Forged on the battlefield and the political arena, it is no surprise that the Stoic teachings have been widely embraced by athletes and the sports community at large. 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. The art of life, Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself in Meditations, is “more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s.” It teaches you to “stand ready and firm to meet sudden and unexpected onsets.”
Today, Stoicism has been embraced by nearly every professional sport—including some of the most renowned football coaches and executives in the world like Bill Belichick, Nick Saban, Michael Lombardi and Pete Carroll, basketball coaches like Shaka Smart, Olympic gold medalist Chandra Crawford, the Irish tennis pro James McGee, baseball manager Joe Maddon, basketball superstar CJ McCollum, and many others.
As Ryan Holiday, author of the Stoic-inspired cult bestseller The Obstacle Is The Way, explains, the connection between sports and Stoicism is very clear. Any athlete will immediately see the parallels: “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.”
Here are twelve rules from Stoicism to help you become a better athlete today in order to win, be number one and conquer the heights of greatness.
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.
Suppose you wanted to be victorious at the Olympic Games, Epictetus says,
“That’s fine, but fully consider what you’re getting yourself into. What does such a desire entail? What needs to happen first? Then what? What will be required of you? And what else follows from that? Is this whole course of action really beneficial to you? If so, carry on. If you wish to win at the Olympic Games, to prepare yourself properly you would have to follow a strict regimen that stretches you to the limits of your endurance. You would have to submit to demanding rules, follow a suitable diet, vigorously exercise at a regular time in both heat and cold, and give up drinking. You would have to follow the directions of your trainer as if he or she were your doctor.”
Now is the time to think this through. Later, it will be difficult to give up your dream.
Confragosa in fastigium dignitatis via est. “It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness,” Seneca would write. Are you ready to take that path?
Recall the line from Coach Taylor: “Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.”
It starts with clear eyes. You need to see clearly the road, yourself and the competition.
Like we said, it starts with clear eyes. As Epictetus reminds us, this is the first challenge facing us—to be completely objective and honest about ourselves. Who you are and who do you wish to be? Is your dream a realistic one?
“Just as nothing great is created instantly, the same goes for the perfecting of our talents and aptitudes. We are always learning, always growing. It is right to accept challenges. This is how we progress to the next level of intellectual, physical, or moral development. Still, don’t kid yourself: If you try to be something or someone you are not, you belittle your true self and end up not developing in those areas that you would have excelled at quite naturally.”
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 . . .”
First, you must look inward. Next, you must examine yourself critically. Finally, you must make our own decisions— uninhibited by biases or popular notions.
Fully Commit and Set Your Standards
Having considered all that lays ahead and decided that you have what it takes to succeed, you should enter your competition wholeheartedly and without hesitation. Epictetus urges us to,
“Think things through and fully commit! Otherwise, you will be like a child who sometimes pretends he or she is a wrestler, sometimes a soldier, sometimes a musician, sometimes an actor in a tragedy. A half-hearted spirit has no power. Tentative efforts lead to tentative outcomes. Average people enter into their endeavors headlong and without care. Perhaps they meet with an exemplary figure like Euphrates and become inspired to excel themselves. It is all well and good to do this, but consider first the real nature of your aspirations, and measure that against your capacities.”
You also need to clearly set the standards for yourself. As Epictetus admonishes his students:
“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.”
As an athlete, what standards are you setting for yourself? Are they high enough? Are you observing them?
This determined approach will serves us well, because 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.”
Accept the Sacrifices
“We must undergo a hard winter training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared.” Epictetus
With full commitment comes sacrifices. No great achievement is accomplished without hard work. There is always a price to pay. Epictetus makes the point:
“Just as certain capacities are required for success in a particular area, so too are certain sacrifices required. … If true wisdom is your object and you are sincere, you will have work to do on yourself. You will have to overcome many unhealthy cravings and knee-jerk reactions.”
Athletes have to endure pain and hardship without grumble. They have to get their heads down, focus on what’s within their control, and shut out the rest.
