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Ancient Stoicism for Modern Athletes

On the surface, using the ancient Greek and Roman philosophy of Stoicism for modern day athletes seems to offer up a mismatch. How do the writings and thoughts of Epictetus, Seneca, Cato, and Marcus Aurelius help? What did the Stoics really know about sport and the pressures it brings? How would these deep thinkers and philosophers be able to relate their mindsets to the difficulties and confrontations that the competitive environment throws at you? Would they have been inspiring teachers and role models and transfer their thinking to mental toughness in the sporting arena?


I argue that using this ancient Stoic thinking in the modern-day world of sport is as relevant now as it ever was. Read on to find out how you should look to study, use, and cultivate the ways and thinking of the ancient Stoics to convert their knowledge into your own sporting performances to make you resilient and mentally tough.


The Stoics strove for steadiness, stability, and tranquillity – traits which athletes aspire to achieve but only tend to access fleetingly. If you can cultivate steadiness, stability, and tranquillity in your mind whilst competing you will heighten the surface area for playing at your best and getting closer to achieving that elusive Zone or Flow state.


How did the Stoics go about achieving this state? How can we look to do the same?


One of the biggest cornerstones of the Stoic philosophy is understanding what we control and what we do not control. And when you break it right down, the only thing you really have 100% control over is your MIND. In particular your response to any given situation or stimulus.


You are not going to stop initial thoughts and reactions to your environment, but, the true power lies in finding the space, being ability to pause, and then in that space, knowing that a choice can be made.


"Between stimulus and response there is a space. And in that space man has the ability to choose."-Victor Frankl

Everything else is outside of your control. Your opponent, their decisions, the referee, the conditions. Can you filter your experiences, the outside world, through the straightener of your judgement? If you want to be steady, if you want clarity, judgement is the best way.


An analogy to help this is to imagine having two containers. In one container place all the things that are NOT under your control. You will find this container needs to be quite large to accommodate all that is not under your control. In the second container place all the things that ARE under your control. Your thoughts, your attitude, your effort, your judgements, your rational thinking, your response to the situation.


“We don’t control what happens, we control how we respond” – Marcus Aurelius

Now you need to put a lid on the first container, the uncontrollables, and forget about it. Discard it in any way possible. Do what you need to do to eliminate container one. It serves no purpose. There is no need to waste any time or energy on the things in this container, but rather, focus on the second container, the controllable container. If you can keep aware and constantly remind yourself of container two, you will help yourself in ways you never thought possible before.


Serenity and stability are the results of your choices and judgements…if you seek to avoid the harmful and disruptive judgments that cause these problems, then you will be stable and steady wherever you happen to be” – Ryan Holiday

Stoicism has been embraced by professional athletes and sporting teams in the NFL, NBA, and the English Premiere League for several years now. The Stoic philosophers drew constant parallels between the athlete and the philosopher, claiming that body and mind are one, and that mental dispositions are crucial for performance. The healthy mind resembles the healthy body—it’s strong, resilient, compact, agile, proportionate, and functional.


Are you treating and cultivating your mind the same you would do your body?


Practicing and cultivating Stoicism teaches you to stand ready and firm and to meet sudden and unexpected obstacles. This is what we see and is reflected in the top athletes out there. Rarely do athletes play the perfect game and attain that mystical flow state every time they step into their arena. They are all wanting and working to achieve this state of course, but often it’s about who is better able to handle difficulties and setbacks. The athlete that can do this very often comes out the victor. And if not today, then a day in the near future.


“Stoicism as a philosophy is really about the mental game. It’s not a set of ethics or principles. It’s a collection of spiritual exercises designed to help people through the difficulty of life. To focus on managing emotion; specifically, non-helpful emotion.” – Ryan Holiday

What follows are 23 ways that you can use Stoicism to achieve the optimal state of mental performance in your sporting endeavours. If done with attention to detail and over the course of time, you will build strong and sustainable mental habits that lend themselves to you achieving high levels of consistency in your performances. And along the way you are likely to find thrill and enjoyment from the process. A state that often gets lost and forgotten when sport becomes just yet another serious endeavour.


