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What sport psychology has learned from Stoicism

Rewind if you will over 2000 years to early 3rd century BC Athens and a group of passionate philosophers teaching in front of a painted porch (A ‘stoa’ from which the term Stoic derives). As well as theorizing about the big questions around the nature of life, being, and morality, Stoicism sought to apply these principles and theories to practical problems. Many of the core teachings of Stoicism parallel significant concepts in sport psychology today.

  • Control the Controllables – Stoicicsm emphasised separating what you can control from what you can’t control and doing exercises to focus exclusively on what you can control. This is a fundamental principle used by sport psychologists today. Sport psychologists work with performers to focus on aspects of their performance they have autonomy over as opposed to the aspects they do not. The idea is that although the outcome of a competition or game is ultimately uncontrollable, by taking care of the processes both in the lead up to and during competition the athlete is maximizing the potential for effective performance rather than wasting time and energy focusing on aspects that are out of their control in the dynamic and unpredictable world of sport.
  • You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength. Marcus Aurelius. Concurrent with the principle above, events may not be under control however your attributions and interpretations to the events are. As above sport psychologists promote focus on performance rather than the outcome and work to set process and performance goals alongside outcome goals. The Stoics suggested that events beyond control which do not go our way should be handled with acceptance. If an athlete has prepared and performed to potential, they have succeeded in moving closer to their goals regardless of uncontrollable events and outcomes.
  • Be present To be everywhere is to be nowhere. – Seneca. This Stoic principle emphasises the ability to stay in the moment, rather than letting moment carry over. Mistakes happen in sport as in life however many athletes sabotage their own performance by dwelling on past mistakes. This can lead to a cycle of negativity as the athlete tries to avoid committing future errors rather than focusing on the present moment.
  • Confine yourself to the present. Never let the future disturb you – Marcus Aurelius. Similar to the principle above, thinking or worrying about the outcome means an athlete’s mind is in the future rather than in the present. Losing focus is one the greatest sources of error in competition. Detaching from the results and focusing exclusively on the task at hand is often what separates the good from the great. It’s imperative that athlete’s manage distractions; recognise when they lose focus and return this focus to the present moment to stay in the zone of optimal performance.
  • Control thy passions lest they take vengeance on thee – Epictetus. The Stoics believed people should be in control of their emotions rather than letting their emotions control them. They sought inner calm and warned against destructive emotions like fear; linking negative passions to bad impulses and unsettling feelings. They taught that one should focus on managing non-helpful emotion and that self-control and mental toughness were virtues that led to a balanced approach to life. This applies to athletes in competition and a big part of a sport psychologist’s work is around emotional control. Controlling emotional reactivity can be a super power in sport.

Like high performance sport, Stoicism, the 2,000-year-old philosophy, is about the mental game. Athletes and coaches themselves may be unfamiliar with stoicism, but all great athletes are (likely inadvertently) living and training under this ancient Greek philosophy when they endure pain without complaint, control the controllables, stay in the present moment and take things one step at a time. Stoic principles can be used as an operating system for thriving in high stress environments such as elite sport and it is often the sport psychologist who enforces these essential principles.