Where should sport and exercise fit into our lives? How should we regard either in order to maximize their benefit – and ensure they remain a part of our practice and add the most value?
If we were to think of our relationship with sport or exercise as being on a continuum, we can see how living at either end can be unhealthy:
- “My sport is everything, there is nothing else.” Identity is tied solely to the sport and the success/failure they derive from it.
- “Whatever, it’s just a game. It begins and ends on the field and has no bearing on any other part of my life.” For a number of reasons – disinterest, fear of fully committing– sport is seen as having no real importance.
Somewhere in the middle – the sweet spot – is identifying that while there exists separation between my sport self and my non-sport self, my life off the field affects my life on the field, and vice versa. In other words, my sport and non-sport life are powerfully interconnected.
With this interconnectedness in mind, the question is not only what kind of performance do I want to bring to this game, but what kind of “me” do I want to bring to this game. And this, of course, requires knowing who “me” is.
Finding the Right Balance
A fine place to start is by identifying your strengths, which can span a wide range of areas, including technical, physical, mental and character-based. While we may have an easy time answering the question, “What are the technical or physical strengths you bring to your sport?” many of us would find it more difficult even naming character strengths, let alone which ones we possess.
Knowing which character strengths we possess, however, can serve a powerful purpose. For one, knowing what we are most capable of bringing to competition can help us better prepare to actually bring those things to the competition.
Often athletes find themselves reactive to their opponents’ strengths – instead of committing to using what they’re best at. Knowing our strengths can also give us motivation when times get difficult, that we’re in fact equipped to handle the situation, even if doing so will be temporarily uncomfortable.
Find Your Character Strength
There are lots of sites where you can begin this process. Here’s one I prefer. It’s clear to see how many of these strengths can help us living meaningfully, on and off the field:
Bravery: I act on my conviction, and I face threats, challenges, difficulties and pains, despite my doubts and fears.
Fairness: I treat everyone equally and fairly, and give everyone the same chance applying the same rules to everyone.
Hope: I am realistic and also full of optimism about the future, believing in my actions and feeling confident things will turn out well.
Leadership: I take charge and guide groups to meaningful goals, and I ensure good relations among group members.
Love of learning: I am motivated to acquire new levels of knowledge or deepen my existing knowledge or skills in a significant way.
Self-Regulation: I manage my feelings and actions and am disciplined and self-controlled.
Zest: I feel vital and full of energy. I approach life feeling activated and enthusiastic.
More Than a Game
Having a clear understanding of your character strengths also changes the context of your sport: Sports isn’t simply a place to show off your strengths, but is to be used as a vehicle to grow your strengths.
Adversarial moments on the field can now be seen as a chance to build character muscles of bravery, hope, or leadership. Moments that typically fuel anger – a poor call by the official, an opponent’s cheating, off-field distractions – are now opportunities to build self-regulation or use humor. And we can see how strengthening these muscles can also come back to enhance off-field performance too.
Start by rating your top character strengths and set goals based around how to “exercise” them in competitive moments. Try reflecting on games and workouts differently too. Performances needn’t be evaluated strictly by numbers – such as, “I lifted x weight,” “I got x hits” – but also by how closely you aligned to your strengths.
For instance, with perseverance:
- Did I stay committed to those last three reps even though it was hard and I wanted to quit?
Or with love of learning, simply:
- What did I learn today? Did I pick up something new?
Viewed in this way, sports become so much more than just a game. Just like other performance settings – job, hobbies, interactions with friends or our children – sports serve as an opportunity to strengthen and further shape who you really are.