Sports: Play to improve, not to prove
If you’re reading this article, you probably love and miss sport as much as the rest of us. With all the necessary measures put in place in an attempt to contain Covid-19 (including closure of most public facilities), we long for the day we can get back out there on the pitch/court. I am fortunate to live in Hong Kong where there have been very few new cases of the virus as of late, and thus social distancing measures are starting to ease. Sports facilities are slowly reopening and many people are expressing the same sentiment, “I just can’t wait to go out there and play”.
It illustrates a desire to play for the sake of playing, not necessarily playing for fame and success. There is an intrinsic nature to why people engage in sport, and it is through promoting these motives that sport has the potential to play a massive role in contributing to peace and development in society.
With all the money in sport these days, including mega contracts, sponsorships and prize money, sport has become very outcome-driven. Emphasis is placed on winning trophies and medals, on proving yourself to be better than your peers, and on external validation of any kind. Sport had become very ego-oriented, and people seemed to forget why they got involved in sport in the first place.
The virus, however, has provided a timely reminder of these reasons. Around the world, people have found new and creative ways to stay involved in sport - from social media skill challenges to kickabouts in the backyard to playing tennis out the window with your neighbours. Why? There’s the obvious one in that sport allows us to go out and get some exercise. Sport also provides us with an opportunity to socialize with our peers in a healthy, engaging way. Then there’s the feeling of joy we get from playing a particular sport, accompanied by a sense of accomplishment when we notice improvements in our game. Through sport, we can also develop life skills such as communication, focus and resilience – qualities that benefit us both in and out of sport. In its purest form, sport is an opportunity for us to grow as human beings, and can be extremely beneficial to our wellbeing. We need to remember this when we get back out there.
As stakeholders in sport, it is our responsibility to ensure that the right values are transmitted from grassroots levels up. This implies cultivating a mastery-oriented climate where the focus is on athletes improving their own abilities rather than on comparisons with peers. Within this environment, enjoyment and self-improvement are valued rather than winning. After all, success will come when athletes are enjoying themselves and are highly motivated to improve. Aligned with the idea that sport is an opportunity for self-development, the next implication suggests the need to intentionally promote and build qualities that can benefit athletes in contexts outside of sport. Transferable life skills such as the ability to manage stress, handle pressure, concentrate on tasks or communicate effectively are all the more important in today’s world where it’s important we nurture conscientious individuals capable of making the world a better place. Without the intentional promotion of these qualities, there’s no guarantee that athletes will develop them – after all not all elite athletes are able to keep a cool head or are effective communicators.
Sport psychology can play an important role in changing the culture of sport across all levels, with different frameworks available for developing transferable life skills and qualities in a structured, evidence-based way (e.g. the 5C model; Harwood, 2008). Embedding such frameworks at schools or in coaching programs can help individuals foster these qualities.
Simply put, sport can make us better people, who in turn can make the world a better place. It all starts with remembering why we fell in love with sport in the first place.
Hiren Khemlani is a sport and performance psychologist based in Hong Kong. He graduated from Loughborough University with an MSc in Sport and Exercise Psychology, and has now opened his own practice called Peak of Mind with the aims of helping people improve performances and enhance personal wellbeing.