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Emotional Intelligence and Stoicism in Sports

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By Dr. Tomi Wahlström |

Much has been written about the importance of emotional intelligence lately. This is as important in sports as it is in the business world or family life. Emotional intelligence refers to our ability to be aware of our emotions; to control and express them. It helps us to handle our interpersonal relationships empathetically and judiciously. In many ways emotional intelligence is the key to success, including sports.

Understanding the major themes in Stoicism can help with the development of emotional intelligence. Stoicism is a philosophy made famous my Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. It was originally founded by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC and was heavily influenced by Socrates. Stoicism is defined as the ability to endure pain or hardship without complaints or any display of feelings. However, upon deeper analysis, one can find some important themes in Stoicism that are directly related to emotional intelligence development of athletes.

The central theme in Stoicism is to recognize what is under one’s control. Stoics maintain that it is useless to react to things that we cannot control. In sports, there are many variables that are not controlled by the athletes. Letting go of these and focusing only on acting on events that one can control can be very helpful. Misplacing emotions on things that cannot be controlled is exhausting and unnecessary. Emotional energy such as anger is better used when directed to controllable action. Athletes can improve their performance by not wasting energy on trying to change things they cannot control.

Another one of the important principles of Stoicism is to understand one’s emotions. This is important to athletes because sports can be emotional in many ways. Emotions are caused by many events and can shift quickly. Sometimes mastering one’s emotions is as easy as understanding them. Mastery of emotions does not mean living without any feelings. It means that feelings like anger and sadness will not be misplaced on things that we cannot control. It also means that we learn to replace our negative feelings with positive emotions such as calm and contentment. We are often frustrated when we try to control things but when we let go of this need for control we can experience more joy. That is, by not trying to control what we can’t control, we learn to control what we can control.

The final principle of Stoicism focuses on conforming to reality. In order to make the best out of all situations, one must have a realistic outlook. Setting realistic goals and expectations is necessary, and trying to make reality to conform to our desires is futile. It makes more sense to conform our expectations to reality. Ultimately, Stoics make the best out of every situation, even loss and tragedy. They always find the lessons to be learned, and meaningful action to be taken as a result. They find the new opportunities in everything. This is how winners are born!

Dr. Tomi Wahlström is Vice President of Academic Affairs at the United States Sports Academy.

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