Sport, and the inherent unavoidable suffering it induces, teaches us how to flourish.
The recent Olympic Games, the ensuing NCAA March Madness Tournaments, and all other competitions produce an exorbitant amount of one category of athlete: losers.
All told, the 2022 Winter Olympic Games alone sent home more than 2,000 losers.
Sports and competition itself is a uniquely unforgiving institution. It’s designed so a large majority of participants lose their final competition. From youth sports leagues through amateur and professional ranks, there’s only one ultimate winner; everyone else finishes their season with a loss—and some fail to even qualify—and many athletes lose more than they win throughout a season.
To make matters worse, the entire endeavor is couched in a sort of self-inflicted suffering. The pre-season begins with some form of what many refer to as, “Hell Week.” Hell. The athlete’s season starts in the bowels of Dante’s Inferno, then demands hours of grueling training spotted with losses and failures along the way, only to end as losers.
None of this is new, of course. And it takes a thoughtful person a few seconds of conscious thought to realize this. Though once we do recognize sports as a failure-inducing institution couched in suffering, it’s surprising to see participation so widespread.
Unless, of course, one is attuned to the deep wisdom of sage-like philosophers through the ages, combined with the insights of modern-day social science. Once we view sports through this lens, we recognize it as the ideal place to achieve some of the richest virtues available to humans in pursuit of meaning and true happiness.
Much of this suffering-is-actually-good thinking was done over 2,000 years ago, in the West and the East alike. The writings of Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius read almost more like self-help than they do philosophy. They urged us to be grateful for what we have, control what we can control, focus our energy on connecting with and helping others, and recognize that our suffering and pain may be what actually makes our lives fulfilling. As Seneca wrote, “There is a pleasure in having succeeded in enduring something the actual enduring of which was very far from pleasant.”
Because pain and suffering are an inevitable part of life—and in our case here, of sports—what’s important is how we view and frame those experiences. It’s what the more modern Stoics refer to as the “View from Above.” It’s no surprise, then, that many who have overcome true suffering have often relied on the Stoics.
To be clear: we should not consider the chosen pain and suffering experienced by athletes comparable with those in the real, non-sporting world who are experiencing non-chosen suffering. The distinction between the chosen suffering of athletes is of a completely different sort than that of millions in truly dire situations.
But we can tie these lessons to sports and, more importantly, recognize that sports just may provide the best possible avenue to experience opportunities for truly living out these ideals, without having the experience of real unchosen suffering. Sport, and the inherent unavoidable suffering it induces, teaches us how to flourish.
A more contemporary social scientist, bestselling author and psychologist Paul Bloom, writes about much of this in his latest book, The Sweet Spot, with the telling subtitle, “The pleasures of suffering and the search for meaning.” He writes, “Under the right circumstances and in the right doses, physical pain and emotional pain, difficulty and failure and loss, are exactly what we are looking for.”
This is exactly what sport provides: The right circumstances under which participants can learn to suffer; in doing so, they learn to seek something much deeper than fleeting happiness: flourishing, purpose, and meaning.
All of these lessons from philosophers and social scientists are uniquely available through sports. Consider the athlete who loses a competition. Just as pain forces awareness to the area in pain, a loss does something similar. It provides—or, more strongly, it demands—reflection, introspection, and an opportunity to recognize where one can become better and improve. While the victors are out celebrating, spraying champagne all over the room, the losers are sent home, en route to a deeper sense of self and meaning.
As Bloom reminds us, the only path to mastery is through suffering. One could take this as a core tenet to becoming a successful athlete. Cruising through training and winning every game along the way provides no opportunity for growth—for mastery—just as cruising through life from one party to another may yield those moments of mindless bliss, but not something deeper and richly meaningful.
Author Julian Barnes recounts a friend’s reflections upon mourning the loss of a loved one, noting, “It hurts exactly as much as it is worth.” It’s amazing when someone can capture the human condition in fewer than ten words. And it’s this sentiment I relied on when I answered my 9-year old son’s recent question as to why some Olympic athletes burst into tears upon finishing their performance, especially when they performed so well! We recognize the suffering it took just to get to the Olympic arena, regardless of their finish or even making it to the medal stand. We can see mastery, flourishing, and meaning happening right before our eyes.
As an athlete and coach who’s achieved some success along the way, many of my most vivid memories are those of the rocky journey and, even, the losses: when in high school and my team’s daily 4:45 AM training in the dark and cold before entering the pool; the reflection and team bonding that resulted from our single loss, mid-season at Stanford, en route to a National Championship; hyperextending my elbow which required Tommy John surgery and 18 months of rehab all the while wondering if I’d ever play again; as a coach of a high school team, going through unforgiving Navy SEAL training sessions and other exercises designed such that failure was inevitable. These provided some of the richest moments—moments of real meaning and, in retrospect, moments that provided the greatest opportunity to truly flourish.
My own tears of both joy and failure all resulting because of the suffering along the way: it hurt—and was enriching—as much as it was worth.
And so to return to 2,000-plus years ago, in the East, it was the Buddha who taught us through The Four Noble Truths, that essentially, life is suffering. The mere pursuit of pleasure and attempt to avoid pain and suffering was not only unfulfilling but unrealistic.
Our quest for deeper meaning and flourishing has one major obstacle: the programming of our brains by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. We are hardwired for immediate (and fleeting) pleasure which motivates us to find food and mates and create offspring when life on the savannah was different and resources were scarce. But we now live in an age of abundance and our brains just haven’t caught up.
What a gift, then, sports can be for those who relish in it. To provide a way to experience the crux of human flourishing and meaning as explored by some of life’s greatest thinkers. Amidst all the modern-day distractions and lures to false, temporary happiness, we have an institution in place that provides just the right amount of suffering for those willing to put their hearts into it.
Here’s to the losers, and occasionally the winners, and to another season of suffering ahead.