What’s Better: Watching Or Doing?

As the USA Pro Cycling Challenge was working its way around Colorado and into the Front Range in August, I saw this Facebook status on my friend Rebecca’s page:

I thought, Hell No that’s not bad. And kind of a good question. A long time ago, after two years pouring drinks in a sports bar, I pretty much swore off watching sports, on TV or otherwise. And then I started climbing, backpacking, bicycling, skiing, and all that other stuff we love to do in the mountains. Like Rebecca, 95 percent of the time I’d rather be out doing the stuff I love than watching it. Where I live, that’s pretty easy to do—it’s rare to get shut down by bad weather, and if you can’t climb rocks, you can usually ski or climb ice. Which doesn’t leave a lot of Saturdays and Sundays to be a fan of traditional spectator sports.

In Colorado there are quite a few opportunities to watch some of the sports I do, too: The Teva Games, X Games, Ouray Ice Festival, cycling races, climbing comps, trail races, but I hardly ever find myself gravitating to them. I know the names of “famous” climbers, but I’m a long ways from calling myself a “fan” of anyone in action sports. Are you?

And if you are, what does that look like? Watching climbing or mountain biking videos on your work computer in the afternoon? Buying the full kit to match your favorite cyclist’s? Cheering someone on at an indoor climbing comp, or a ski race? Eating the same energy gels as your favorite ultrarunner, or wearing the same brand of shoes?

My friend Nick used to do PR for a ski industry organization, and at the SIA show a few years back, he confided that he felt awkward at the show because he didn’t know who any of the famous skiers were. He said,

“I just want to say, ‘I love skiing because I love skiing, not because you’re good at it.”

Which is really true for me. Something definitely happens when I watch a video of Alex Honnold free-soloing on Half Dome, but it’s not inspiring me to go free solo the same route, or even climb it. Watching someone move fluidly on rock reminds me of the feeling I get when I do it (of course it’s much easier than the stuff most people in climbing videos are doing). So sometimes I’m glad someone made a climbing movie, and I caught it at Banff or the Adventure Film Festival, because it is inspiring, in a way. But does it matter who’s climbing in the video?

Usually if you meet someone and they say they like sports, they mean they like to watch sports, while sitting down in front of a TV. Correct me if I’m wrong on that, but I’ve never heard anyone say, “I like sports. You know, like skiing, and climbing, and backpacking.”

Most people who love football aren’t getting suited up in pads and helmets and playing in competitive games on their days off. As my friend Justin said a few weeks back, “High school sports are interesting, because you play them, and then you never play them again—you watch them.” Outdoorsfolk are in a bit of a different position. Outside of cycling and skiing, and a few once-a-year events like the Teva Games and the X Games, there are few televised events for most of our favorite sports. No one’s sitting on their couch watching someone else go backpacking or canyoneering.

So why is football something we did when we were younger, but only watch when we’re older? If there was a 24-hour TV channel where I could watch athletes float up all the routes at Eldorado Canyon and Lumpy Ridge, would I spend my Saturdays watching it? If you had a choice, would you rather:

a. Watch one of the best athletes in the world in your sport (climbing, mountain biking, skiing) perform


b. Go to a slideshow by a guidebook author detailing routes or trails or backcountry ski runs that are all within your skill level?

The more I think about Rebecca’s question, “Is it bad that I would rather ride my bike than watch other people biking?”— the more I think the real question is, “Is it normal that I would rather ride my bike than watch other people biking?”


22 replies on “What’s Better: Watching Or Doing?

  • Jillian

    Glad to hear I’m not the only one who doesn’t get all up in a frenzy about famous athletes. I’ve somehow been to a number of winter competitions with the “elite” crew there. Somehow last year I ended up in this box tower thing overlooking the half pipe, and come to find out I was hanging out with Olympians, X-Game medalists, the guys in the well known snowboard films, and folks like that. I was more freaked out by the fact that I just didn’t care. They were just some people significantly better at snowboarding than me. Cool.

    And for the record – I can’t watch sports either. My boyfriend and I cancelled cable more than a year ago much to the horror of our friends, and we rather just go play the sport we were going to watch (we met playing floor hockey). And that winter competition I mentioned above? We didn’t stick around long. Our snowboards were waiting at the bottom of the tower!

  • Vasily Kuznetsov

    Yeah, it’s a good question.

    No, actually, it’s quite a silly question, because it’s obvious that it’s good to be biking instead of watching biking porn (even if there you see top level athletes doing some mega-awesome stuff, I’d still say that doing > watching).

    The question is only relevant because majority of the people normally watch sports instead of actually doing sports. So in this sense it is not “normal” (because that’s not what most people do) to do sports… it’s better than normal 😉

    P.S. BTW, regarding football, I much prefer playing football to watching it (I live in Europe, so here football is the game you play with your feet and the ball, but whatever). I do watch worldcup final matches and stuff like that, because they’re often worth it, but I definitely prefer playing to watching even to those high level matches.

  • Mick

    Depends on the sport. Watch running? Almost never. Cycling? Only the Tour de France. Football? eh…… Competitive chainsaw sharpening? Oh Yeah!!!

  • Laidlaw

    I can’t say what’s normal for anyone else, but that’s totally normal for me. I don’t recall a day, ever, where I said I wanted to go watch an event (Crankworx/Teva/X Games) over going for a hike/bike/paddle. That being said – as a photographer – sometimes I go to those events to take photos, but that’s not really the same, is it? I’m still going because I’m *doing*. Adventure porn is an entirely different beast though. The great thing about ski/bike/kayak movies though is you can watch them at night when you probably weren’t doing anything anyway, and it gets you pumped for the next day. 🙂
    But I am going to disagree on one point, and that is- to me, it does matter who I’m watching in those films. Jeremy Jones seems like a cool cat. Matt Hunter is my kind of dude. I’ve always been interested in people’s personalities as much as what they are capable of, and when I feel like I know them a little better, or can related to them on some level, I’m more invested as a viewer. The ones that are on a mission to explore what they can squeeze into this lifetime are always going to inspire me just a little bit more…

  • Laurel

    Maybe the question is… Would you rather do or read? The documentation of our sport is kind of skewed to words and still images, maybe because it’s only relatively recently that you could strap a camera to your head.

    To that question… I don’t think it’s an either/or of course, but I spend a lot of time reading about climbing… instructional books, guidebooks, AAJ and ANAM, memoirs, adventure stories, trip reports, blogs, my friends Facebook posts, coffee table mountain porn etc. Even things like summit registers!

    Yeah, some of it is utilitarian, but a lot of it is just for entertainment.

    What’s the equivalent of wearing our favorite ball players’ jerseys? Our sport is also unique because we can go to the places the “famous” people went and do the same things. I can go up to Cobra Crack and poke at it (it’s squamish, “rain day” is almost redundant). I can climb a “Kain Route” and imagine what it might have been like to hike in 50 kilometers of wilderness dragging a stack of bear carcasses instead of strolling up a trail for 5k with 2 pounds of dehydrated food. Your average baseball fan can’t walk into Yankee stadium and throw some balls around.

    So yeah, I admit it, it’s totally fun to know who people are and who is doing awesome stuff. Maybe it’s more fun to climb, but I can’t do that all the time… Sometimes it’s dark, sometimes it’s raining, sometimes you just got off work and you need to go back in 8 hours, sometimes you’re driving to climbing and the ipod tape thing broke again and you don’t want to listen to the Christian station or the one in Spanish (which is probably Christian too) so you ask your partner to read you the beta for random routes in the guidebook to stay awake.

    • KatieSue

      Good Point. I read A LOT of climbing/hiking/adventuring books. Sometimes I carry them with me while hiking to read during rests. I sit at my family cabin and read climbing magazines at night to get stoked for the climbing the next day. My local climbing guide sits next to my bed where I read it at night. I don’t think those other sport guys read as much literature on their sports as outdoors folks. Are there basketball and football books, narrations on real life experiences? I think our sports are best described in that medium anyway. No screen can really show what goes on in your head at the summit or during an epic and the ones that try usually fail miserably and get mocked endlessly on forums. Where they have tv shows on it, we have books on it. Perhaps this also shows a different in intelligence levels as far as reading vs. watching for entertainment.

  • Hilary

    Totally agree–except for when watching is a way to keep up the stoke when you’re injured or can’t make it to the mountains. I’ll still watch Brandon Semenuk shred on Pinkbike.com while I’m eating lunch at my desk, thank you.

  • Rachel

    I think you hit it. I don’t mind watching sports and I certainly love watching ski porn in the fall…before I can ski anything. (It gets me all amped). But on a powder day or a weekend would I rather watch a ski movie instead of heading out into the backcountry? No way in hell. Unless something is broken. I don’t think for me it’s a question of “being” normal as much as it is that I just expect more out of life.

  • Steve W Weiss

    I like watching football, basketball, and baseball…even as a Cleveland fan who’s teams almost never make it to the playoffs. I also played all of those sports and football in college, and that’s probably why I enjoy watching them.

    Plus, the fact that you can’t suit up and play football again makes watching the only option. Unless you want to play flag, which is just awful to play with the 40-somethings that like to brag about how they almost “made-it”. Bullshit.

    As for watching climbing/snowboarding videos, they get old. They help kill time at work, but if I’m not at work and bored, I go hiking/trailrunning/bouldering/climbing/cycling/mtb/snowboarding/something outside. I really only enjoy watching videos on places to get informed. I like watching videos that showcase areas I’ve never heard of and would be cool to do myself.

    I think the whole blogging/social network scene is the better scene to argue about. Seems like lots of people love to broadcast what others are doing but for some reason, hold themselves back from doing it themselves. Realistically, if they put effort into it, they could probably do it too…unless you’re watching free soloing. That’s bat-shit crazy.

  • Elle

    So true! My husband and I were at Crankworx this summer (supposedly mountain biking heaven) but it just felt noisy, competitive, and bro-fro. We’d rather be on the trails! The nature and the quiet are part of the draw afterall.

  • Stephanie

    This is like asking if you’d rather get laid or watch porn. I think the answer’s pretty straight forward….

    That said, being single doesn’t always work in your favor, and sometimes watching someone else do it is your only option. It doesn’t necessarily satisfy, but it gets you stoked. And who doesn’t love a good stoke?

  • TChan

    Yes! This is a fantastic bit of writing. I felt this when I was transitioning out of competitive college competition my senior year. I used to say that I now do “life sports”… aka things that you can actually DO your whole life, with friends, enjoy, and continue challenging yourself in. I would never plan a thousand-dollar trip to the other side of the country… just to go run on a new track. Or watch someone else play sports. But I WOULD do that to go paddle some fantastic rivers…

    There are those who find identity in the community of common observance, and those who find identity in the community of common adventure. I’m glad I’m in the adventure category, and I plan to stay that way. What a wasted life, watching someone else be alive! Live it yourself, I say.

  • Amanda

    I was watching a bouldering comp at my desk a few months ago, but it just turned into me opening up a few new tabs on the browser and researching where I’d like to climb at next.

    I can’t imagine NOT climbing to sit on my couch and watch someone else do it. I love watching people climb, but mostly because I like to study them and take something away from it to help myself improve.

  • crashDarren

    “My friend Nick used to do PR for a ski industry organization, and at the SIA show a few years back, he confided that he felt awkward at the show because he didn’t know who any of the famous skiers were. He said,”

    I don’t know who the famous climbers are myself. But I do know who the semi-rad climbers I climb with are. I’d much rather be on the rock.

  • Jill, Head Geargal

    I pretty much only enjoy doing, not ever watching. If I see a little movie of awesome skiing I just want to go skiing, not watch more movie!

    I’m with Jillian regarding pro athletes; I never know who they are so I’m rarely in the loop.

  • Cumulus

    I’m a hiker, and I do spend a fair amount of time looking at other hikers’ picture galleries and reading their trip reports. Still, that mostly happens when I would be at home or work anyway; it’s never instead of hiking myself.

    I disagree with you about “high school sports”, though. I have a friend in his 30s who spends much of his summer playing softball. It’s not that unusual; go to a city park on a summer afternoon and you’ll see lots of people playing softball, ultimate frisbee, basketball, half-field baseball, tennis, etc. A lot of people “like sports” in that way, and, while I’d personally rather be on a trail, I can recognize that as in many ways a similar activity.

  • Margosia

    Most of the time when I find myself watching outdoor sports, competition has nothing to do with it, which is a marked difference between people watching football or baseball. Rather, I’m watching for other reasons– admiring the skill or tenacity of the athlete, hearing the narrative that usually comes along with it, or to see well shot views of incredibly beautiful, and often relatively wild places.  And its that last one that is most compelling for me, you don’t get that with football.  Like most people it’s not usually a matter of watching or going and doing– I watch when I’m not able to go do, usually at work.  And I’ve found these little breaks cruising photo and videos important for my work.  I’m an environmental planner and spend a lot of time time and energy exploring the values that define our relationship with land, which includes how we are challenged by the natural landscape, which is at that heart of most outdoor sports.  It’s these values that help drive me to get out and do on the weekends, but sometimes I need a little reminder or validation of them mid work day.  When I watch a video of someone being challenge by a landscape that I may never see for myself, I’m reminded that these places, even the one’s I’ll never see, and our ability to connect with them, are worth protecting.

  • josh nash

    honestly I spend a lot of time nature porning on the tube of you and vimeo. I have a wife, three kids, and not a lot of weekends to wander around the out of doors. So I like to watch average schlubs with go pros grunting up a 5.6. It keeps the stoke alive and it’s great beta.

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