The folly of choosing winning ahead of well-being

Sport can have a higher purpose, other than the pursuit of victory. As athletes, coaches, teams, and organisations embrace honourable behaviour, it is possible for them to transcend mediocrity and the mundane, to achieve something so special, so rewarding, so exultant. Our collective humanity is enhanced as we become the greatest versions of ourselves, not just as competitors but as valuable and valued members of the wider community. Our psyche is transformed, as fulfillment is experienced, satisfaction achieved, and gratitude awoken.

Conversely, if winning is our only objective, we can cheat, embrace nastiness, practise bullying, and aim to oppress or humiliate our opposition, to conquer and feel powerful consequently. But then what? Losing some of our humanity, our decency, our self-respect, as we need to destroy in our efforts to gain. Mental health will be depleted subsequently, ecstatic in victory but depressed later as the hollow achievement is realised.  

In the context of sport performance, it is instructive to examine the motivation of the participants. Some strive to win to feel better, to feel worthy, and can develop a fear of failure accordingly. They play sport to boost their ego, to gain celebrity status, and fame and fortune. Sport becomes work, and performances will often fluctuate, and elite performance may be less forthcoming when the pressure of the biggest moments raises the stress and anxiety stakes. The motivation is too extrinsic. On the other hand, some athletes just love their game, their team-mates and their broader community, so they approach their activities in more balanced and focused ways. Their motivation is predominantly intrinsic.

Interestingly, neuroscience explains that people cannot optimise higher order functioning (awareness, attention, communication, language, memory and learning, etc) if they are (1) in survival mode and/or (2) feel unloved or disconnected from their tribe, family or peers. We do not observe elite and personal best performances, at least not consistently or predictably, when an athlete struggles to engage higher-order processing, at critical stages during an important performance, but is instead distracted by emotional regulation and the management of fear and anxiety. 

Fear is perhaps the most powerful motivation factor of all, as above all else, we need to know about factors that might kill or seriously injure us. Therefore, fear can be used as a tool to manipulate, coerce and pressure individuals to do what others may desire, not necessarily for the individual’s benefit, but to achieve the goals of the other. We see in some sports that coaches pressure athletes to perform and exercise considerable effort by using fear as the controlling or guiding mechanism. The problem is such individuals, and collectively these individuals in teams, may behave in conditioned or directed ways, but will experience anxiety in so doing. When push comes to shove for such athletes, emotions may overwhelm them at critical moments, and performance decrements may occur. Losses may result.

Athletes who love the game and act honourably, guided by leaders who role model and complement such behaviours, are less likely to experience such emotional distress or fluctuations at critical competitive moments. They are too focused on meaningful activity, where their desire to succeed at their moment-to-moment task execution is more productive and effective than their opponent’s efforts to avoid failure and overcome their fears.

Dr Bruce Perry, a giant among the neuroscientists and trauma researchers, refers to the three ascending stages of regulate, relate and reason. We are all captive to our instincts and reflexes, driven by our reptilian primal brain. To rise above primal urges and to achieve higher order processes of reason, we must first feel and be safe. Next, we need to be connected enough via social engagement pathways, being loved, respected and considered worthy of inclusion and belonging. Once our survival and social engagement scaffolding is in place, individuals are liberated to prioritise cognitive (cerebral) processes, and so achieve integrated performances and elite or personal best outcomes.

Through safety and love (connectedness), athletes are enabled to prioritise effort, skill acquisition and optimal execution and collectively work with team-mates, in unison, in synchrony, cohesively and with so much motivation, because it just feels so gratifying to do so. Where there is love, there is loyalty, where there is loyalty there is dedication, and where there is dedication, there can be superlative outcomes. 

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Indeed, when a group becomes open to the flow of a larger intelligence, that group accesses a larger pool of common understanding, which cannot be accessed individually, so the whole organises the parts (Peter Senge).

What joy when cooperation, commitment and shared responsibility subordinate envy, greed, laziness, nastiness and revenge. Be honourable if you want a successful life and enduring friendships. Be otherwise if you only want a pot of gold. The choice is yours, choose wisely.

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