Olympic season. A time to rejoice. A time to witness the greatest athletes on the planet unite the world in a love of healthy competition.
But make no doubt about it, we have a crisis. Sport – that noble pursuit – has been corrupted. Infected. Perverted from its original, powerful, playful purity.
Unfortunately, the Olympic Games only casts a temporary spell over the state of sport.
For thousands of years, humans have enjoyed playing - from community-building, ritualistic ball games, to running fast and throwing spears. Exceeding our boundaries. Citius Altius Fortius. Playing is as much a part of our humanity as sleeping or speaking. It helps us to understand the world, and ourselves.
But how often does sport serve that purpose today? How often is it playful and freeing? How often, rather, does it become an ugly means to a greedy end? A catalyst for society’s ills rather than a cure?
We don’t need a list of current global events to know a cure is exactly what society needs. And nothing has the same potential to cure intolerance, prejudice or disunity, as sport. Nelson Mandela famously said that “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sports can create hope where there was once only despair. Sport is the game of lovers.”
But although sport might have the power to unite, it won't do so unless it can provide enjoyable, meaningful experiences and enduring life lessons.
Is sport in a fit state to provide this experience? I don’t think so.
Young athletes – cherry-picked at five, burnt out at ten. Others fighting their whole life for funding until all they can do is choose a different path. Dreams crushed.
Female athletes – jeered for sacrificing the Barbie waist-to-hip ratio for following their passion.
Soccer hooligans – filling stadiums and carpeting their cities with beer cans, fueling the nightmare that begins once the final whistle blows.
Exuberant dives and deliberate handballs - excused as part of the culture of the game.
PE classes - screaming teachers and groups of lads teasing anyone less “sporty”.
Performance anxiety, depression, money-hungry ivory towers (aka national federations), rape and assault on campuses.
Superstars who dope, idols who dodge social responsibility, and our finest heroes (think tennis players) who threaten officials: “I’m going to ******* take this ball and shove it down your ******* throat.”
This is the state of sport.
With this bitter cocktail, it is apparent that sport won’t improve society’s problems any time soon, no matter how glorious two weeks in Rio might seem.
For sport's powerful change-making quality to be unleashed, we must radically change course.
"Play Up, Play Up and Play the Game"
The Ancient Greeks knew sport mattered. Medieval knights too. Even the hardy Victorians recognized the power of sport; Victorian Britain introduced physical education in schools, invested in community sports facilities, and gave rise to modern sports and international competitions. Sports became so integral to the fabric of British life, that one Punch cartoonist was inspired thus: "Of course you needn't work, Fitzmilksoppe; but play you must, and shall!"
Britain and her international rivals recognized the powerful symbolism of sport. Sports were likened to war and sporting success demonstrated superiority over other nations. Young men proved themselves fit for battle by modeling courageous “masculinity” on the field of play and sport became so tied to national identity that behavior shown on the sports field represented our strength as individuals, and as nations.
Sir Henry Newbolt’s 1892 Vitae Lampada is one of the best examples of this connection, and likens the resolve of cricketers to the hardiness needed in war:
There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night --
Ten to make and the match to win --
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"
The sand of the desert is sodden red, --
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; --
The Gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"
This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind --
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"
So, as young men battle through hardship, they are reminded of their experiences on the sports field. The lessons learned through sport help them to struggle on, and motivate them to rally for a cause.
And just as the Victorians extracted the power of sport to suit their needs, we must do the same today. We must re-imagine Vitae Lampada, using the power of sport to inspire a generation to rally for a cause - this time not for imperialist gain, but rather to surmount the challenges of 2016. To encourage healthy living, to promote a tolerant society, to cultivate compassionate and engaged citizens, to nurture authentic altruism. To unleash a true athlete spirit, that bears through life like a torch in flame, and which no-one dares to forget.
But how do we re-imagine Vitae Lampada? How do we create a new sporting spirit which provides meaningful life mantras as memorable as "Play up, play up and play the game"?
True Athlete Project's Answer
1) Embrace sport's moral dimension.
Who we are on the field of play is who we are, period. We must not shirk from the challenge of being moral, even in the midsts of battle, while we strain every nerve and sinew. The same goes for parents, coaches, and fans. We must call out the parent screaming at their child's referee, the PE teacher unbending to individual difference, and the supporter releasing their pent-up anger on a Saturday afternoon. They are corrupting sport and it's inexcusable. Sport belongs to all of us and when it is corrupted we lose the world's greatest uniting force.
