The Sword of Damocles

There is a widely held but wildly inaccurate opinion among some practitioners and coaches that rational beliefs somehow damage or reduce motivation or passion for winning. 

Myself and colleagues at Staffordshire University have been delivering REBT workshops to athletes, coaches, support staff, business people, students, academics, teachers, and various other interested parties for the past 6 years. I would say, at nearly every workshop I have delivered there is at least one person in the group that challenges REBT based on a fundamental misconception. Maybe it’s how I deliver it (!), or maybe people perceive REBT how they want to perceive it based on predetermined perceptions, or maybe the philosophy of REBT is a step too far for some people. But there is something about admitting that winning is not a “must”, failure is not the end of the world, and that people can tolerate major adversity, that is unappealing to some stakeholders in sport – as if admitting that failure is not fatal somehow indicates that you don’t care about winning. 

One coach asked: “how can you say failure isn’t terrible? If athletes lose, they might lose their funding, lose their career, and could end up doing a career that they hate.”

So if that happened, the athlete fails, loses funding, ends up not being able to compete again, how can we help the athlete? Help them wallow in self-pity? Tell them it’s awful, terrible, the end of the world? Or do we tell them the truth. You will not die from this failure. Although not being able to compete again is of course extremely bad, and warrants a swathe of negative and intense emotions, you will survive this failure – it will be very tough – but you can tolerate this adversity. 

To suggest that failure is the end of the world is to promote a lie.

But maybe believing that winning and losing is ‘do or die’ is helpful for acute sport performance. Perhaps irrational beliefs provide a focus for athletes on their goals. By using irrational beliefs for performance, maybe it is possible to gain clearer concentration on attaining desired goals. I say “perhaps” because there is no evidence for these assertions. Maybe irrational beliefs trigger additional motivation to achieve. Maybe some athletes are unable to perform to their potential unless they convince themselves that they “have to” succeed and failure would be “a catastrophe.” I don’t believe this. This suggests that some athletes function best when motivated by extreme and rigid beliefs and that it is not enough for them to strongly desire victory. In addition, if we consider self-determination theory, we see that language such as “must” and “should” may be reflective of introjected regulation, which is far removed from the intrinsic motivation we would probably like to see in athletes. In other words, when it comes to motivation its not just about quantity, its also about quality. My argument is that while irrational beliefs may provide extra motivation in the short-term, the quality and sustainability of this motivation is questionable.

I believe that irrational beliefs promote the notion that, to succeed, athletes are to work under the sword of Damocles. 

There can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms”. Cicero said this while reflecting on the story of Damocles and his king Dionysius. Damocles felt that his king was extremely fortunate to be a man of great power surrounded by magnificence. Dionysius, exploiting Damocles’ naivety, offered to switch places with Damocles so that Damocles could experience great power and magnificence for himself. Damocles accepted (as you would). However, rather surreally, Dionysius arranged for a huge sword to hang, suspended with a single horsetail hair, above the throne now occupied by Damocles. Damocles begged the king to switch places back because he realized that fortune came with great danger. Cicero wanted to convey the sense of constant fear in which many people live.

I see the use of irrational beliefs for motivation as very similar to the concept of “The Sword of Damocles”, dangling precariously (and of course metaphorically) above an athlete as they strive for success and then try to enjoy the spoils of high achievement. Therefore, athletes who perform under the belief that losing makes them a complete failure, that losing is awful, may only be able to do so for a limited period of time. At some point, the danger presented by these beliefs is too much. So we see burnout, dropout, ill-being, and worse, mental illness. The links between irrational beliefs and these deleterious factors are well supported in the literature.

It is often assumed that because for athletes competition is highly personally relevant and important, that it is not enough just to “want” to succeed. Only a desperate and extreme demand for success is enough to persuade some that the athlete truly has the will to win. However, since when does demanding something guarantee we get it, or prove that we want it more? Almost never. Success is not a guarantee and demanding it does not make it any more attainable. Indeed, it may make it less attainable, as we know rigid demands can lead to maladaptive behaviours such as avoidance and withdrawal, which rarely translates to fulfilling potential in sport. 

The work I do with some athletes tries to remove the Sword of Damocles from above them by applying REBT to their irrational and often deeply held beliefs. This is not a quick or easy process. But the gains are relevant to both performance and well-being.

I end this Blog with a verse from Sword of Damocles (lyrics by Richard O’Brien) as featured in The Rocky Horror Show, which I think captures some of what I have talked about here:

The sword of Damocles is hanging over my head
And I’ve got the feeling someone’s gonna be cutting the thread
Oh, woe is me, my life is a misery
Oh, can’t you see that I’m at the start of a pretty big downer?

Dr. Martin Turner





Dr. Martin Turner

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