Trying times call for a philosophical approach
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