Human or Athlete?

In the introduction we outlined our broader objectives in relation to sport within the crucible of human endeavour and evolution. The first fundamental issue we have with winning as the core reason for participating in sport is that, its focus is on developing the athlete.

Beyond learning how to win at their particular event, the athlete is required to develop few skills that benefit him or her as a human being. This is obviously a contentious claim as many athletes do gain extensive interpersonal skills, discipline, organisational abilities, mental toughness, goal setting / achieving capacity and so on. However for most, these acquired attributes remain within the narrow demands of the sport and are often not well translated to external activities. Except in teams with substantial means and the vision to do so, few coaches will allocate scarce resources of time, money and energy to anything that doesn’t have a direct and tangible impact upon the team’s on-field performance. The coach’s job is after all to develop the athlete, so the athlete can go out and win. Why would you bother with anything else?

Let’s consider what this focus on the athlete and our need to win has generated.

Ask yourself this question: What causes athletes (and coaches) to blatantly cheat; to repeatedly endure intense emotional traumas and stress; to train, play and compete through serious injuries, risking permanent damage to their bodies; to deliberately and methodically hate their opponents; to take performance enhancing drugs that have debilitating and potentially even fatal side effects? What, in a frightening future that is virtually upon us, will drive participants to modify, engineer and rewrite the actual genetic code of unborn children? What incredible compulsion evokes such extreme, often self-destructive behaviour from otherwise sensible human beings?

Answer: Their primary and even exclusive identification with themselves as athletes and the accompanying need to win.

And what kind of goal has the motivating power to drive this need? The assumption that victory will automatically lead to rewards, recognition, popularity, and subsequently fill a void that gapes hugely in the hearts and sub-conscious minds of so many athletes who define themselves solely in terms of the sport they play and more importantly, the success they achieve.

When you classify success as being something only a fraction of the competing population can hope to achieve, i.e. winning, an increasing incidence of such extreme but unsettlingly familiar behaviour, is what you get.

While not every athlete emulates the above mentioned behavioural excesses the media so loves to report, every day in training arenas around the country, ‘lesser’ examples of the same paradigm are evident: Tantrums, verbal abuse, feelings of failure and worthlessness, uncontrolled emotions, poor sportsmanship, anxiety, unrealistic expectations, overtraining, unnecessary injuries. If these common, almost universal responses represent an accepted and significant aspect of an athlete striving to win, what gain is there for the human being that is involved? How often do coaches have the knowledge, time or inclination to actually deal with individuals experiencing these symptoms in a perspective beyond the immediate context of the sport? How often is the consideration made that what should be OK for an athlete to handle, may actually be totally unreasonable and undoable for the person behind the athlete?

The products of the above obsessive experiences cannot provide anything of real value to a thinking, aware society unless those experiences are dealt with in terms of the wider society, and not just within the insular confines of the sport. Unless life itself is about winning and how to do it, many athletes will learn very little that is valid outside of sport if that is what they make their lives to be.

As the price to become an ‘athlete’ is made clear to aspiring youngsters, we need to take a look at the real cost to “human beings” of maintaining our present sporting philosophy.

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