The rational pursuit of excellence

The Olympics has been postponed, many sporting seasons have finished early, and athletes across the country, and the world, are in a confusing and unprecedented situation.

We know that what athletes are facing is uncertain, uncontrollable, and scary. Many people appreciate what athletes sacrificed to the pursuit of excellence, in the name of entertainment, patriotism, and the advancement of human potential.

We know that many athletes embody the most virtuous of human ideals – voluntarily taking on the unknown in the spirit of human competition, and bearing the heavy burden of the hopes and expectations of their communities (be it local, or national).

We know that tirelessly pursuing goals can sometimes consume athletes, and that their passion for constant improvement can sometimes lead to them giving too much of themselves to sport, at the expense of their wellbeing. We also know that, just like all of us, they’re not perfect or invincible, and therefore we recognise that they may be suffering, as many of us are. 

In this time of uncertainty, it is possible for athletes take some perspective on what it is to be an athlete, and to take the opportunity to realign or reaffirm their vision of who they are and who they want to become. It is for this purpose that I offer the below credo.

A credo is a statement of beliefs which guide a person’s actions, and the below credo has been developed especially for athletes. We know that athletes face constant pressure and adversity, and that current events can’t have been easy. So, it is hoped that the credo resonates with athletes, and gives them an opportunity to develop some balanced, rational, and helpful ways of approaching their sport from this point forth.

Some aspects of the credo might be contrary to how athletes currently think, and that’s fine. The content of this credo is in line with much research evidence, and is geared towards wellbeing. The content reflects rationality, logic, and balance. The credo is not ‘positive thinking’ and it is not a ‘kick up the backside’. It is a philosophical viewpoint on some of the realities of being a human being. 

As with many things that athletes are presented with, they can select parts that work for them and focus on those as they move into the future.

The credo is written in the first person, to better help athletes internalise the content, if that is their desire.

Athlete Rational Credo

As an athlete and a human being I have many desires or “wants”. Some of these desires are very strong as I am driven to be the best athlete I can possibly be. However, I recognize that no matter how strong my desires are this does not mean that I “have to” or “must” have my desires met. I may want to be successful, perform consistently, be secure in my team, and keep developing my skills, but I know that these desires do not “have to” be met. I accept that from time to time my desires will not be met. It’s OK that I feel upset and disappointed when my desires are not met, as this shows that I care about my sport and my achievement within it. My upset feelings are normal, and they can motivate me to work hard towards my desires, knowing full well that demanding that these desires are met is rigid, nonsensical, and fruitless. Not having my wants met provides me with opportunities to grow as a person, fully accepting that unfavorable events are valuable even though they lead to negative feelings. 

I recognize that when my desires are not met, I fail, face setbacks, this is bad and unfortunate but not terrible or the end of the world. No matter how bad it is to not have my desires met, I know that worse things could and have happened to me, none of which are truly awful. It is bad not to be successful, not to perform consistently, not be secure in my team, and not to keep developing my skills, but I know that none of this is truly awful. Further, if I am not given opportunities, this certainly is not the end of the world. Even though I might feel upset and my goal attainment may be hindered, I can distinguish inconvenience from catastrophe. I accept that bad things will happen, and that’s OK as this provides me with valuable opportunities to grow as a person.

Not having my desires met is very tough and difficult to tolerate. But I know I can tolerate this, because not getting what I want will not kill me or cause so much pain that I disintegrate. Even if my strongest desires are not met it is not unbearable. To not be successful, to not perform consistently, to not be secure in my team, and to not keep developing my skills, is very hard but I know that I can certainly stand this. Although I may feel frustrated and upset and my goal attainment may be hindered, I know that I have the capacity to tolerate failure, setbacks, and being let down. Importantly, I accept that facing tough situations that do not meet my desires is OK as this provides me with valuable opportunities to grow as a person. Ultimately, being able to tolerate adversity is worthwhile because of the strength it gives me to face future adversity. However, just because I can tolerate adversity, it does not mean that I will tolerate it. I can pick my battles, and I if I know something is wrong, I can protest and remonstrate.

If I fail to reach a goal, or if I face an obstacle, I recognize that this is bad, but it says nothing about me as a person. I know that failing does not make me a failure, that stumbling on the way to a goal does not make me useless, and does not mean I am worthless. Similarly, succeeding does not mean I am a success, a smooth path to my goal does not mean I am perfect, and does not make me a worthy person. I am able to distinguish between my own behavior, and me as a total human being. I am not what I do. I am worthwhile because I am human, not because I am good at sports. When I fall short, it just shows that I am a fallible human being just like all other humans. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, and that’s fine. It’s OK to feel upset when I fail, face setbacks, or am let down. These feelings can motivate me to work on aspects of myself that are hindering me. No matter how bad things are, I realize that sport and life is a mixture of good and bad events, and that the bad events test me and provide valuable opportunities to grow as a person.

By Dr. Martin Turner

This credo is adapted from: Turner, M. J. (2016). Proposing a rational resilience credo for athletes. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 7(3), 170-181. doi: 10.1080/21520704.2016.1236051.

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