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.

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Socrates Among the Saracens

Jules Evans writes about Saracens Rugby Club, on its ethos of putting character before external success….

‘Socrates among the Saracens’

It can still feel weird discussing having had depression and anxiety to strangers in public talks. Although I’m fairly used to exposing myself these days (as it were), there are still occasions when I think ‘is this really a good idea?’ I had that feeling this week, standing in front of a gym full of colossal rugby players at Saracens rugby club, staring at me stony-faced as I discussed how philosophy helped me through panic attacks.

I was invited to Saracens’ training ground in St Albans to give a talk about ancient philosophy, virtue ethics, and the Greeks’ ideas on the good life. I believe, and Saracens also believe, that ethics are right at the heart of sport. Sportspeople, on a daily basis, are faced with the questions that Socrates first raised: is it worth being an ethical person?  What is the appropriate trade-off between external and internal goods? What does it mean to succeed at life? How do we cope with external pressures and still maintain a good character?

We, the spectator-public, like to think that professional sportspeople are shining knights, that sports coaches are founts of moral wisdom like Coach Taylor in Friday Night Lights. While a lot of our society has become instrumentalized by the language of technocratic management, we still use moral discourse when it comes to sport – we talk about a team’s ‘values’, ‘character’ and ‘philosophy’. The word ‘stoic’ may have more or less disappeared from academic philosophy, but it’s still ubiquitous in the sports pages (stony-faced Ivan Lendl is the latest to be awarded the ‘stoic’ accolade).

Perhaps we have tried to fill the ‘god-shaped hole’ with sports, to use sportspeople for ethical role-models and matches as an outlet for collective ecstasy.

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Day Three of Stoic Week: How's it going?

Everyone please feel free to comment below and share your experiences from the third day of Stoic Week!

Please post on anything to do with your practice of Stoicism today. Some questions you might consider to help with this:

  • What difference did it make to accept events which happened today?
  • What was it like to act with the ‘reserve clause’?
  • How did you find the morning and evening texts for reflection?
  • Do you have any thoughts or observations to share with others?
  • Have you used the guided video meditation for the early morning reflection? How was it?

If you are blogging about the week, or if you are doing a video diary, please also feel free to post links to those below.

'The Obstacle is the Way': Interview with Ryan Holiday

Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way (May, 2014)

Interview by Zach Obront

What jumps out to me about Stoicism is that while it’s become popular in a sense, it seems like the mainstream only sees the same couple of thoughts continuously reemerging, as if these were the core principles of the philosophy. When I first read straight from the source though, it struck me that Stoicism is much more like a collection of practices and exercises than a traditional philosophy. Do you agree that its focus is entirely practical?

So, what I like about Stoicism is that, historically, it was the philosophy for men (and, I’m saying men because it was only men then) of action. Leaders, generals, politicians, you know? For most of the later Stoics, the focus was very much of ethics or operating principles. And so, I see Stoicism as being adapted for people who do stuff in the world. Not college professors, but people who are leading soldiers into battle, running a government, representing the people, that sort of thing. So I think that, when you look at the exercises, you see all sorts of things that are supposed to be reminders or solutions to the problems that a person like that faces.

So whether it’s Marcus Aurelius or Seneca, their writings are reminders of the problems that you tend to bump into. So, you know, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself not to be stained by the robes that he wear, which is a way of saying, “Don’t let it go to your head.” Or, he’s talking about never being overhead complaining in court. He’s saying, “This is your duty. This is your job. Complain at home, but do your job when you’re doing your job.” Or Seneca, who writes this letter where he goes through this exercise where he says “I’m going on a trip. This is what I plan to do, but I’m also ready for things to go terribly wrong, and this is how I’m going to handle the plans going awry.”

I think all the exercises have a lot of implications for how to make you a better, more honest, virtuous person. But they also have the side effect of making you a more effective, efficient, dutiful, reasonable, rational leader or person of action. And so that’s what I tend to focus on in my reading and understanding of Stoicism.

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See Like a Stoic: An Ancient Technique for Modern Consumers

One of the qualities Stoic Week encourages is adopting a life of material simplicity, and that is today’s Stoic theme in the Handbook. Tim Rayner adopts an ancient technique from Marcus Aurelius to help us in deciding what we really need and what we don’t…

See Like a Stoic: An Ancient Technique for Modern Consumers

by Tim Rayner

undefinedMarcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) grew up surrounded by beautiful things: great art and architecture, sumptuous foods, fine wines, and artfully tailored robes. When he assumed the title of Emperor of Rome, he had everything that he could possibly desire. Marcus, however, was a Stoic philosopher, so he knew that the law of life is change and that one should never let oneself become too attached or invested in material things. To maintain his composure in the midst of plenty, he would seek to transform the way that he saw the things that he desired. This helped him get a grip on his desires and achieve Stoic peace of mind.

