Friday, June 7, 2013

Athletics and Self Discovery

“Who Am I?”

This classic question haunts modern western individuals. I think many persons find athletics offers a moral and psychological field of endeavor that helps an individual discover and create self-understanding. I recently went to the graduation ceremony for our student athletes and listened to them talk about the tough journey they travelled as athletes but also as individuals trying to grow beyond a primary identity as an athlete into a richer sense of themselves and their future possibilities.

The paradox of athletics is that it rewards youth and most of the greatest accomplishments occur in your teens and early twenties. The vast majority of even professional athletic careers end by age 25. I often wonder about how being an athlete can contribute to that growth of strong individuals and not become a trap that defines a person too early, gains their greatest successes at a young age and leaves the rest of their life as an ex-athlete like those characters in early Bruce Springsteen songs.

In a  class a student of mine, a student named Mindy Reger, wrote a very suggestive essay on how playing sports at any level can engage a person in a way that challenges them to discover whom they are and express their selfhood. This insight makes a lot of sense to me when we remember that most of us do not discover who we are in our heads but in our actions.

Have you ever had the experience where you surprised yourself when you acted? Maybe you disappointed yourself? Maybe you thought, “I didn’t know I could do that!” “I didn’t know I was capable of that!” Indeed, this need not always be a good self-revelation about how we really act under stress or in face of daily challenges. We can be surprised by good or bad, appalled or proud of ourselves, but we face the reality of how we acted. Actions reveal and create our selfhood.

Being an athlete involves a fundamental human feature—goal seeking. All humans seek goals and achieving a goal requires certain character attributes and skills be mastered. So the self-discovery of being an athlete can transfer to many dimensions of life.

Athletes first discover their capacity for tenacity or will power. It takes hard work, time and focus to master athletic skills. Talent guarantees little beyond an affinity for the skills required by the game and will carry an athlete only up to a certain level of struggle. Players filter out and find different levels of competition. In every area work, commitment and practice can compensate and even overcome lack of raw talent.

Self-discovery matches self-creation. Any goal seeker and athletes experience failure. Learning to hit topspin, do a reverse lay up, dribble with your off-foot take endless efforts and thousands of misses and mistakes. At this critical point a person must decide, “Will I keep practicing?” “Will I ask for help/” Even when discouraged or after they have loudly sworn to themselves and anyone who will listen “I will never play this stupid game again,” an individual can decide two days later to take on the challenge, make more mistakes, experience failure and then practice again and again.

This practice, character and skill expression plays out when a player learns to “earn” their success. Like in any area of life, athletes can take the easy quick way or the long hard way to mastery. Athletes learn this about themselves, and more than a few choose the easy way, get so far, and fail. At that point a person can quit or learn to commit to the long hard way, very much like real people mastering a life. They discover or decide if they can endure amid challenges, failures and at some point others competing with and against them.  Succeeding in athletic goals demands hard work, focus and learning.

Being a competitive athlete, not an elite athlete, but just one who hangs in there and plays and competes effectively with others, calls for self confidence and the ability to stick up for yourself. Being shy won’t work; being tentative won’t work; being a fearful won’t work. Stepping onto the field or pool or court braces a person even when they are terrified of failure or success. But on that ground, a person learns to act as if he or she is confident because they and their teammates depend upon standing a teammate standing up for themselves and for the team.

Our actions reveal ourselves to ourselves. We prove ourselves to ourselves, not just to others.

Finally a person expresses and creates a self in the arena of athletic endeavor when they reveal to themselves whether they will cheat or not. Every athlete seeks to master a goal, and most of the time this means winning. Sports depends upon complex rules, and sportsmanship means competing within the rules. Yet everyone who wants to win will be tempted to cheat, to take the easy way. Not only will they be tempted to take shortcuts in practice and training, but a person who happens to be an athlete will discover if they have the courage and discipline not to cheat, to play fair, not to descend to the level of those who do cheat.

I am not seeking to idealize athletics or athletes, but I think Mindy correctly identified a moral possibility for persons who compete as athletes. No guarantees, but persons can learn about and help create their selfhood in sports. That is not a bad thing.

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