a moment where hopefully later in a season, hopefully, you know, kind of when you're playing in a really big game late in the, season where the team will be gathering for a huddle and normally right, you'll get into the huddle and I'll go and I'm the coach and I'll say some stuff and you know, I'll give two or three points, some strategic, some sort of emotional or whatever.

I always look for a moment in the season where the team can start to gather as a huddle, and I'll just take three steps back. Or I'll just stay back. And then ideally, the team doesn't notice that I'm not in the huddle. The captains or the leaders know what to say. The vibe among the team is such that they don't need that hand on the tiller. They're already doing it all themselves. Everyone's playing their role, and so that's one of the things I always kind of look for and is a sign that I've done my job.

[00:13:00] Chris Duffy:
I mean, it feels like such a direct parallel to parenting.

[00:13:02] Jody Avirgan:
Oh yeah. No, I mean, I'm a parent now. It's, yeah, a hundred percent, I mean.

[00:13:07] Chris Duffy:
Are your kids old enough that you're directly applying these lessons or, or not yet?

[00:13:10] Jody Avirgan:
I have a five-year-old, so we're getting there. You know, right now it's mostly just kind of like, “Can I capture this creature's attention for more than 15 seconds at a time?” But that stuff will, that stuff will come in.

And she's starting to play sports. I mean, you know, I, I'll tell you like… Parenting, especially relatively new parenting is, you know, an exercise in like an endless number of moments that kind of blow your mind or just crush your heart or whatever. But one that definitely rose above was when I saw my daughter write her name on a soccer ball for the first time, and just something about that in her little, like scrawl. You know, she wrote her name on a soccer ball and I was like, “Oh.” It took me like half an hour to recover from that one.

[00:13:47] Chris Duffy:
When you think about your daughter and playing sports, what do you want for her? What do you want for her to get out of it? What do you want for her to participate in? How do you frame it? Or how will you grant—

[00:13:59] Jody Avirgan:
Uh, Olympic gold or bust.

[00:14:00] Chris Duffy:
Okay, great. Set the bar high. Set the bar high. Yeah. Yeah. No. Anything else?

[00:14:03] Jody Avirgan:
Don’t come back. Don’t come back home. No. Um, it's funny, I mean, one of the things I've been thinking about a lot, doing this show and thinking about my athletic career and kind of thinking about the way that I approach sports and kind of what I, what, what kind of person I was like when I was playing sports very, very seriously…

I was not a necessarily very, like, fun person or like, you know, I was, I think a lot of athletes are this way, but I was certainly one of these athletes that was like fueled a little bit by like having an edge fueled a little bit by, like, grumpiness. I'm also just like, in my teens and twenties and I'm just like working stuff out. Right?

And a lot of that is being poured into sports. But I think the big lesson there, and one that I think—I hope—will carry into my parenting is that like people need to work things out in their own way. And some people are going to be like, exuberant and joyful, and some people are going to be a little grumpy, and they're all hopefully gonna get to the same place, which is like achievement and a sense of satisfaction and an understanding of what it means to work with others.

To answer your question specifically, like what I really hope for is that, like, she finds what kind of person she is in sports and, like, ends up on teams with, like, coaches who understand that there are lots of different ways people can express themselves through sports and sort of, um, you know, grow within that, within that environment. I'll probably keep my eye out for the coaches who are like “My way or the highway.” Yeah, just ‘cause that's not my style.

[00:15:30] Chris Duffy:
Well also, I mean, if she gets to the highest level, she's already practiced autographing the ball that she can give away. So she's already gonna have that skill locked down.

[00:15:36] Jody Avirgan:
That's exactly right, hopefully her handwriting's a little better by that point, but yeah.

[00:15:41] Chris Duffy:
We're gonna take a quick break and then we will be right back. But in the meantime, I am going to try and convince Jody to sell me that soccer ball since it sounds like it's gonna be very valuable.


[00:16:00] Chris Duffy:
On today's episode, we're talking sports with Jody Avirgan. On his podcast, Good Sport, Jody talks with fascinating people from all corners of the athletic world. And here's a clip that really resonated with me from an episode that Jody did with Bomani Jones. You may know Bomani from ESPN or from his HBO show: Game Theory.

