Stoicism for Sport

Stoicism and Sport

by Catriona Brickel

Stoicism, like so many aspects of life including other branches of philosophy and ethics, is faced with the perpetual problem of how to ensure it remains relevant, not only for academics who ponder the subject but within the general population. Whilst the influence that Stoicism has had within psychotherapy and the modern military is well documented and persuasive, I feel that to achieve a popularised version of Stoicism there needs to be more emphasis on how Stoicism can subliminally permeate the lives of the common person, i.e. without them even noticing it.

One such example of how Stoicism might be considered to already have achieved this can be found within sport. Whilst there are programmes utilising Stoic psychotherapy techniques that focus on personal development (at Saracens RFC for example, as Jules Evans’ piece from earlier today showed), Stoic virtues are present throughout the history of sport in a considerably more obvious way. This is made evident by drawing on passages from Epictetus:

            “…reflect on what’s entailed both now and later on before committing to it. You have to submit to discipline, maintain a strict diet, abstain from rich foods, exercise under compulsion at set times in weather hot and cold, refrain from drinking water or wine whenever you want – in short, you have to hand yourself over to your trainer as if he were your doctor”
Enchiridion 29

Modern day athletes, although they might never have read Epictetus, often embody such a Stoic attitude. They train for years, often away from their families and at altitude; this involves early mornings, late nights and training in all weathers; they commit to fiercely regimented diets; they place their faith in their trainer to bring them the success they hope for. As British athletics star Mo Farah said “don’t dream of winning – train for it”. The life of an athlete is one of control, discipline and preparation as they consistently exert their will over the frailties of the body.

Further parallels to Stoicism are seen if we compare the Stoic attitude towards failure to the sporting view. Whilst it is true that Stoics do not allow much room for progression (for a person is either a fool or a sage), they are compassionate towards those who flounder throughout their attempts to become Stoic. Once again Epictetus offers wisdom on this topic:

                   …even if we falter for a time, no one prevents us from renewing the contest, nor need we wait another four years for the next Olympic games to come, but as soon as a man has got a hold on himself and recovered himself, and shows the same zeal as before, he is allowed to take part in the contest; and even if you should falter again, you may begin again, and, if once you become the victor, you are as one who has never faltered…
Discourses 3.25.1-5

The same kind of attitude Epictetus espouses here is not lost within modern day sport, as many examples illustrate. American basketball legend Michael Jordan, like all other sporting stars I might propose, did not have an easy journey to success. In fact his career was riddled by failure. During high school he was cut from his school’s basketball team and throughout his career in the National Basketball Association he has lost over 300 games and failed to make the game winning shot on 26 occasions. Yet, in spite of these shortcomings (or because of them?) Jordan has been voted Most Valuable Player 5 times over a 10 year period. Similar stories to this can be found throughout the world of sport. We need look no further than British tennis player Andy Murray. He may now be Britain’s most successful tennis player in history, but who can forget the laborious and emotional journey he undertook to get there. His conversion of repeated failure to astonishing success is incredible, even moving forward from losing the Wimbledon final to victory at the 2012 Olympics.

Of course there is an obvious problem when attempting to show that Stoicism is an influence on sport, namely that there is very little recognition within sport that players and fans should be working towards eudaimonia or flourishing. Virtue does not have a huge part to play within sport, as there appears to be an attitude that winning and the collection of trophies is the most important end of sport. This is evident in the cheating scandals which seem to make headlines every year. This year, it has been American cyclist Lance Armstrong and the Jamaican athletics team who have fallen from grace for illegal doping. Just last month, Jamaican sprinters, amongst them World Record Holder and Olympic gold medallist Asafa Powell, were found to have taken banned stimulants and now the entire Jamaican team risk being banned from the 2016 Olympics. The lack of a Stoic emphasis on virtue and character is painfully apparent here, as athletes have lost their integrity and honour in pursuit of victory as the final end.

Yet I still believe despite the clear presence of cheating that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Stoicism remains a powerful influence within sport. The message at Wimbledon is clear: athletes must strive to “meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters the same” (If, Rudyard Kipling). Taken from a poem full of Stoic sentiment, this statement suggests that there is potential within sport to move towards a less victory focused, more person-centred attitude. Further evidence for this can be found with the Personal Development Program at Saracens RFC, which seeks to ensure that players are valued as people and not as tools for victory. They have managed to combine the needs of a professional sports club with the needs of the players to experience growth both on and off the sports pitch. It is testimony to the success of the program that Saracens are now leading the premiership and that players there claim to have a far healthier attitude towards their performance.

I believe that Stoicism does have a future in sport. Without realising it, athletes often take on Stoic attitudes. These can be found in the aspiring athlete who confronts rejection by scouts, in the professional athlete who must learn to view past performances as outside of their control or the club owner who must face the prospect of a less successful season. Stoicism can bring a healthier perspective to sport, which focuses on the person not the player, on meeting success and failure with equanimity whilst always trying your best. It also has relevance for the millions of sports fans, who derive value from supporting their favourites and sharing in their triumphs and failures.

There is no doubt in my mind that Stoic attitudes have had a clear impact on professional sportsmen and women – although perhaps the best of what Stoicism has to offer sport is yet to come?

More on Catriona Brickel:

Having completed her A Levels in July of this year, Catriona Brickel has spent the past 5 months of her gap year researching the modern applications of Classical Stoicism. Initially inspired by Jules Evans’ book Philosophy for Life this project has involved hours of research and culminates in a 10,000 word thesis and a presentation of conclusions on 4th December. The work explores the question of how far modern applications of Stoic ethics within the military, sport and psychotherapy remain faithful to their Classical principles, and whether this is even necessary. Further elements to the project include a personal attempt to include Stoicism in her daily life and a survey of peers to determine whether Stoicism could be useful on a societal level. Now, with the project nearly at its close, she plans to use part of her time spent volunteering in Bangladesh to identify Stoic ideas in a far less privileged society.

2 thoughts on “Stoicism for Sport”

  1. Peter Sloterdijk in You Must Change Your Life suggests that the schools of antiquity, including Stoicism, had it right in putting the emphasis on training practices, and refers to this as ‘anthropotechnics’. So Mo Farah and Andy Murray are illustrating the return to such practices. He even gives an account of Baron de Coubertin’s Olympic revival showing how much it blended spirituality with athleticism. So athletics is a species of spiritual exercise, thus akin to Epictetus’ and Marcus Aurelius’ various practices. Perhaps our Stoic Week is further evidence of the return to ‘anthropotechnics’.

  2. That quote from Epictetus regarding failing and trying again is fantastic.

    I think the point about sports lacking the virtuous end (i.e. that athletes often train to win, and not for its own sake) can also be seen in academia. If you study a topic in the humanities and tell people that’s what you got your degree in, it’s not uncommon to hear “And what do you plan to do with that?” as a response. As though the education isn’t–in itself–a good thing to have. It’s not enough to be more knowledgeable, more perceptive, more analytical, etc. These things have to serve some greater purpose (usually making money). When I encounter this attitude, I try to remind myself that people only ask because they don’t know, not because they are spiteful.
    I’m an American, and I don’t know how prevalent this is in other countries.

Leave a Reply