Updated: Sep 26, 2018
The Sport Ethic is broken down into four main principles for athletes: they are dedicated to the game above all else, strive for distinction, accept risks and play through pain, and accept no obstacles. These are all personal choices that lead to deviant over-conformity related to the culture of elite athletics. Some of the most common decisions that people have all come to accept are sacrifices of time and relationships. Elite athletes spend a lot less time with friends and family; this is acceptable because most people view it as normal. Athletes are expected to put in a lot of time at practice, in the weight room, and doing agility and plyometrics just to be successful at the lowest level. People who put in extra time beyond that are the ones that start to move towards becoming superstars. The work ethic of Kobe Bryant is nothing short of legendary and led to his incredibly successful career. That is why people at all levels miss family events, holidays, or church to compete and this is just the tip of the iceberg when talking about the dark side of mastery in any craft.
Athletes also strive for distinction to set themselves apart from an already elite class. They are constantly pushing their limits to see what their bodies are capable of. Once again, this is perfectly normal and acceptable behavior until it is not. Some athletes take this to an extreme that others are not willing to touch, doing things in the weight room that lead to rhabdomyolysis or conditioning on the field that hospitalizes them or worse. Some Olympian runners have an unusual way of gauging their success where they have to reach a certain level of discomfort to achieve their desired result. This is not as applicable to sprinting, but middle and long distance races at that level are mainly about intestinal fortitude and having the mental toughness to push through pain for eternal glory. Interestingly, it does not only apply in the physical sense. Striving for distinction can also bring about an insatiable passion for knowledge that monopolizes the few hours of freedom that athletes have.
The willingness to put forth the required effort invariably leads to injuries and athletes wear them like a badge of honor. Elite athletes are almost never able to compete completely healthy. The culture of sport establishes expectations for them to accept the inherent risks of competing and play through pain as often as they can. Steve Prefontaine was a notorious competitor who once sustained a nasty cut on his foot the day before a race and still won, choosing to run while bleeding excessively. Now, science and modern medicine has progressed and provides alternatives to dealing with the pain. There are many legal and illegal options and athletes are willing to do whatever it takes to stay in the game. They are even willing to disregard the long-term effects that could leave them crippled or with serious brain trauma to continue competing. The pressure to perform leads them to ignoring any obstacle that stands in their way. At the professional level, this is their livelihood and a major part of their identity. So, nothing will stand in the way of staying healthy enough to compete, no matter how illogical it may be.
These sacrifices can all vary greatly from socially acceptable to deviant with a lot of gray area in the middle. Some people feel the need to take performance enhancing drugs to keep up with the competition, while others would never consider something like that, even if it was a legal substance. So, the continuum looks different for different people. It is a slippery concept and that makes it difficult to advise people about how to establish their own version of sport ethic. You have to find that balance between helping an athlete be as successful as they can be while simultaneously keeping their long-term health and wellness as the main priority. Achieving that harmony comes down to two important things: perspective and self-awareness.
The self-awareness piece will help them become a better athlete because they will be able to feel what they are feeling when they are feeling it. This also translates into great emotional intelligence in the real world. But, for athletes, this promotes emotional stability by helping them understand their emotions and helps them pay attention to the signals that their body is sending. When they acknowledge the pain they are experiencing, they will be able to understand that performing their best may require a level of recovery that they have not been giving to their body and this will also help them decide when it is appropriate to tough out an injury that does not have to keep them on the sidelines. Mindfulness practices are really beneficial for improving self-awareness and typically lead to an athlete being more focused on the present and enjoying their time in the sport.
Perspective is also a valuable asset for an athlete because they have their identity so tied up in sport that they cannot see all the other roles that they hold on a more consistent basis. Providing that context will allow them to see that they are not just an athlete. Even though they have played sports for most of their lives, people do not spend most of their life playing sports, especially not at the elite level. They have to understand that they are so much more than that and expand their view of themselves. Additionally, perspective will help the athlete see that playing in the next few games instead of allowing proper recovery from an injury could be detrimental to the performance of their team or even jeopardize their future in the sport. This is how perspective and self-awareness can work together.
When you achieve a level of self-awareness to recognize that you may be too injured to play, it is very beneficial to have the necessary perspective where you know that one game or even the sport itself is not as important as your health or your career. Any act of courage requires vulnerability and sometimes that means sitting out and getting healthy so that you can perform your best when your team really needs you. It could mean different things for different athletes, but having self-awareness and perspective will help them make the best possible decision for their future.
Coakley, Jay J. Sports in society: Issues and controversies. Twelfth ed., New York, NY, McGraw-Hill Education, 2017.