And in this clip, Jody and Bomani are having a conversation that's bigger than just sports about the importance of creating opportunities for people and what that really takes.

[00:16:26] Bomani Jones:
Baseline talent has to be there, and then we go from there. And yes, after that point we are talking about nurturing. We are talking about belief.

[00:16:35] Jody Avirgan:

[00:16:35] Bomani Jones:
we are talking about affirming within people this is something that you can do, and I am going to train you to do this excellently because you can, in fact, be excellent at this.

[00:16:47] Jody Avirgan:
And, and the sort of corollary to giving someone opportunity is also giving someone multiple chances. And so often I feel like it comes down to the, how short is the leash for screwing up.

[00:16:59] Bomani Jones:

[00:17:00] Jody Avirgan:
You know, and that's often what it takes. It takes faith, you know, in the, in the real deepest way.

[00:17:06] Chris Duffy:
One of the things that I find interesting about sports and, and that you've already addressed a little bit, I, I wanna dive deeper into, is, sometimes there can be this real pressure around winning and the championship.

[00:17:18] Jody Avirgan:

[00:17:18] Chris Duffy:
And that kind of being the only piece that actually matters. Even though people kind of give lip service to the idea of like, it's about having fun, that’s not really like the emotional message that people often send when you lose. So…

[00:17:31] Jody Avirgan:

[00:17:31] Chris Duffy:
I’m curious what valuable dos or don'ts you have learned over your years of being an athlete and coaching athletics as it applies to failure and losing?

[00:17:42] Jody Avirgan:
Yeah. Well, it's funny, I mean, we did a whole episode about losing. I mean, a lot of these episodes are built around just sort of curiosities I've had for a long time about sports, watching sports, playing sports, and one of, one of the curiosities I've had is just like, what must it be like to be on a team that just loses over and over and over and over?

And so, you know, we talked to a few people who kind of experienced that and, and what you hear from them, and I think it's true, it's not like a coping mechanism. What you hear from them is that, really, the stuff that gives you satisfaction is not whether you win or lose, what’s… It's so easy to fall into cliches here, you know, but it's how you play the game or you know, the, all the, all those other things around a team dynamic.

And so, this is part of what we kind of drive at in the episode, but it's like, when you see a team, you so often wanna say, like, “Well, what's their record?” And that is your first kind of measure of is this a successful team or is this an unsuccessful team? And in fact, you know, at the end of the day, what you really should be looking for is culture, right?

And so often when people talk about successful teams that they've been on, they don't talk about the record, they talk about the culture. And you've, you can talk to people who've been on, and we do in the, in the episode, who've been on teams that have not won many games at all, but they look back on it fondly because they’re like, “We were bonded together. We found it, our sense of achievement in all sorts of other ways that weren't just, are we going to win this game or lose this game?” And the really fascinating thing is that that meant that they still went into every single game kind of thinking like, we can win, right? Despite all the evidence of the contrary, because culture is sort of divorced from what the score is at the end, and it, and it's regenerative, right?

And so you lose a game, but your culture sustains and it pushes you to then go into the next game thinking that you can win. Or thinking that there's a sense of achievement to be had.

[00:19:35] Chris Duffy:
I, I always have a soft spot in my heart for people who are fans of teams that are abysmally bad.

[00:19:42] Jody Avirgan:
Oh yeah.

[00:19:42] Chris Duffy:
Like if you, if you like a team and they're winning the championship, whether it's the Super Bowl or the World Series or whatever, I'm like, “Ah, whatever. That’s not really interesting.”

[00:19:49] Jody Avirgan:

[00:19:49] Chris Duffy:
But if you're like, “This is my favorite team and they've, they haven't won in a hundred years”, that's what I'm like, “Okay. I actually do have some curiosity about talking to you about this.”

[00:19:56] Jody Avirgan:
Oh yeah. And I mean, it's funny, I'm a Philly sports fan, and I think like Philly, I think for a long time wore that mantle and, and probably justifiably, but the last, like, if I'm being honest, like the last 15, 20 years of being a Philly sports fan have been pretty good.