So, buckle up, and join me on a deep journey into this way of thinking and perspective for sport and life. You may need to break this reading down into several stages to fully absorb all the powerful lessons that lie ahead of you. But it will be worth it!



1. PREPARE FOR ADVERSITY



“We must undergo a hard winters training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared” – Epictetus

What Epictetus is referring to in the above quote is that soldiers in the armies used to train and run manoeuvres in the wintertime when the war had paused and there were no battles to fight. They were training so they were prepared when the battle did come to them.


That’s what practice is, that’s what training is. It’s all about preparing for that big day. Have you put in the hours? Have you put in the reps? Have you prepared for this exact circumstance? Because the one who has done that is the one who will win!



2. RUN YOUR OWN RACE


You have to run your own race!


Seneca uses the Latin word EUTHYMIA which translate to;


Believing in yourself and trusting that you are on the right path, and not being in doubt by following the myriad footpaths of those wondering in every direction.”

This is about knowing and having a sense of the path that you are on and not being distracted or mislead by the paths that crisscross you.


Everyone is going to be on their own journey. Everyone is going to have their own limits, and their own potentials. Think about it less as being in competition with someone else, but rather being in competition with yourself.


You should try not care about what anyone else is doing, but rather care about what you are doing. And not to get distracted by their words, beliefs, actions, and behaviours.



3. DEVELOP A ROUTINE


“Life without design is erratic” – Seneca

By developing a routine, you are reducing the number of variables in your life. This is a key part of performance. You want to keep things contained. You want to keep chaos and disorder away. You want to get away from erraticness and get towards purposefulness, and get towards clarity.


Mental toughness is clarity. And equally so, clarity is mental toughness. They both feed, fuel, and signpost to each other.


This is why athletes have set routines for practices, as well as rituals for matches. Even superstitions. This is a way of reenforcing structure and control.


Think about areas of your life that are erratic and without design and focus now on creating structure. You will see improvements in your performance as a result.



4. BE IN CHARGE OF YOURSELF


“Treat the body rigorously so it is not disobedient to the mind – Seneca

When you are training, when you are pushing yourself, when you are eating healthy and getting appropriate rest and sleep. This is your reminding the body who is in charge. It’s your mind asserting itself over the body.


The mental practice, the mental resilience of being in charge of yourself is the ultimate muscle to try and cultivate. And it’s the thing that every great athlete has to have.



5. REMEMBER YOU WILL DIE


When the Stoics talk about memento mori, that life is short, it’s not that you can go at any moment, which you can, it’s also about the things you love, the things you care about, the things you are doing; you are NOT in control of them. You don’t control when they begin or end. They can go and be taken from you at any moment.


The reason the Stoics talk about being present. About not taking things for granted. Not deferring things into the future, it’s for that reason. Because you don’t know when your career is going to end, you don’t know when your knee is going to blow out, you don’t know how long you get to do things. And to take them for granted, to assume they will always be there, to not give your best, is arrogant, it’s reckless, it’s selfish, and it’s short sighted.


“You could leave life right now, let that determine what you do, and say, and think – Marcus Aurelius


6. FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CONTROL


The most important exercise in all of Stoic philosophy is the dichotomy of control. There is some stuff that is up to us, and some stuff that is not.


“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Well then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that on my own… – Epictetus

As an athlete all you control is how you play, what you put in. You don’t control the response of your opponent. You don’t control the referee, you don’t control the weather, or the conditions, or the crowd. You don’t control anything but your own effort.


If you trust in the process the score takes care of itself. Maybe not in an individual match, but over the course of a season or several years. The score takes care of itself but only if you first take care of what only YOU can take of.



7. EMBRACE OBSTACLES


When you encounter difficulties and obstacles in life, which is going to happen, you should see this as a good thing. Life is pairing you with a strong sparring partner. And the purpose of a strong sparring partner is to help you level up, to help you hone the skills you need in the match, to help you be flexible, and adaptable to deal with conflict.


