Some people call it “War” when in fact it’s just a game. Others call this “Journey” while playing with Death.



Can “traditional athletes” learn how to deal with stress from extreme sports and Oriental martial art masters?


Photo:Duncan Rawlinson


Written by Peter Joffe


From an existential perspective, to live fully and happily, we need to engage what we most fear” (Wong & Tomer, 2011).



In the following article, I am going to discuss differences and similarities of dealing with stress in traditional and extreme sports as well as an approach to this problem in eastern martial arts.
Some practical experience in boxing and kick-boxing, Chinese martial art and sky-diving give me general idea about the topic which I am going to talk about. Though, I have never considered myself as an extreme athlete and even less as an expert in Zen or Tao.

Writing articles on psychological topics and especially stress is always difficult. This phenomenon is multifactorial and controversial. For every subtopic of this article, which is devoted to particular question, there are  respected gurus who explore this field very profoundly. So possibly I cannot and do not want to go into deep on a specific subject, especially so complicated as religion, self-esteem or eastern philosophy.

On the other hand, it is impossible to separate stress from social, cultural and philosophical aspects of our society. Roots of stress and methods of dealing with it are there. Thus I cannot entirely ignore complicated issues. Therefore I tried to take the main ideas from specific scientific fields and to combine them in one picture which can be understandable for coaches, parents and athletes. Perhaps, this helps them to change and to improve something.

 Why we are stressed in sport?

Stress and sport often come together, and numerous researches are devoted to this subject. Stress in sport has multifactorial causes and may manifest itself differently. It can be massive choking which is clear for everyone or subtle/small mistakes noticeable only for specialists. It can explode in an acute catastrophe or smoke in a long-term burnout.

However, despite the complexity of this phenomenon it can be expressed simply: we are stressed when we are threatened to lose something which is essential for us. And in my opinion, there are three main things that we are afraid to lose while doing sports: social status (others opinion about us), self-esteem (our opinion about ourselves) and…life.

1. Social status.

You are stupid cow!… Go fuck yourself, you will die here!… You are letting down your coaches!… You are performing for your country!”   The documentary “Over the limit.”

The fear of losing social status is more or less straightforward. We are social creatures, and most of us do care what other people think about us. Even if we pretend that we don’t.

In relationships between athletes and society, parties make some kind of contract. Public guarantee successful athletes money, fame and social status whereas athletes “ agree” to be under scrutiny and to satisfy the expectations.
Thus, they have to worry about the prestige of their country and club, the expectations of fans, and not let down their coaches and parents, who work hard to bring athletes at the top.

Obviously this puts a person under huge pressure; however, there is an opinion that mentioned responsibilities may be beneficial for athletes because it pushes people forward and facilitate their performance and do not allow athletes to back down.

For example, when I watched the documentary “ Over the limit” which describes training of Russian rhythmic gymnast Margarita Mamun during her preparation to Rio Olympics, I was wondering why Irina Viner (boss of Russian rhythmic gymnastics) allowed to film these controversial details of the training process and later agreed the documentary’s launch. And the answer, in my opinion, is simple — actually she enjoyed herself and considered systematic abuse justifiable and beneficial for Mamun. At the end of the day, she has won the Olympics.

Interestingly, some of my student’s parents approve these methods as well, and they are ready to accept them for their kids “because this delivers a result.” Unfortunately, in most situations, it will not.

My metaphor for these parents is the following:

Imagine that you are in an apartment on the tenth floor and you need to go outside. A way that looks like the shortest and most obvious is to jump out the window. You always hear remarkable stories about people who did that and survived (became champions).

What you probably do not want to hear is that the vast majority of those who jumped did not survive and did not become champions. You probably think something was wrong with them, or they and their parents had not put in enough efforts. You are wrong, even if they did everything right, in this jump only the strongest and the lucky ones have a chance to survive.