Like it's been a lot of… And so it's this weird disconnect, I think, between like, yeah, “We're, we're like the lovable losers”—or the, actually the hateable losers in Philly's case—“But then we've also won a lot.” Like it's very, it's, you know, it's very weird. But the flip side of that is like the Chicago Cubs winning after a hundred and some years. There's nothing better. There's nothing better, right?

Like, and, and seeing, seeing the team win after all that time and seeing the way that that tells the story of the city of Chicago. I mean, it's just kind of like, it's everything I love when you see someone actually achieve that. But you know, more than anything, it's kind of like this collective decision to say, “This matters to us. I'm gonna use this as a way to commune with other people. I'm gonna use this as a way to kinda like be a proxy for pride in myself and my city, and my neighbors.” And so, I mean, that's the kind of stuff I, I notice when I feel like I'm seeing the other connection between a town and, and a team.

[00:21:03] Chris Duffy:
Well, something we've talked about a lot on this show over the years and, and in this season in particular is kind of how to talk to someone when they're dealing with something really hard, whether you are on the team or whether you are the coach. What can you say to someone after a hard loss?

[00:21:19] Jody Avirgan:

[00:21:19] Chris Duffy:
After something that, that people are really taking to heart and it's a struggle. How do you, how do you approach those conversations?

[00:21:27] Jody Avirgan:
Two, two things come to mind. I had a coach who said, after a really, really hard loss, one, said, “You can live with this pain.” Like you just have to live with the pain of this loss, right?

It is here. There's nothing you can do about it. And moreover, I think he said something like, “The next two days are gonna be really rough. Be okay with that. But do not try to fix the past. You cannot fix the past. Don't go back over and over and try and pick at that scab. You can learn lessons from it. You can, you can acknowledge the pain, but you're not gonna be able to go back and, and change the course of, of, of what happened.”

We talked to a, a psychologist who looks at sports and talks about winning and losing, and he, he offered a really interesting idea, which is that, that losses actually may have more to teach us than wins. “This did not go right. We did not do this. We didn't prepare in this way. This went wrong. Our opponent did something that we hadn't anticipated.”

You know, there are real lessons, but the emotional effect of a loss really gets in the way of learning those lessons. Can you get to a place where you can really learn from the most painful stuff as opposed to just sort of being exuberant when the things go, when things go your way? Often the, the hardest, most difficult, most painful moments are the ones that in the end, with time you find, going back to and saying, “Okay, I really, I really grew there. I really learned some lessons there.”

And again, sports again is like another great little test lab in which to do this, right? How can you set up systems for yourself and for your community where you are learning from losses, where you're talking about it in a healthy way where you're not just sort of putting off to the side and moving on, but you in fact are kind of, like, understanding there are lots of lessons there.

[00:23:06] Chris Duffy:
Even just hearing you talk, like I came in being like, I'm not into sports, but hearing you talk about it, I realized, like, my definition of sports was very narrow.

[00:23:15] Jody Avirgan:

[00:23:15] Chris Duffy:
In the sense of it being like, it's like competitive team sports where I, which I associate strongly with like, not being good enough and like, letting people down and then having people be like angry and disappointed in me, which is a feeling where I was like, this is not fun. And other people seem to have fun.

[00:23:30] Jody Avirgan:
Right. Yeah, yeah. I’d rather go bomb on stage. Try to—

[00:23:33] Chris Duffy:
Oh, absolutely. Endless. I mean, but like, yeah, I get so much of the, so many of the pieces you're talking about are things that I, I found through, like, comedy and being on stage with people, right?

[00:23:42] Jody Avirgan:
Yeah, yeah.

[00:23:42] Chris Duffy:
Like how can you be part of a team? How can you make other people look good? How can you like build something collaboratively?

[00:23:47] Jody Avirgan:

[00:23:47] Chris Duffy:
And it's just like, mine is the nerdiest imaginary world, but also, you know, being genuine about this. Some really big parts of my life right now that are very meaningful and that I feel like I've taken a lot from, I think do fall under this umbrella of sports as you're describing it. They're just not team sports. So like…

[00:24:07] Jody Avirgan:

[00:24:07] Chris Duffy:
I have non-com—competitively started going to, like, the local community pool and I swim, and I do 30 minutes of exercise. And through that, I have met a bunch of other people in that pool, one of whom I've become a really good friend. She’s 101 years old, and she's swims all the time.