Marcus’ approach to consumables and other possessions provides a handy guide for modern consumers who seek to overcome the allure of products that they want but don’t need. Instead of looking at clothes, jewelry, food, and art through the lens of desire, Marcus advises that we view these things as pure material objects and evaluate them accordingly. He outlines this technique in The Meditations as follows:

When we have meat before us and other food, we must say to ourselves: “This is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig, and again, this Falernian [wine] is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool died with the blood of a shellfish” … so that we see what kinds of things they are. This is how we should act throughout life: where there are things that seem worthy of great estimation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted. For the outward show [of things] is a wonderful perverter of reason, and when we are certain the things we are dealing with are worth the trouble, that is when it cheats us most (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.13).

The best way to follow Marcus’ approach is to treat it as a practical exercise. This is the approach that I take to philosophical concepts in Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide.

STEP 1. Think of some item that you have coveted or continue to covet, such as an expensive house, a car, or some fashionable item of clothing or jewellery. Give this item a name and write it on a sheet of paper. This is your item of desire.

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Day Two of Stoic Week: How's it going?

Everyone please feel free to comment below and share your experiences from the second day of Stoic Week!

 

Please post on anything to do with your practice of Stoicism today. Some questions you might consider to help with this:

  • In what ways have you decided to cultivate Stoic self-disciple and simplicity this week?
  • Did the practice of the evening meditation last night help with approaching any stressful or difficult daily situations today?
  • Do you have any thoughts or observations to share with others? How did you find the morning text for reflection?
  • Do you have any questions?

If you are blogging about the week, or if you are doing a video diary, please also post links to those below.

Day One of Stoic Week: How's it going?

Everyone please feel free to comment below and share your experiences from the first day of Stoic Week!

Please post on anything to do with your practice of Stoicism today. Some questions you might consider to help with this:

  • How did you apply the exercise ‘what is in our power and what is not’ to your life today? Did it help?
  • Are you encountering any obstacles?
  • Do you have any thoughts or observations to share with others?
  • How did the morning and/or evening meditation go?
  • Do you have any questions?

If you are blogging about the week, or if you are doing a video diary, please also feel free to post links to those below.

Stoic Meditation Exercises

A list of the new audio recordings for Stoic Week 2013 with links to download MP3 files or listen online.

You can download from the links below for your MP3 players or listen online by clicking through.

Instructions for Audio Recordings
Some people have asked for more guidance on when and how to use the audio recordings.  All recordings are in MP3 format and can be downloaded, usually by right-clicking on the link and selecting “Save as…”, although this depends on the browser you’re using.  People using iPhones or other Apple devices may have to import the MP3 files to their iTunes library to play them on their devices, unless they’re using a third-party app.  MP3 files are playable on almost any device, though.  You’ll find it much easier to use these recordings on headphones.

Morning and Evening Meditation Routine
These are longer, optional recordings starting with some explanation, followed by an exercise. If you want to you can listen to these the first time you do the daily morning and evening routines, to help give yourself more structure, but don’t worry if you don’t have time, just use the shorter recordings, or do the morning and evening routines yourself, by following the instructions in the Handbook.

Morning Meditation Routine

Evening Meditation Routine

Morning and Evening Meditation (Exercise Only)
We recommend listening to these the first time you do the morning and evening meditation, to help guide you and provide some structure to the exercise.  They’re quite brief but will help by providing an example of how  to approach these daily exercises.

Morning Meditation Routine (Exercise Only)

Evening Meditation (Exercise Only)

Stoic Attitudes Meditation Script
This is optional but many people have reported finding it useful and some participants, previously, listened to it every day.  It contains some relaxation exercises and scripted Stoic affirmations, similar to the attitudes in SABS.  If you don’t have much time, you may just want to listen to this on the first or second day of Stoic Week.  This is a mainly verbal contemplative exercise.

Stoic Attitudes Meditation Script

Stoic Mindfulness and Premeditation Exercise
This is a longer and more challenging exercise.  It’s intended for use on Saturday (Day 6 of Stoic Week), which is entitled “Preparation for Adversity”, and based around the same concept.  This is a more visual contemplative exercise.

Stoic Mindfulness and Premeditation Exercise

The View from Above
Our previous feedback suggested this was among the most popular exercises.  It’s a bit longer than some of the others but not very demanding.  This is designed to be done on Sunday (Day 7 of Stoic Week), which is entitled “The View from Above” and based around the same concept.  This is a much more visual contemplative exercise.

The View from Above Exercise