There are other ways out — stairs and even lifts. However, to find them you need to go out of the box of your “apartment”—your beliefs and prejudices. Perhaps it takes the effort to learn how to use these new ways. However, these roads are more enjoyable and safe even if you don’t become a champ.

Viner works with a “cream of the crop” of Russian gymnastics which is chosen from a pool of thousands of talented girls. The success of Russian gymnastic is based on the massive popularity of this sport in Russia, traditions, and work of thousands of gifted coaches —not on a unique Viner’s methods. Yes, elite athletes continue to deliver medals under her command. However, perhaps even better results can be achieved using a different approach.

Under pressure of constant social responsibility, people may feel that they have no right on mistake. It is a prevailing opinion that when failure is not an option people perform better. We know remarkable stories about generals ordered to burn ships to prevent their troops even think about a retreat. In reality, however, this doesn’t work and may rather bring a despair than resoluteness.

I am not sure that athletes who are pushed against the wall of responsibility perform better. Level of subject’s anxiety depends on perceived task importance. So, in this case, social obligations to others ( country, coaches, parents, etc.) may constantly exaggerate significance of task thus to increase the price for mistake, stress and consequently to impair performance.

For example, Morgulev et al. found that players actually performed worse during the playoffs when the game was crucial for team elimination from the competition. Authors concluded that assumption that people perform better when pushed against the wall or have their ships burned is generally wrong (Morgulev & Galily, 2018).

2. Self-esteem.

People not only care about other’s opinion about them but they need to have a good opinion about themselves.
It can be said that in Western culture to have high self-esteem is considered beneficial for person and society at a whole.

However, this notion has been questioned by some researchers. Artificially inflated high self-esteem make people not willing to work, to blame others for failure and don’t except critique (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003).

People get satisfactory self-evaluation through the success in the field which is important for them. (Jennifer Crocker, Lee, & Park, 2014). Since for many athletes, sport is really significant, or even the most essential thing in life, failure in sport presents a serious threat to their self-esteem.

Jennifer Crocker and Lora Park argue that even more important is not how high, or low self-esteem is but what people are going to do for improving and defending it. They suggested that eventually, such pursuit of self-esteem may be detrimental (J. Crocker & Park, 2004). I will talk about this in more details later.

3. A threat to life.

Although in most traditional sports there is no real threat to life, nevertheless, some derivatives from this fundamental for humans threat are still present in many sports.

These include injuries from collisions in contact sports, like for example, football, ice hockey, rugby, etc. Some sports are even closer to the real death threat. For instance, in boxing or MMA opponent really tries to “knock out” you that means to make unconscious or unable to continue fighting which is to some extent embodiment of death.

Some non-contact sports (e.g. acrobatics) include very complicated technical elements which present a severe risk of injury.
And of course, death in its ultimate form is the primary source of stress in extreme sports.

Extreme sports.

Whereas it is obvious that high-level athletes in “traditional” sports are under tremendous pressure there is another kind of sports — so-called “extreme,” where stress may be even greater. These athletes pay for the mistakes with their lives. As one extreme skier put it:”… imagine if every time you missed a basket, somebody would shoot you in the head” (Brymer & Schweitzer, 2013a).

What is an extreme sport?

The most common definition is the sport where mistake results in serious injury or death. However, there is one important moment which is worth to clarify.

Usually, when we are talking about sport, we mean “… all forms of competitive physical activity or games…” Wikipedia .

The key word here is “competitive”. Sport means competition, so in this sense, extreme sports are the same as traditional ones. Thus reasons for stress may be the same; social status, self-esteem and, of course, injury/death.

The different case may be extreme activities with their non-competitive ethic, possibly even higher death risk, and mostly wilderness environment. (Nick J. Watson & Parker, 2015)
Examples are big-wave surfing, BASE jumping, solo-climbing, extreme skiing, etc.

For convenience, further, in my article, I continue to use term extreme sports though I mostly will be talking about extreme non-competitive activities where there are no rules, referees, and medals.

People who participate in these sports often risk their lives without any reward. Are they a good example of “pure” athletes? Are they really free?


