Monday, March 2, 2009

Ancient Wisdom for Sport Psychology

Ancient Wisdom for Sport Psychology
By Dr. Randy Borum
(First Published in Black Belt Magazine, March, 2009)

What could a bunch of old guys hanging out on a porch more than two thousand years ago say that would be relevant for today’s martial artists and competitive fighters? Quite a bit actually. Around 300 BC in Athens-during the Hellenistic period., Stoicism emerged as a popular philosophical movement

Philosophers in ancient Greece tackled big questions about the nature of life, being, and morality, but they also sought to apply their principles and theories to practical problems. The Stoics, for example, focused on understanding happiness in living. That issue is certainly relevant today. But some of its core teachings parallel many modern concepts in performance psychology.

Keep in mind Stoic philosophy was highly influential among the Spartan warriors and their leadership and in structuring the training at the agogae. Spartan warriors certainly seemed to know something about mental toughness. No one is calling for a full-scale return to the ancient Spartan lifestyle. Nor am I suggesting you need to change your life philosophy. But consider the modern relevance of these old-school ideas

First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do. – Epictetus

Stoics were big into logic, reason, and planning. This quote is only one of many references to the importance of setting goals and moving purposefully toward them. The assertion to “do what you have to do” reflects their “no whining” orientation. Keeping your goals in mind will motivate you to push through adversity. Complaining when things get tough will not help your training. You must take responsibility for your goals and for doing what you have to do to attain them.

Your life is what your thoughts make it. -Marcus Aurelius

Thoughts control the climate of the mind. They also affect how we feel emotionally and physically. We can choose which thoughts will populate our minds. We should choose thoughts that are positive and that facilitate our best performance. If you occupy your mind with doubts, limitations and physical discomfort, you give those thoughts power and make them stronger. Unless you are being proactive and directing your thinking, your brain will likely default to something negative. Focusing on negative thoughts, feelings, and sensations makes them worse. Confident thougths and fortitude can help give you a much needed boost.

People are not disturbed by things, but by the view which they take of them. It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. – Epictetus

How we think about things often matters as much as what we choose to think about. Sure, bad things happen. We can reasonably react with sadness or disappointment. But disappointment doesn’t have to lead to devastation. A loss can lead to an opportunity. If you feel jitters, you can interpret them as a sign of anxiety or as feeling energized. We have the potential to control our reactions and attribution and those often affect our happiness and performance more than events themselves.

You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength. - Marcus Aurelius

Part of the wisdom of focusing on our attributions rather than events is that our attributions and interpretations are under our control. One of the cardinal rules for managing sport anxiety is to focus on what you control. If you compete, you will do better to focus on your performance than on the outcome. Many things can shape the outcome of a fight or competition, but if you prepare yourself and perform to your potential then you have succeeded in moving closer to your goals. How did Stoics think people should handle negative events beyond their control? Acceptance.

To be everywhere is to be nowhere. – Seneca

If you’re competing in martial arts, it’s important to keep your head in the game. You need to keep your focus. That means learning to manage distractions and fixing your attention on your performance and your goals. Losing focus is one the greatest sources of error in competition. Staying focused in the present is most likely to keep you in your zone of optimal performance. Marcus Aurelius said: Confine yourself to the present. Never let the future disturb you.

Control thy passions lest they take vengeance on thee. – Epictetus

Stoics are sometimes misunderstood as being unemotional. Not true. They firmly believed, however, people should control – not be controlled by – their emotions. This is true for competition as well. Stoics warned against destructive emotions like fear, hate , and envy and any consuming, uncontrollable passion. Negative passions were likened to running down a hill and not being able to stop. They cause bad impulses and bad judgments, which make you feel emotionally unsettled. The Stoics instead sought inner calm and peace. They strove to be unimpassioned, not unemotional. Self-control and mental toughness were virtues that led to a balanced and rational approach to life.

As you reflect on your modern dilemmas and seek to excel in your chosen sport or discipline, consider how the wisdom of ancient Stoic philosophers might apply today.