The idea is to not run away from these difficulties and obstacle but rather to embrace them.


“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. – Marcus Aurelius

So don’t think that the obstacle is hard, and difficult, and that you want to change it. It is helping you and teaching you something. And if you have this attitude, you are unstoppable. Because all the things that are happening are making you better, making you stronger, preparing you, teaching you, warning you, and that is what you want!


“What you throw on top of the fire becomes fuel for the fire” – Marcus Aurelius



8. ALWAYS GIVE YOUR BEST


Are there practices where you have coasted? Are there matches where you have gone through the motions? Your body may have been there, but your mind was not. Physically trying in every play but without mentally engaging is a weakness and an easy way out.


Trying is running around, chasing down balls, getting your reps in, and making it look like you are putting in your best. But EFFORT is where it needs to be. Effort is where the body AND the mind are in the same place at the same time.


Whatever level you are at as an athlete, the question is, are you giving your best? Not just in body, but in mind. Are you being intentional and holding yourself accountable to these intentions? Not just for a moment, but for the entirety of the practice session or match.



9. PLAN FOR THE WORST


A big part of success is positive visualisation, if you can’t see it happening, it's unlikely that it’s going to happen. The Stoics would pair this positive visualisation with a negative visualisation. A term for this is premeditatio malorum, a pre-meditation of evils. Basically, an understanding that things can go wrong.


How are you going to respond to that? Are you prepared to respond to it? Are you going to get rattled?


“The unexpected blow lands heaviest.” – Seneca

Life is unpredictable, stuff is going to go wrong. Can you foresee the worst in order to perform the best? You have to imagine for that, you have to prepare for that. You have to have a plan and a response to what you are going to do if the worst happens.



10. DON’T PUT IT OFF


“How much longer are you going to wait to demand the best for yourself? – Epictetus

The Stoics say you should not wait, you should not put it off, you should not be thinking about it tomorrow. You have got to do it now. Are you just simply getting ready and putting it off, rather than doing it now?


Procrastination is the enemy of progress.


Procrastination is the enemy of the present moment.


Procrastination is the enemy of doing your best.


Don’t put stuff off. Don’t say I’m going to work out later. Don’t delay your actions. Do it now.


“You could be good today but instead you choose tomorrow... – Marcus Aurelius


11. BE BETTER THAN YESTERDAY


Humans want to see transformation, to see immediate results, to get where we want to get to now. But the Stoics say no, it’s about gradual progress.


“We assemble our life action by action – Marcus Aurelius

Be better than yesterday, it may not sound like much, but it adds up and compounds over time. Being a step further than you were yesterday, being 1% further along the path. Incrementally it does not sound like much, but cumulatively it is enormous. And it’s how you get from where you are now to who you want to be and what you are capable of being. Step by step, action by action, better than yesterday.




12. PLAN AHEAD


Everyone wants to succeed, but very few are willing to undertake the preparation and effort required. Therefore, you need to begin by asking yourself if this is what you really want, and if your motivation is strong enough to get you where you want to go? Habit and behaviour setting is a tool to be used to plan and to reach your goals.


“It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.” – Seneca


13. ASSESS YOURSELF


You need to become self-aware and “Know thynself.” With a low level of self-awareness, you will have very little hope of dealing with setbacks and difficulties along the way.


Marcus Aurelius would write:


“These are the characteristics of the rational soul: self-awareness, self-examination, and self-determination. It reaps its own harvest. . . . It succeeds in its own purpose . . .”

Therefore, first, you must look inward. Next, you must examine yourself critically. Finally, you must make your own decisions— uninhibited by biases or popular notions.


Also, as Cicero makes clear:


“It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment.


14. FULLY COMMIT AND SET YOUR STANDARDS


You should think through things you need in order to fully commit. Otherwise, you will be like a child ‘play-acting’ a role and pretending. Sometimes being an actor, sometimes a solider, sometimes a musician, and sometimes an athlete. A half-hearted spirit has no power.


Tentative efforts lead to tentative outcomes.


You also need to clearly set the standards for yourself. Are you setting them too high or too low? Are you observing them? Are you reflecting on them and your actions?