[00:24:24] Jody Avirgan:
No way.

[00:24:24] Chris Duffy:
I've learned so many lessons about like, the importance of just doing something consistently, about how if you push yourself a little bit, like it lets you to continue to be able to do it and get better.

[00:24:33] Jody Avirgan:
What you're articulating here is what really what we're trying to get to. I'm not—through this show or just in general—I’m not trying to be like, everyone needs to automatically decide to be into sports. I think it's more kind of, sports, as I said, is as good of a place to learn all these big important lessons as any other, and that's really the defense.

There's probably 15 different lenses one can carry around to look at the world and to look at themselves, and I think sports is just as good as any other and happens to be mine, but as long as you have a lens right for yourself, that’s the, that's the important thing.

[00:25:06] Chris Duffy:
If someone's listening to this and they're, maybe they were a little bit more in the me camp of like, they don't see sports as a lens—

[00:25:12] Jody Avirgan:

[00:25:12] Chris Duffy:
—and they kind of have these preconceptions about it, what are three steps that they can take to bring sports into their life and to start using that lens?

[00:25:19] Jody Avirgan:
There's a lot of great journalism and reporting that is like, sports shows, but barely sports shows, you know, and I happen to have worked on a number of them, but you know, series like 30 for 30.

I mean, you hear it all the time. “I'm not into sports, but I'm into 30 for 30.” I think almost everyone in the world would, would wanna watch OJ: Made in America or The Two Escobars, or all these kind of wonderful films that help us understand human emotion and larger cultures and so forth. And then it's like, okay, engage with sports storytelling in that way and then carry it into, when you watch a game and look, not just at the score, but look at how are these human beings interacting with, with each other? What's going on on the, the bench? You know, what's, what's the, what's the bond between these people? And it's just like a chance. You don't get to look through someone's like, office building and see how they interact with each other.

But you get to look at that in sports, right? You get to see how humans interact with each other. So it's just this great, it's this great chance to see people kind of working stuff out in real time. You know, we've touched on a, a couple of the things that I think are also just important takeaways, but an understanding that achievement can mean a bunch of different things and success can mean a bunch of different things.

Um, there was one thing you said earlier that, like, really struck me and reminded me that it's one of my favorite kind of lessons, and maybe it fits into a, a sort of takeaway, but you said something like, “In my comedy career I've learned all these lessons about how to do this and this”, and then you said how to make other people look good.

When I've coached teams, like all-star teams, like the best people under 24 in the country, we're gonna make a team for a world championship with them. And so you get, you get these tryouts where you have, like, 50 kids who are all incredibly good, and you gotta whittle them down to, to 20 or whatever for a final roster.

It's a good problem to have, but it's really tough. And the thing I say to everyone is: “Your job this weekend is to make the people around you look good and trust that when you do that, we as coaches, we'll notice, and that's what we're looking for. And by making others look good, you make yourself look good.” No greater sort of, what is it, multiplier effect than, like, making others around you look good. It will just reap its rewards for everyone involved.

[00:27:25] Chris Duffy:
One of the things that I love about that, and that has really spoken to me in working with other people, collaborative in creative spaces, that I wonder if this is true for you in the athletic and sports spaces, is that, is there space for tenderness and for vulnerability in sports and in athletics?

[00:27:46] Jody Avirgan:
Oh yes. I think it's the, I think it's the thing that takes you to, from being a, a good group of performers to a great team is vulnerability, love, and openness to each other in whatever, really difficult to pin down way. At the end of the day, I think it's like, it's trust, right?

Do you trust the people around you? Do you believe in them? Have they been vulnerable with you and like, that manifests itself in performance under really, really stressful conditions. You know, and there's, there's physiological explanations for that, right? When people are stressed, you know, their body seizes up and they get tense.

And if you're in a comfortable environment in every sense of the word, like you're less likely to do that, right? And you may not tense up because you have faith. You hear athletes talk about it all the time. “Like, we, we play for each other.” Right? And that only comes when you really know them, and they've been vulnerable, and you've been vulnerable to them.

