THE CONTEMPLATIVE SIDE of sports is the most elusive. We can explain easily enough forehands and fast balls; capturing the grace and power of athletes in words is more difficult, but still attainable. Seldom is one able, however, to express transcendent values, to find connections between the physical and spiritual, without coming off as pompous or even missing the mark entirely. A discerning observer is needed to capture such precious moments in athletics without being precious himself.

Lawrence Leamer has come very close in his book Ascent (Simon and Schuster, $17.50), the story of mountaineer Willi Unsoeld. A world-class mountain climber (he climbed Mount Everest in 1963, losing nine of his toes in the process), a leader of Outward Bound and a high-ranking official in the Peace Corps, Unsoeld was also something of a philosopher. In mountain climbing, he found solace, strength and, ultimately, a sense of his purpose on earth. He named a daughter after a Himalayan mountain that had so moved him; later, he could not understand the new breed of climbers that concentrated on the challenge of reaching the summit and had little interest in the spiritual side of the endeavor.

Leamer first met Unsoeld in Nepal in 1963 as a member of the Peace Corps. He writes in the opening chapter: "To most of us, Willi was not only a conqueror of Everest but a hero, a mountain mystic, a philosopher, a legend about whom we had already heard endless stories." One might expect from this description a fatuous and adoring book. But Leamer is remarkably even-handed; while moved by Unsoeld's energy, ideals and ability to give love, he shows Unsoeld also to be impractical, manipulative and sometimes less than a model father and husband.

The opening chapters are the weakest. Unsoeld seems to have burst through life with the attention span of a 3-year-old, and in chronicling his first four decades, Leamer seems disjointed and out of breath. But Ascent picks up pace with the tragic climb of Nanda Devi in the Himalayas, building to a powerful climax with an ill-conceived attempt to climb Mount Rainier during winter. Here, Leamer's detached approach pays off in grim, compelling narratives of storms with 100-mile-an-hour winds at 25,000 feet, and moments of profound strength and weakness as members of a climbing party deal with a companion's death. In the end, we see Unsoeld not as a god, but as a man still seeking, still attempting to justify the spiritual and the physical. A noble book.

The Shell Game (Morrow, $10.50) is in a similar vein. Although not so overtly concerned with the philosophical as Ascent, it nonetheless is a nicely crafted inquiry into a sport, and why it has come to mean so much to one person. The author, Stephen Kiesling, graduated from Yale in 1980, where he rowed on the heavyweight eight. Kiesling drifted into rowing as a freshman largely under the influence of an older sister who was a member of Yale's national champion women's crew. Soon the sport comes to gain a hold on Kiesling. He revels in its strength-giving even while cursing freely its near omnipotence over his life.

Written primarily in diary form, The Shell Game is matter-of-fact, with Kiesling offering his reflections in short, measured passages. He avoids the life-is-rowing/rowing-is-life metaphor arrived at by the dilettante. When Kiesling pauses to consider why he devotes so much time to sitting backwards in a boat, he gives us valued parts of himself. "I row because it provides me with a sense of identity," he writes. "More than that, rowing provides an objective framework against which to measure myself: a definite goal, an attainable perfection; a ritual removing me from the seemingly random vacillations of outside reality."

Another book, The Second Cooperative Sports and Games Book (Pantheon, $18.50), also questions the role of sports in society, chiefly what the author, Terry Orlick, sees as an overemphasis on competition. He argues persuasively that competitive sports often force individuals apart, inducing feelings of inferiority and rejection, and offers as alternatives hundreds of "cooperative" games designed to bring the participants together. This is where Orlick loses the reader. Although his compilation of games from other countries is interesting, he appears to miss the mark by suggesting such made-up games as Love Handles, in which 8-to 12-year-olds try to catch each other by grabbing the flabby ring around their stomachs--the "love handles." Somehow, it is hard to believe that a generation weaned on Pac-Man would consider such a "game" without cracking up.

For those concerned more with the practical and mundane side of athletics, EEVeTeC (Houghton Mifflin, $15.95) should appeal. Its author, Rob Roy McGregor, is a sports medicine doctor in the Boston area. He believes that most recreational and weekend athletes are not being treated properly, that a new philosophy is needed to deal with the pains associated with their respective sports. Thus, he introduces EEVeTeC, representing five criteria for evaluating sports-related pain (Equipment, Environment, Velocity, Technique and Conditioning). Although occasionally condescending, EEVeTeC is an effective primer for managing the aches of recreational sports.