“When the standards have been set, things are tested and weighed. And the work of philosophy is just this, to examine and uphold the standards, but the work of a truly good person is in using those standards when they know them.” – Epictetus


15. ACCEPT THE SACRIFICES


With full commitment and wanting to achieve anything that is difficult comes sacrifices. This is part and parcel of competitive sport and needs to be embraced as an athlete.


As an athlete, you need to get your head down and not grumble. You need to focus on what is within your control and shut out the rest. You will need to have to overcome many unhealthy cravings and knee-jerk reactions. Epictetus muses:


“We must undergo a hard winter training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared.


16. SET YOUR DISCIPLINE IN STONE


The importance of enthusiasm in the pursuit of success should not be underestimated. But as Epictetus reminds us, a true athlete requires a firmer foundation.


“We’ve all known people who, like monkeys, mimic whatever seems novel and flashy at the moment. But then their enthusiasm and efforts wane; they drop their projects as soon as they become too familiar or too demanding.

It takes great patience and perseverance to fully develop one’s natural talents. Without discipline and continuous practice your bursts of inspiration will come to nothing.


Constantly remind yourself of the line from Publius Syrus:


“Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself!

Be disciplined and take control over your impulses and poor instincts. Direct your actions to what you aim to accomplish and settle for nothing less.



17. HAVE NO EXCUSES


Look at this note that the most powerful man in the world wrote to himself at one point in his own private diary: “It is possible to curb your arrogance, to overcome pleasure and pain, to rise above your ambition, and to not be angry with stupid and ungrateful peopleyes, even to care for them.


This of course was Marcus Aurelius and essentially, he was calling himself out on his excuses.


As an athlete, you need to adopt a similar attitude. No more excuses.


Have you said any of these? “I was just born this way.” “I never learned anything different.” “My parents set a terrible example.” “Everyone else does it.”


What are these? Excuses that people use to justify staying as they are instead of striving to become better.


How do you think the great athletes became who they are? They worked on it. They didn’t make excuses. Just like you can.



18. PRACTICE DIFFICULTY ON PURPOSE


The famous Stoic Cato had enough money to dress in fine clothing. Yet he often walked around Rome barefoot, indifferent to assumptions people made about him as he passed. Why not indulge in some easy relief?


Because Cato was training to be strong and resilient. Specifically, he was learning indifference: an attitude of “let come what may” that would serve him well in the trenches with the army, in the Forum and the Senate, and in his life as a father and statesman.

His training prepared him for any conditions, any kind of luck.


As an athlete, this needs to become a way of life for you. It doesn’t mean that you do not recover, that you do not get your 8+ hours of sleep, but you need to be always proactively making yourself stronger.


Today, at the very least, take a cold shower. Practice being in pain—it is the only way to strength and resilience.



19. EMBRACE THE CHALLENGES


To improve and excel the athlete will embrace challenges and seek advantage from adversity. By overcoming injustices, provocations, and bad luck he will become stronger and more resourceful. For this reason, Epictetus encourages us to welcome difficulties:


“It is circumstances which show what men are. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young opponent. For what purpose? you may say. Why, that you may become an Olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat. In my opinion no man has had a more profitable difficulty than you have had, if you choose to make use of it as an athlete would deal with a young antagonist.”

Easy victories and fortunate outcomes are of little value. Instead, seek out worthy opponents and measure yourself against them.


Seneca would write:


“A gladiator deems it a disgrace to be matched with an inferior, and knows that to win without danger is to win without glory.

Or as Marcus Aurelius says:


“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.


20. TRAIN YOUR INSTINCTS


An athlete’s instincts are not always intuitive. They are trained with a certain end in mind. Whereas the normal person instinctively will raise his hands to protect himself against two onrushing 250 lbs linebackers, the wide receiver’s trained instinct is to snatch the ball from the air and hold on to it, taking the hit. His reaction is counterintuitive and shaped by the game, by his training and his desire to win.


Epictetus makes a wider, philosophical point to the same effect: