Try­ing times call for a philo­soph­i­cal ap­proach

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

For the past year, I’ve been run­ning a phi­los­o­phy group at Sara­cens rugby club. Once a month, I go to Sara­cens’ train­ing ground in St Al­bans and give a brief talk about an idea from an­cient phi­los­o­phy that can be ap­plied to our lives to­day. Then the group – usu­ally around 10 play­ers and staff – use that as a start­ing point to dis­cuss how to live well.

We’ve cov­ered ev­ery­thing from “ac­cept­ing ad­ver­sity” to “what makes a good friend”, and have ex­plored ideas from many wis­dom tra­di­tions – Epi­cu­rus, the Sto­ics, Tao­ism, Bud­dhism – as well as look­ing at how th­ese have been re­vived in mod­ern psy­chother­apy.

It all came from a project I’m work­ing on at Queen Mary, Univer­sity of London, to see if phi­los­o­phy can be use­ful beyond academia. I have run phi­los­o­phy clubs in a men­tal health char­ity and a Glas­gow prison, as well as the cur­rent one at Sara­cens.

I went in to the rugby club with zero ex­pec­ta­tions, and still find it strange to sit in a cir­cle with Jim Hamil­ton, Owen Far­rell and oth­ers, dis­cussing Aris­to­tle’s idea of the Golden Mean. But it’s been good fun for all of us. It was “the most popular thing we did last sea­son”, says de­fence coach Paul Gus­tard.

Why do rugby play­ers need to sit around talk­ing about wis­dom when they could be do­ing star jumps? Aren’t they liv­ing the dream al­ready? Yes and no. A ca­reer in pro­fes­sional sport comes with some in­cred­i­ble highs. “Win­ning a big game is an ec­static ex­pe­ri­ence,” one player said in the phi­los­o­phy club this week. “I don’t think peo­ple out­side sport ever feel like that.” But there are some real lows too.

We might think of ath­letes as su­per­men, but it turns out that a lot of their lives are beyond their con­trol. Are they fit? Does the coach pick them? How do the me­dia treat them? How does the rest of the team play? When those ex­ter­nal fac­tors are in their favour, they’re gods. When for­tune shifts, sud­denly they’re a no­body. The tran­si­tion to life after sport is par­tic­u­larly hard. How will you get that high again?

What has sur­prised me, talk­ing to var­i­ous coaches over the past year, is how lit­tle at­ten­tion most clubs pay to the men­tal and emo­tional well­be­ing of play­ers. Con­sid­er­ing how big a fac­tor the mind is in sport, you’d ex­pect top teams to invest as much in men­tal well­be­ing as they do in phys­i­cal fit­ness. In fact, it’s more or less ig­nored.

This re­flects the at­ti­tudes of wider so­ci­ety. If you get can­cer, you can ex­pect all the care and sym­pa­thy in the world. If you get men­tal ill­ness, no one wants to talk about it. That’s par­tic­u­larly true of male cul­ture. Men are not good at tak­ing care of them­selves or each other, and numb their pain with booze. As a re­sult, sui­cide is the big­gest killer of men un­der 50.

The val­ues of pro­fes­sional sports teams can also be quite toxic. “It’s a fear-driven in­dus­try, fo­cused on short-term suc­cess,” says Neil Burns, a men­tor who’s worked with top crick­eters. “Ath­letes of­ten get used up and tossed aside. Val­ues and well­be­ing don’t usu­ally get a look in.”

Sara­cens are try­ing to do things dif­fer­ently. When new man­age­ment ar­rived, in 2009, they in­sisted that the character, val­ues and well­be­ing of the play­ers were the top pri­or­ity, and re­sults would follow from that. They launched some­thing called the Per­sonal De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme, to support all the play­ers in their lives and their ca­reers after sport. They duly in­vited var­i­ous peo­ple in to talk to the play­ers, in­clud­ing mind­ful­ness ex­perts, a yoga teacher, even a philoso­pher (me).

The “Sara­cens revo­lu­tion” has cre­ated a unique cul­ture. Alex Goode, the 26-year-old Sara­cens and Eng­land full­back, says: “The old Sara­cens was not a par­tic­u­larly friendly place. There’d be quite bru­tal ban­ter. Now, there’s much more of a feel­ing of to­geth­er­ness.”

The esprit de corps has made the team stronger and bet­ter. Sara­cens won the Premier­ship in 2011, and broke the record last sea­son for most tries scored and most league points won, reach­ing the Euro­pean cup fi­nal and Premier­ship play-off fi­nal, both of which they sadly lost.

The Premier­ship fi­nal loss was to a du­bi­ous try in the last minute of ex­tra time, after a dis­al­lowed try of their own. De­feats don’t come more cruel. But, as Brian Moore noted in this pa­per, the team han­dled it with im­pres­sive in­tegrity and dig­nity.

Other teams are fol­low­ing their lead. The head of the Per­sonal De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme, David Pri­est­ley, moved to Arse­nal this sea­son to de­velop a pro­gramme there. In cricket, after some high-pro­file burnouts, the ECB is be­gin­ning to recog­nise that “in­ner fit­ness is the foun­da­tion for longterm suc­cess”, as for­mer Eng­land coach Andy Flower puts it. In the United States, the en­light­ened coach Phil “Zen Master” Jack­son is putting val­ues and wis­dom at the cen­tre of his bas­ket­ball team cul­ture.

It’s in­ter­est­ing to con­sider whether this fo­cus on well­be­ing could be trans­ferred to other in­dus­tries. Poor men­tal health costs the UK econ­omy roughly £23bil­lion a year through ab­sen­teeism and low morale, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­tre for Men­tal Health. Yet, ac­cord­ing to the Char­tered In­sti­tute of Per­son­nel and De­vel­op­ment (CIPD), only a third of Bri­tish com­pa­nies of­fer any stress man­age­ment or re­silience train­ing, which usu­ally means one half-day ses­sion a year.

That’s not enough. What im­presses me at Sara­cens is that it’s not a once-a-year work­shop. It’s a val­ues-driven cul­ture, sus­tained ev­ery day in ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion (or not). Just as im­por­tantly, it’s a plu­ral­ist ap­proach, ex­plor­ing var­i­ous ways to live well rather than forc­ing em­ploy­ees down one path. There is space for play­ers to dis­cuss ideas and share their own ex­pe­ri­ence. This helps cre­ate a cul­ture of peer support, which is more pow­er­ful than a one-off work­shop.

There is not one philo­soph­i­cal or sci­en­tific an­swer to the ques­tion of how to live well. But some philoso­phies have sur­vived for two mil­len­nia be­cause there is wis­dom in them. The chal­lenge for or­gan­i­sa­tions is to of­fer use­ful ideas and tech­niques, while en­abling em­ploy­ees to find what works for them. And if that sounds soft and fluffy to you, go and watch Sara­cens this sea­son. Jules Evans is the au­thor of Phi­los­o­phy for Life and Other Dan­ger­ous Sit­u­a­tions. The Sara­cens phi­los­o­phy club is part of a project funded by the Arts and Hu­man­i­ties Re­search

Coun­cil. The Stoic philoso­pher Epicte­tus taught that “it’s not events, but our opin­ion about events, that causes us suf­fer­ing” – an in­sight that in­spired cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy and mod­ern re­silience train­ing. The Bud­dha said:“Weare whatwe think. All thatweare is cre­ated by our thoughts.” We­can change our re­la­tion­ship to our thoughts through mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion. Many or­gan­i­sa­tions now­prac­tise mind­ful­ness, and there’s even a par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee de­voted to it.

Hu­man­ist hap­pi­ness Epi­cu­rus taught that the mean­ing of life is to be happy. We­can learn to be happy, by en­joy­ing the pre­sent­mo­ment and not striv­ing after false de­sires.

Aris­totelian flow Aris­to­tle thought hap­pi­ness comes when­we­ful­fil the drives of our na­ture for learn­ing, con­nect­ed­ness, free­dom and mean­ing­ful work – an in­sight that in­spired self-de­ter­mi­na­tion the­ory in psy­chol­ogy.

Golden Mean: Owen Far­rell, left, and his Sara­cens team-mates, above, in a thought­ful hud­dle; in­set, Aris­to­tle

Mind games: Jules Evans

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.