WWhy do we love sports? There are millions of people around the world who feel happiest when they engage in activities that, at first glance, are pointless. And yet, sport is serious business. Jamie Carragher and Declan Rice are two English footballers who have said their sport is “all about winning”. Is this really true? I was a sports presenter for BBC Radio 1 for eight years, covering the 2012 London Olympics, Andy Murray’s historic Wimbledon victory and a World Cup in Brazil. It was often exciting, but over time, when I went on air to report on the action, I had the nagging feeling that something was missing. The fixation on results did not reflect the profound beauty of sport and its many life lessons. Sport is often described as a metaphor for life and so I decided to explore exactly that – and discovered lots of important information about where happiness and fulfillment can be found. Here’s what I discovered.
Treat your brain like a computer
Next time you’re waiting to board a train, take a look at the other passengers. Most of them will be looking at their phones. For the first time in human history, we’re never bored – and it’s contributing to skyrocketing levels of burnout. Sir John Kirwan, the All Black rugby legend who was knighted for services to mental health after a depressive episode during his career, has shared a fantastic analogy to consider. What do you do when your computer starts gaming? “Turn it off and on again – 99% of the time it works.” We need to do the same thing with our brains! Kirwan is an “active relaxer”. He reads, walks and plays guitar. Whatever it is, find ways to turn your brain off without requiring scrolling.
Develop emotional intelligence
In 2016, Team GB won gold in women’s hockey at the Beijing Olympics. The coach was Danny Kerry, who worked hard on his emotional intelligence (often described as a better indicator of life satisfaction than IQ) during his career. EQ is about understanding how you feel and being able to manage yourself, as well as being able to read and empathize with others and then influence them for the better. So Danny Kerry came up with a brilliant list of shortcut EQ questions: “Where am I?” Where should I be? Where are they? Where should they be? In Beijing, if he was grumpy, he could delegate a meeting if he felt the players needed a lift. At home, if he feels tired after a hard day at work, but his children need him to be engaged and cheerful, he consciously elevates his state to give them the father they need.
Albert Ellis was a hugely influential psychologist with an original turn of phrase. He claimed that a large amount of psychological suffering was created by the belief in illusory “oughts,” such as “I must do well.” There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do well, but it’s different from demanding that it happen. Former England football manager Roy Hodgson said it best when he said: “One of the phrases I hate is: ‘It’s a game you have to win.’ So if the opposition are winning 2-0 and there are 10 minutes left, does that mean I should take out a machine gun and shoot them? One way to avoid falling into the “musterbation” trap is to watch your language. Phrases like “I must” and “I should” only increase the pressure, which paradoxically reduces the chances of achieving the desired result. Stay true to “I want” or “I would like.”
Growth mindsets can be overdone
From the locker room to the classroom, you’ll hear people extolling the importance of a “growth mindset.” This is a term coined by Stanford professor Carol Dweck, who suggested that believing your abilities are malleable can have a huge impact on success and outcomes, whereas having a “fixed mindset » had the opposite effect. In her Ted speaks, Dweck says people can be nudged to develop a growth mindset through simple interventions, like praising hard work and effort over talent or intelligence. The problem is that researchers who attempted to replicate the two foundational research papers, which have been cited thousands of times, found no correlation. “Renting wisely,” they told me, had no effect. Don’t thoughts and beliefs change like the wind? As one of my podcast guests pointed out, one day you think you’re great, the next day you suck. Instead of fighting “mindsets,” maybe it’s better to take action, no matter what the voice in your head says.
Tell yourself: “I am aware of the thought…”
We all have thoughts we don’t want, like, “I’m going to ruin this speech!” » to “What if I commit a double fault?” » But thoughts are not facts, and it is even more important to recognize that we are not our thoughts – we are aware of our thoughts. So, when an unhelpful thought arises, rather than identifying with it or resisting it, notice it and then add the following prefix: “I am aware of the thought that…I am going to ruin everything.” » This creates space between you and the thought. Then come back to the present, perhaps noticing the sounds you can hear. This is an essential pillar of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which English cricketer Sir Alastair Cook used to great effect before his career-defining Ashes series in Australia in 2011.
Moving from “thinking mind” to “conscious mind”
This distinction was introduced to me by Dr. Guy Meadows, a former ultra runner and sleep specialist who taught elite athletes how to maximize their recovery. We all create a conceptual identity by referring to what has happened to us in the past, our hopes for the future, and our beliefs, values, and opinions. This becomes the “me story” that we use to navigate the social world. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the whole story. As we said, we are not our thoughts; we are aware of it. This “conscious mind” exists before thoughts and feelings, just as the sky exists before time. And just like the sky, the conscious mind is at peace with the weather conditions (thoughts and feelings) that arise within it. If we can recognize that we are not only the “narrative self”, created by thoughts of the past and future, but that we are also the conscious mind in which the thoughts that create “my story” arise, then we can fall back into this state of mind. calm and peaceful place that exists before everything we experience, whenever we want, regardless of external circumstances.
Doing doesn’t end up being
We tend to think that fulfillment lies in the future – when we meet the right person, get that promotion or the big house. The problem is that it doesn’t tend to work that way. The number of people who have climbed to the highest peaks of the sporting world only to be left with a deep sense of dissatisfaction is considerable. I remember sitting in Caitlyn Jenner’s living room and listening to her explain that winning Olympic gold didn’t solve any of the problems she was facing. So what is the answer to this riddle? Recognizing that the future never arrives and seeking happiness there is futile. That’s it friends! It’s always now, and we can strive to do our best in this moment, the only time that truly exists.
Forget about being someone; accept being nobody
The day after Jonny Wilkinson scored the winning drop goal to win the Rugby World Cup, he felt empty. However, when he scored the winning drop goal, he experienced transcendence. His self-esteem is gone. “It wasn’t me giving it, it was being aware of it,” he told me. This is a common phenomenon experienced by sports stars. If this feeling of “me” can disappear, how real can it be? Winning is often disappointing, but the experience of flow is inherently enjoyable. As thoughts of the past and future disappear with our conceptual perception of ourselves, we are joyful and give our best. Even though we think we want to become “someone” special, we are actually more satisfied when we experience being “nobody.” Through sport, conversation, reading – the portals are vast – we are happiest when we lose ourselves in the present moment, and not when we seek to increase our self-esteem by “winning”.
Champion Thinking: How to Succeed Without Getting Lost is published by Bloomsbury Tonic on January 18 at £18.99. Buy it at guardianbookshop.com for £16.71. Simon Mundie is also the host of The Life Lessons podcast