Marcus Aurelius commanded himself to never shirk from hard work and from his duty. As he would tell himself,
“Never shirk the proper dispatch of your duty, no matter if you are freezing or hot, groggy or well-rested, vilified or praised, not even if dying or pressed by other demands. Even dying is one of the important assignments of life and, in this as in all else, make the most of your resources to do well the duty at hand.”
Set Your Discipline in Stone
The importances 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 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.
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 people— yes, 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.
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.
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 man. 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.”
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:
“Most people tend to delude themselves into thinking that freedom comes from doing what feels good or what fosters comfort and ease. The truth is that people who subordinate reason to their feelings of the moment are actually slaves of their desires and aversions. They are ill-prepared to act effectively and nobly when unexpected challenges occur, as they inevitably will.”
When you fall off the horse, they tell you get right back on before your mind kicks in and you begin to build up an unhealthy fear for horses. This fear might be rational, but it doesn’t serve your purpose. If you want to be a horseman, you will have to shut out the memory of the fall and the fear that accompanies it.
Set Your Eyes on the Bigger Picture
Successful athletes need to be able to see the bigger picture and stick to the game plan.
Epictetus recommends we survey the field of action before we throw ourselves into the fray.
“Cultivate the habit of surveying and testing a prospective action before undertaking it. Before you proceed, step back and look at the big picture, lest you act rashly on raw impulse. Determine what happens first, consider what that leads to, and then act in accordance with what you’ve learned.”
Certain decisions need to be made with a cool head and a sense of distance.
Focus On The Here And The Now
But while it is important to understand the situation in relation to your game plane, you need to stay in the moment and focus on the play at hand. Like a coach addressing his team in the locker room before the game, Epictetus urges us:
“Caretake this moment. Immerse yourself in its particulars. Respond to this person, this challenge, this deed. Quit the evasions. Stop giving yourself needless trouble. It is time to really live; to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in now. You are not some disinterested bystander. Participate. Exert yourself.”
“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?”
One play at a time, eyes on the ball.
In keeping with Marcus Aurelius, the athlete seeks “not to be overwhelmed by anything that happens” on the field. Alert to the ever-changing nature and fluidity of the game, he adapts to his move and rethinks his priorities at the blink of an eye. Completely immersed, he plays in the concrete, not in the abstract.
Prepare For Defeat
You have now come far, and you are a competitor, a feared and respected opponent. But don’t you for one moment dare think you are invincible – because you are not. No one is.
Or take the last step and adopt the Stoic view of invincibility.
As Epictetus would say, “Who then is invincible? The one who cannot be upset by anything outside their reasoned choice.” Living by your standards, doing your absolute best, working harder than your competitor? Those are all your choices and standards. They are not external to you. Anything external, such as a loss, are outside of your control.
It is in fact one of the key Stoic lesson, and one which athletes have widely embraced—focusing exclusively on what is within their sphere of control.
“Keep this thought at the ready at daybreak, and through the day and night— there is only one path to happiness, and that is in giving up all outside of your sphere of choice, regarding nothing else as your possession..” Epictetus would say.
And after a defeat, what else is in your control? Learning from the defeat and becoming better because of it. You must embrace Seneca’s dictum: “Apply yourself to thinking through difficulties— hard times can be softened, tight squeezes widened, and heavy loads made lighter for those who can apply the right pressure.”
These are some of the Stoic principles for you to become a great athlete. Simple, but not easy. It’s on you to embrace and practice them. Begin by clearly seeing yourself, commit yourself to your discipline, set the high standards for yourself, work hard, focus only on what is in your control and be ready to be defeated.
What remains for you is to put these to practice. As Epictetus would say,
“Those who receive the bare theories immediately want to spew them, as an upset stomach does its food. First digest your theories and you won’t throw them up. Otherwise they will be raw, spoiled, and not nourishing. After you’ve digested them, show us the changes in your reasoned choices, just like the shoulders of gymnasts display their diet and training, and as the craft of artisans show in what they’ve learned.”
Don’t tell us what you’ve learned—show us the real changes in your behavior.