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Existentialism in Sport

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Japanese athletes compete during an athletics test event for Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games at the National Stadium, in Tokyo, Japan, Sunday, May 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

By Dr. Tomi Wahlstrom |

Existential philosophy and its applications in psychology can assist athletes in their personal growth and development. It will help them to develop their physical strengths through sports coaching, and they can become stronger persons psychologically as well. As such, they are more likely to achieve their true sporting potential. Existential way of life has become more appealing to many especially during the recent years as the pandemic has challenged the world, and forced us to think about the meaning of it all. Many people have started to seek meaning in their lives as the world around them has started to appear increasingly absurd. Athletes are not exempt from these feelings. In the matter of fact, their lives may feel even more meaningless during these difficult times. Many of them have not been able to train and practice normally and many competitions have been cancelled. Even the Olympics was an unusual ordeal with athletes competing without spectators. They were alone in the Olympic village without their family members and support systems. It is, therefore, understandable that many athletes have quit their athletic careers or may be considering quitting. Sport just does not feel the same. It does not feel as meaningful as it once did. The entire sport industry is going through a sort of an existential crisis.

As a philosophy, existentialism emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice. According to existentialism, humans define their own meaning and try to make decisions despite existing in an absurd universe. It focuses on human existence, and knowing that there is no purpose or explanation at the core of our existence. It holds that the only way to find meaning in life is by embracing existence. Existentialists believe that individuals are entirely free and must take personal responsibility for themselves. It emphasizes action, freedom and decision making as fundamental, and poses that the only way to rise above the essentially absurd condition of humanity is by exercising our personal freedom and choice.

Existentialists feel that we are free to choose our own terms of engagement in our situation. This is important for an athlete. Many times athletes are not given a voice by trainers, coaches, promoters, and team owners. People are only interested in their performance rather than who they are as individuals. Existential psychology can change that an empower athletes to have a voice. Existentialism encourages individuals to defy the restrictive norms that they are subjected to. Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles are recent examples of athletes who decided on their own terms of engagement. They spoke out and the world supported them. They are existential heroes.

Existentialists also think that human beings are not predefined as essence but rather defined by their actions. Athletes are individuals like the rest of us. They define who they are by their own actions and are free to be who they are. Serena Williams, for example, stepped into the tennis court in a black cat suit because that was who she was. The world had to accept her as such. She was free to defy the norms and the world is better for it.

According to existentialism, existence is a matter of continuous striving. Athletes are continuously thriving to be better and to break records. Sport is all about continuously improving reaching your highest potential. Existential philosophy and psychology can help you to be in the right mindset to do this. In addition, we must remember that we cannot expect the world to be meaningful from the outset without any effort. Rather, the world is full of ambiguity and contradictions, which can make existence arbitrary and the world seem absurd. Existential philosophy is an attempt to embrace this ambiguity and look deeper into what it is like to live under this elementary condition. From time to time, we are bound to experience an uncanny feeling of estrangement, alienation or disintegration, or even deep existential anxiety. All this is perfectly normal and just part of being a human. Existentialism can help us to cope better with this anxiety.

In summary, the strength of existential philosophy in relation to sport is its ability to reveal a range of ways in which human beings can find meaning and value in sport. It is a helpful philosophical and psychological perspective to those of us who are deep thinkers and passionate about sports.

Dr. Tomi Wahlstrom is the Provost at the United States Sports Academy.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Great article. Looking at sport through a lens of meaning and purpose has been the most important approach to my athletic career and one that came with maturity and after many years of experience. I wonder whether explicit teaching existentialism in sport in the younger years can improve overall athlete experiences throughout their career.

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