2020 may have been the final year that the age-old trope of ‘stick to playing sports’ had any power against athletes who try to make an impact outside of their sporting bubble – thanks, in large part, to a huge swathe of athletes speaking out in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, but also to the principles and incredible conviction of then 23 year-old Manchester United and England footballer, Marcus Rashford. Rashford almost single-handedly forced the UK government into not one but two high profile and embarrassing policy U-turns involving the provision of free meals to the country’s poorest and most vulnerable school children.
We know definitively that the most effective way to create a sense of meaning in life is to transcend your own ego and to be of service to others, the natural world or to the planet itself. In the words of the late Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg - “To make life a little better for people less fortunate than you, that’s what I think a meaningful life is. One lives not just for oneself but for one’s community”.
To create meaning in sport you will also need to connect your journey to something greater, something other than just yourself and your own personal gain.
Owen Eastwood, a performance coach who has worked with some of the world’s top Olympic and professional sports teams, wrote the stirring book, ‘Belonging’. In the book Eastwood elaborates on the approach he takes with each team he works with, which involves harnessing the wisdom of our ancient ancestors, and notably his own Māori ancestors, and learning from how they built powerful, cohesive tribes. Being connected to something greater than ourselves represents a central tenet of the Māori culture, described so engagingly by Eastwood through the concept of Whakapapa – “Each of us are part of an unbreakable chain of people going back and forward in time. Back to our first ancestor at the beginning of time and into the future to the end of time…We share a purpose with them. We share a vision for the future. We fit in here…Whakapapa points a finger at us and tells us, You will not be judged by your money or celebrity or sense of self-pride… You will be judged by what you did for the tribe.”
This story of Italian bobsled legend, Eugenio Monti, epitomises this ability to think beyond one’s own personal gain for something far greater. In the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, Monti and his partner were among the favourites in the two-man event. During the competition they were leading their major rivals, the British team of Tony Nash and Robin Dixon, when the British duo broke one of their axle bolts, effectively ruling them out of the event. However, upon hearing this, Monti told the beleaguered Brits that if they could get someone to the bottom of the hill to meet him after his final run, they could have his bolt. After a mad dash by one of the British team engineers, the switch was made successfully, and the British team ended up beating Monti and his partner to win the gold medal. The Italian was a passionate and formidable competitor, but also recognised that victory without honour is not worth all that much. He went on to win both the two- and four-man events at the following winter Olympics, was awarded the first ever Pierre de Coubertin medal for fair play, and the organiser of the Turin winter Olympics named the bobsled track after him.
There are many Olympic and World champions who feel a deep sense of anti-climax once they get over the short-lived euphoria of their peak success because they were expecting to finally feel fulfilled. But the result in itself changes nothing about who they are or the relationships that truly matter to them. Medals and trophies lose their shine, sometimes far quicker than we would imagine. They should not and indeed cannot, be the vessel for our hopes and dreams of fulfilment and self-actualisation.
Sport is a unique training ground for personal growth and provides the context for displays of the most soaring aspects of the human spirit. Those people who stick with sport up through the levels and test themselves against teammates, opponents and nature, can give themselves an incredible foundation, both personal and outward-facing, to be great social change-makers.
But even the young competitive athlete can make a positive impact as a friend and leader with their teammates or as a role model to the youngest in their club, if they choose to embrace those aspects of responsibility. The True Athlete Project mentoring programme matches Olympic, Paralympic and elite athlete mentors with aspiring young athlete mentees. They go through a year-long journey of exploration together where the mentee is also encouraged to work on a project to help make a difference to others and their community. My own mentee in the programme, Souleyman, at the time a 19 year-old blind sprinter from the UK, inspired young kids by visiting over 100 primary schools to talk about being a visually-impaired athlete with big ambitions. Another mentee, British fencer Sophia, introduced the mindfulness she had learned to the younger groups at her fencing club. Another, Leo, a basketball player, took on a campaign to petition his local council in Edinburgh to renovate the dilapidated public basketball courts.
Consider the fact that athletes have great potential to make a positive impact in their community and in the world. Combine that with the fact that this type of service mindset leads to the greatest sense of meaning and fulfilment in life. Recognition of these two facts could provide the necessary impetus to athletes of all ages to look up from the bubble of their personal sporting experience. To connect their journey with something greater, some way of giving back that will make a positive difference, however big or small.
In the words of the tennis legend as well as civil and human rights activist, Arthur Ashe, “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”
If we are to create a better world for future generations, then we each must take some degree of personal responsibility. To play our part. In sport we must recognise the unique conditions and communities that make it possible to lead the way towards this better future.
You can read the first part of this blog on what truly matters in sport here.