image in a sports documentary article, taken by Abu Dhabi

5 Sports Documentaries To Watch While You Wait for Sports to Return

Whether you're into college football or you're interested in how nature versus nurture impacts athletic ability, there's something here for everyone.

Amid all the craziness happening in the world right now, there’s one thing a lot of people are really missing: sports. The coronavirus pandemic virtually wiped out the entire world of sports for months. The ten-part Michael Jordan documentary, “The Last Dance, ” captivated us for a few weeks during lockdown, but sports fans are still feeling deprived.

On the bright side, the return of professional sports is just around the corner. MLB players will start practicing sometime this month and return to gameplay on July 23. The NBA is set to resume on July 30, with playoffs beginning in mid-August. Formal training camps for the NHL will commence on July 10, with the Stanley Cup playoffs projected to begin in August.

Although sports are coming back soon, there’s still more waiting to be done. If you’re dying for some entertainment during these sports-less times, here are five sports documentaries to check out.

1. “In Search of Greatness”

The 2018 sports documentary gets inside the minds of top athletes to discover what causes them to excel at what they do. The documentary features interviews with pro sports legends like Wayne Gretzky, Jerry Rice and Pelé, allowing viewers to gain insight into their lives that’s valuable even for non-athletes.

They speak about how they rose to success, their mindsets revolving around their performance and challenges they faced along the way. Other well-known athletes highlighted in the film include Serena Williams, Muhammad Ali, Tom Brady and Michael Jordan.

In a Sports Illustrated interview, director Gabe Polsky discussed what inspired the film, saying “Everyone needs to find their own creative abilities because that’s what separates you from everybody else. That’s your competitive advantage…Kids who have potential are often put to the side, and we leave a lot on the table.”

“In Search of Greatness” will have you watching sports in a completely different way, paying closer attention to players who value creativity and inventiveness over brawn or physical skill.

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2. “Last Chance U”

The four-season docuseries debuted on Netflix in July of 2016. It chronicles the stories of college football players and the obstacles they face on and off the field.

The first season, which is just six episodes long, follows the team at East Mississippi Community College. Many of the players are dealing with hardships in their personal lives as well as academic struggles, but they have dreams of becoming successful in the sport.

Players are made to perform at the junior college level as a last-chance effort to turn their lives around and return to Division I. This sports documentary is a gritty and inspiring story of having resilience through tough times.

Earlier this year, Spectrum Originals announced that they would be releasing a drama show based on the first two seasons, produced by and starring Courteney Cox.

If this series interests you, stay tuned — Netflix announced that a new spinoff series “Last Chance U: Basketball” will be premiering in 2021, which will spotlight the East Los Angeles Community College basketball team.

3. “Free Solo”

This extreme sports documentary will have you on the edge of your seat for an hour and a half. The academy award-winning documentary follows the story of Alex Honnold, a man with a lifelong dream to scale the 3,000-foot El Capitan rock in Yosemite National Park. Here’s the catch — he doesn’t want to use any rope or climbing equipment.

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Throughout the documentary, you’ll see the challenges Honnold faces in preparation for the climb. One of his biggest obstacles is convincing other people to accept the dangerous hobby, including his own mother, who’s skeptical of her son’s lifestyle.

Honnold’s passion for free solo climbing has him living in a van, dealing with injuries and even avoiding dating; in his words, “I will always choose climbing over a lady.”

With some of the most heart-stopping footage of any sports documentary, your blood pressure will be through the roof while watching this death-defying film.

4. “Losers”

This sports documentary discusses an aspect of sports that we don’t often hear about: What about the ones who didn’t emerge victoriously? The eight-part series explores how athletes seek redemption from failure and what losing taught them about their sports as well as their lives.

One athlete profiled in this docuseries is French golfer Jean Van de Velde, whose failure on the final hole of the 1999 Open Championship will go down as one of the biggest sports collapses in history. During the 18th hole, Van de Velde hit the ball into a thick patch of rough and then into a creek; after the incident, he took his shoes off and waded into the water in a depressing attempt to hit the ball out.

Van de Velde never even came close to winning a major tournament again. During his interview, he describes the heartbreak he experienced and the inner torment he deals with, but also the lessons he learned from the loss. In this documentary, you can expect more stories like Van de Velde’s, and learn how great athletes overcome failure.

5. “Basketball or Nothing”

This Netflix original docuseries is about a Navajo Nation high school basketball team in Chinle, Arizona. Throughout the six episodes, the wholesome series tells the tale of a disadvantaged team that’s hungry for a state championship title.

The Chinle Wildcats’ push for a championship, led by coach Raul Mendoza, is filled with struggles — many of the players deal with poverty and difficult lives at home. The show documents the group of boys, who are used to playing a less structured version of basketball called “rezball,” as they learn the rules of the game from a very passionate Coach Mendoza.

Basketball has given these boys an opportunity to be champions, and they do everything they can to achieve that. With concepts like focus and discipline as main themes, “Basketball or Nothing” is an inspiring documentary that will have you rooting for the underdogs.

Madelyn Haasken, Bemidji State University

Writer Profile

Madelyn Haasken

Bemidji State University
Mass Communications

I’m a senior at Bemidji State University in northern Minnesota, majoring in mass communications with minors in design and writing.

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