Sport as a Metaphor for Life

Last weekend England beat India at cricket in the first of a best-of-five test match series and Jannik Sinner, of Italy, came back from two sets to love down to defeat Danil Medvedev, of Russia, at tennis, in five sets in the final of the Australian Open. It was a fantastic weekend of sport.

But sport isn’t just about winning, it can also teach us some important lessons in life.

To some, sport may seem to be pointless, but it is big business and for many athletes, winning is everything, but focussing solely on victory is to miss some of sports’ inherent beauty and life lessons. We can learn a lot from sport and its practitioners. 

Thanks to the mobile phone, we now live, for the first time in history, in an era where we never have to be bored, but it is leading to unprecedented levels of burnout. 

John Kirwan was an All Black rugby legend, knighted for services to mental health, and he has a striking analogy:” What do you do when your computer starts playing up? Turn it off and turn it on again – 99% of the time that works. We need to do the same thing with our brains.” Kirwan is an ‘active relaxer’. He reads, walks and plays the guitar. Whatever it is, find ways to power your brain down that don’t involve scrolling.

In 2016, Team GB won the women’s hockey gold at the Beijing Olympics. The coach was Danny Kerry, who worked hard on his emotional intelligence (EQ as opposed to IQ) over the course of his career. EQ is about understanding what you’re feeling and being able to manage yourself, as well as being able to read and empathise with others, and then influence them for the better. So Danny Kerry worked up an EQ shortcut question list: “Where am I? Where do I need to be? Where are they? Where do they need to be?” In Beijing, if he was grumpy, he might delegate a meeting if he felt the players needed lifting. At home, if he feels tired after a hard day of work, but his children need him to be engaged and playful, he consciously lifts his state to give them the dad they need.

Albert Ellis is a psychologist with a snappy turn of phrase. He claimed that a vast amount of psychological suffering was created by believing illusory ‘musts’, such as; “I must do well.” There is nothing wrong with wanting to do well, but that’s different from demanding it must happen. Former England football manager Roy Hodgson said, “One of the phrases I hate is, ‘This is a must-win game.’ So, if the opposition is winning 2-0 and there are 10 minutes to go, does it mean I’ve got to get a machine gun out and shoot them?” A way to avoid falling into the ‘musterbation’ trap, is to watch your language. Phrases like “I must” and “I should” only increase pressure, which paradoxically reduces the chance of achieving the outcome you want. Stick with “I want” or “I would like”.

Stanford professor, Carol Dweck, coined the term, ’growth mindset’, suggesting that believing your abilities were malleable could have a massive impact on achievement, while having a ‘fixed mindset’ did the opposite. In a Ted Talk, Dweck claimed people can be triggered into developing a growth mindset through simple interventions, like praising hard work and effort, rather than talent or intelligence. The problem is that researchers who tried to replicate the two core research papers, which have been cited thousands of times, found no such correlation. “Praising wisely,” they said, had no effect. Perhaps it’s better to take action, regardless of what the voice in your head happens to be saying.

Everyone has unwanted thoughts from, “I’m going to mess this presentation up” to “What if I hit a double fault?” But thoughts aren’t facts, and an important recognition is that we are not our thoughts – we are aware of our thoughts. So, when an unhelpful thought pops up, rather than identifying with it or resisting it, notice it and then add: “I am aware of the thought that… I am going to mess this up.” This creates space between you and the thought. Then bring yourself back to the present, perhaps by noticing the sounds you can hear. This is a core pillar of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which England cricketer, Sir Alastair Cook, used ahead of his career-defining Ashes series in Australia in 2011.

Dr Guy Meadows, is a former ultrarunner and sleep specialist, who has taught elite athletes how to maximise their potential. He says that we all create a conceptual identity by referring to what has happened to us in the past, our hopes for the future as well as our beliefs, values and opinions. This becomes the ‘story of me’ we use to navigate the social world. This ‘aware mind’ exists prior to thoughts and feelings, just as the sky exists prior to the weather. And just like the sky, the aware mind is at peace with whatever weather (thoughts and feelings) appears within it. If we can recognise that we are not just the ‘narrative self’, created by thoughts of past and future, but are also the aware mind in which the thoughts that create the ‘story of me’ appear, then we can drop back into that calm, peaceful place that exists prior to whatever we are experiencing, whenever we choose, irrespective of outer circumstances.

Often we think that fulfilment lies in the future – when we meet the right person or get the promotion or the big job. The problem is, that it doesn’t tend to work that way. The number of people who have scaled the highest heights in the world of sport, only to be left with a sense of deep dissatisfaction, is vast. Perhaps it is better to recognise that the future never arrives and seeking happiness there is futile. It is always now, and we can strive to do our best in this moment, the only moment there ever actually is.

The day after Jonny Wilkinson kicked the winning drop goal to win the Rugby World Cup, in 2003, he felt empty. However, in the moment of kicking the winning drop goal, he experienced a transcendence. His sense of self disappeared. “It wasn’t ‘me’ kicking it, it was a knowing of it,” he said. This is a common phenomenon experienced by sports stars. If that sense of ‘me’ can disappear, just how real can it be? Winning is frequently underwhelming, but the experience of flow is intrinsically enjoyable. As thoughts of the past and future disappear along with our conceptual sense of self, we are joyful and perform at our best. While we think we want to become a special ‘somebody’, we are actually most content when we experience being ‘nobody’. Through sport, conversation, reading – there are many portals  – we are happiest when we lose ourselves in the moment, not when we seek to aggrandise our sense of self through ‘winning’.


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We will fight for a world where everyone feels safe, valued, able to grow, and be inspired by their role and the organisation that they work for. And that starts with us…