[00:28:38] Chris Duffy:
We’ve talked a lot about the kind of individual level and ways in which sports can help—

[00:28:42] Jody Avirgan:

[00:28:42] Chris Duffy:
—individuals grow in terms of values and goals and, and mindset and all of that. I do wanna talk a little bit about like the systemic level, since I think it's, it's really interesting to look at things like how in tennis, right, like women's tennis built this model of equality that, that hasn't really been replicated in many other sports and, and they're kind of tackling some of the systemic injustices of, of equal pay.

And, and I know that that's a big issue right now in with like the women's national soccer team here in the US, and obviously, we've seen with like people like Colin Kaepernick, right? Like bringing political, systemic social issues onto the field, and often that gets people very upset. So…

[00:29:22] Jody Avirgan:

[00:29:22] Chris Duffy:
I’m curious in your reporting and also just in your own personal opinion, like how do the big issues of the world and the ability of sports to shine a spotlight on them… How do they intersect in ways that are powerful or ways that show the limits of sport?

[00:29:39] Jody Avirgan:
I mean, I, I truly believe that, that it can be incredibly powerful to see these things played out in the world of sports. And I think we've seen examples of that over and over and over. And you think about the civil rights movement in this country. A lot of it was, sports was a huge part of that, and a lot of that was played out through sport.

We have an episode on gender in sports, and it's a little bit about the sort of trans athlete question, which is certainly roiling, but it's a, it's more a larger exploration of how, for a long time sports has been this world in which gender norms and the way we talk about gender has both been reflected, but actually been sort of, like, codified, right?

And that the separate spheres for men and women in sports have often been a reflection and then a driver of the kind of stereotypes and separate spheres for, for men and women in the rest of society. And I really came to believe in the course of reporting on that, that like in that particular issue, at least, sports is this weird lagging indicator.

Like, I actually think the rest of the world is having like, I mean, they're fraught, but I think the rest of the world genuinely is having, like, open and expansive conversations about gender right now. And sports is like retreating in this weird way. And so the episode I think ends up being kind of a, a little clarion call to be like, no, we've always… I've always felt like sports can be leading here, and sports can be a place where we can kind of, like, push and be more expansive in our thinking.

[00:31:06] Chris Duffy:
You grew up in Costa Rica and now you live in Brooklyn.

[00:31:08] Jody Avirgan:
I did.

[00:31:09] Chris Duffy:
Having lived in two different places, different languages, different cultures, what about sports strikes you as universal in your experience and, and what strikes you as like there's some meaningful changes between cultures when they, when it relates to sports?

[00:31:21] Jody Avirgan:
You know, one of the things I'm most thankful of for playing sports and have sort of having a, is that like you can go to any city, any country and find people who care about this thing that you care about or play this sport that you played. I moved to a new city and, like, within two days I had like seven new friends, right?

Just ‘cause I showed up. Here's this team. Here you go. There's your social circle. Like you can find that through comedy, you can find that through board games. You can find that through, you know, video games. You can find that through politics. There's a million ways you can find that, that to me it's like so clean and, and provide such good continuity, and, and has throughout my life. I'm really, really thankful for that.

[00:31:59] Chris Duffy:
Uh, Jody, it was such a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much. I, I really enjoyed it.

[00:32:02] Jody Avirgan:
Yeah, this was great. I really appreciate it.

[00:32:07] Chris Duffy:
That is it for this episode of How to Be a Better Human. Great job team. You left it all out there on the podcast field and I am proud of you.

Thank you so much to today's guest, Jody Avirgan. You can hear his podcast, Good Sport, wherever you're listening to this. I am your host, Chris Duffy, and you can find more from me, including my weekly newsletter and information about my live comedy shows at

How to Be a Better Human is brought to you on the TED side by Anna Phelan who dominates at midfield; the unstoppable defender, Whitney Pennington-Rodgers; and power forward Jimmy Gutierrez. This episode was fact-checked by Julia Dickerson and Erica Yuen, who are known as the Venus and Serena of source citations.

From PRX, our show is brought to you by Morgan Flannery with a six-foot wingspan; the reigning world champion, Rosalind Tordesillas; and winner of multiple Olympic gold medals in podcasting, Jocelyn Gonzales.

And of course, thanks to you for listening to our show and making this all possible. We'll be back next week with even more How to Be a Better Human.