The lifeblood of all our programs is the true athlete spirit - a spirit which recognizes sport as a tool for self-mastery, which sees the big picture, and which aims to give every single person a transcendent experience through sport. We advocate for an enjoyable, inspiring and meaningful approach to sport and we promote this approach through institutions like the Muhammad Ali Center, the United Nations, the American Psychological Association, schools, universities, and more. We partner with coaches and organizations who share our philosophy in order to create innovative programs that aim to change the world. Have an idea? Get in touch!
2) Develop coaches who care.
We need coaches who are mindful of every interaction with their athletes, and who are ready to teach life lessons over technique or tactics. We need athletes to receive meaningful experiences. Get the experience right, and a positive spiral of participation, enjoyment and improvement follows. Coaches create experiences.
We believe coaches are the people best placed in society to transform lives so we provide coach workshops, packed with take-aways, exercises and resources to promote this quality of experience for their athletes. We help coaches to unleash the true athlete spirit within each of their athletes. Coaches care deeply, and with our help can become even more skillful at changing the world through sport.
3) Make mindfulness a routine.
Most athletes wouldn't dream of neglecting a physical warm-up or cool-down, or skipping a set of sprints. But how many athletes commit to their mental skills training in the same, regimented way? Coaches must shift their emphasis toward the mental components of being an athlete. Emphasize determination, concentration, compassion, composure in the face of adversity, bravery, coachability, flexible thinking and problem solving. These are the qualities which, if developed, will help us to unleash sport's power into the world. Coincidentally these things also improve performance!
Unfortunately it is not as easy as simply telling athletes to be composed, determined, or concentrated. These attributes must be skillfully developed and we believe mindfulness is the perfect tool to help us do that.. Learning to control the breath, to calm the mind, and to be so rooted in the present moment that we naturally focus on the process rather than the outcome - this is the foundation of blossoming through sport.
We offer mindfulness for athletes classes, and a new curriculum for teams and schools called Mindfulness Sports Performance Enhancement, developed by our very own director of science and research, Dr. Keith Kaufman, and his colleagues, Dr. Carol Glass and Dr. Tim Pineau of Catholic University of America.
4) Create safe spaces for expression.
Sport is a physical, emotional and spiritual act. When we try our hardest, we are vulnerable, we shed our layers and expose our true spirit, allowing growth to take place. This is how sport becomes transformational. We lose ourselves, our thoughts and our worries, and we become one with the present moment. This expressive, emotional act should be nurtured and respected as such.
We must create an environment where individuals can experience the richness of being an athlete. We help teams and schools to create this environment, and we provide transformational retreats for all athletes and coaches, no matter their ability. During these retreats, we mix physical training with meditations, creative expression, fellowship and delicious nutrition! A wholesome experience to develop wholesome athletes. Contact our director of retreats and sustainability, Vanessa Chakour, for more information.
5) Encourage mentorship.
The experience of sport must gift an enduring spirit and lifelong lessons to its players. Lessons are never remembered better than when taught by someone we admire. Lonnie Ali said, “Mentors are gifts to the world. They encourage, motivate, reinforce, and guide others to reach individual greatness.” The Muhammad Ali Center says, “From apprenticeships to elder circles, intentional relationships have always been important in generational knowledge transfer for a society."
Our mentoring program gives elite athletes an opportunity to "give back" and helps aspiring athletes by providing a support network, an individualized plan of action, and an inspirational friendship for life. Reach out to our athlete mentoring and individualized training director, Pam Boteler, if you wish to be a mentor or mentee, or know someone who would!
Follow these steps and we can unleash a true athlete spirit out into the world. Follow these steps and we can inspire a generation to rally for a cause, using the lessons from sport to promote a better world.
And maybe one day, with a marathon effort, the Olympic Games will become a true reflection of sport and society, not a happy diversion from its actual condition.
Or, as Robin Williams narrated for the International Olympic Committee's Celebrate Humanity campaign in 2000:
They gather together, thousands and thousands and thousands still more,
For 16 straight days the stadiums roar,
They line all the fields, They polish the courts,
A rainbow of colors, Together for sport,
They sprint, they jostle, they jump. they shout,
They sometimes get hostile but they work it all out,
They smile, they laugh, they learn life’s lessons,
They respect one another regardless of weapons,
The big and the small together seem awkward,
But amazingly enough they push the world forwards,
And when it’s all over it’s as good as it gets,
A lifetime of memories with zero regrets,
Then they pack up the balls and roll up the mats,
Put on their best suits and the finest of hats,
They all wave goodbye,
They hug and they kiss,
And you think Maybe, just maybe, it can all be like this.
Sam Parfitt - True Athlete Project Founder & CEO
P.S. As a non-profit organization, we can only change lives with a little bit of help, and every little bit of help is so greatly appreciated. We would be wonderfully grateful if you would consider a tax-exempt donation today and help us move closer to our fundraising target.