Well, being adept of extreme activity does not automatically make person ideal athlete who is immune to all mentioned above traditional stress influences.
Perhaps these athletes are not free from the same ambitions and worries as traditional ones. These include:


Though there is no direct competition in extreme activities indirect one: “Nobody did this before” may be present.
In the age of social media, being on the top of extreme sport can bring fame and money through YouTube clicks and sponsorship. With fame and money worries may come.


Elite extreme athletes may have worries about their self-esteem through the pursuit of exception and indirect competition with others. However, even ordinary adventure sports participants may have the same problem. An office worker may be eager to improve their self-esteem, escape boredom and feeding their ego by doing something extraordinary: “ I am not the same as others.”


There may be other non-healthy motivations like adrenaline addiction, sensation seeking, and even more severe psychological disorders.

Tofler et al. described two extreme sports legends—Dean Potter ( solo climber, high-liner, BASE jumper) and Dan Osman ( solo climber and rope-jumper) from a psychiatric perspective (Tofler, Hyatt, & Tofler, 2018).

Authors concluded that both athletes had serious psychological disorders some of which possibly were inherited.
These include: ADHD, impulse control disorder, conduct disorder, etc.
They were obsessed with fame, winning, desire to be exceptional at any cost. There were rumours that Potter might use drugs to overcome anxiety.

Both eventually died from negligence and miscalculated risk.
Dean died during illegal, and never-before-performed wingsuit flight through a notch on a granite face at Yosemite National Park.
Dan lost his life when he attempted rope jump without proper checking the ropes, despite warnings from his friends.

There can be other motives.

Described above examples well fit into a prevailing opinion about extreme sport:

There is something pathological in doing that. People who practise such sports are irresponsible psychos, obsessed with the passion to risk, glory and, even death. Or at least they cannot find another way to cope with depression, boredom, and inability to have healthy social relationships.

However, this cliché is not correct.

Though these reasons for participation may be present in some cases and/or to some extent, most extreme athletes have more profound motives. Extreme risk provides an excellent opportunity to explore and develop a person. Athletes learn to manage fear and ability to exercise control when even a slight mistake is fatal. They learn mindfulness and concentration. Their ability for social interaction and understanding other people actually becomes better. Because most of the adventure sports take place in the natural environment, they develop an intimate connection with Nature (Kerr & Mackenzie, 2012).

Interestingly, motivation in extreme sports  is not something static, it may change through the years. Extreme athletes can transform themselves into different persons.

For example, professional climber said:

When you are an amateur climber, a lot of the pressure you put on yourself. . . . Accomplishing a climb like [my first multi-pitch climb] . . . it is self-ego . . . It’s self-gratification. . . . I certainly don’t go climbing for those reasons anymore. I still do hard climbs, but they come from an inner drive because I just haven’t accomplished all the climbs that I have wanted to do in my life“(Kerr & Mackenzie, 2012).

In summary: extreme athletes may gain “…the new perspective on life which enriches all aspect of life” (Holmbom, Brymer, & Schweitzer, 2017).

Concerning the topic of this article we may be interested in one particularly important question:
How extreme athletes manage stress and fear? Do they have some different strategies compare to traditional sportsmen?

Coping strategies in mainstream sport and extreme activities.

From many definitions of stress concerning sport, I like this one: “Stress is the interaction between three elements: perceived demand, perceived ability to cope, and the perception of the importance of being able to cope with the demand”. It belongs to McGrath and I have derived it from Staal’s work (Staal, 2004). Simply put, stress is a state where athletes are not sure that they can complete a task that is important to them.

Of course, this is some oversimplification, but from this definition, methods of dealing with stress may be grouped in two categories:

1. Increase athletes confidence in their ability.
2. Decrease the ultimate importance of task from an athlete’s point of view.

Traditional sport: You can do it!

In my opinion, traditional sport’s psychology concentrates more on dealing with “not sure.” It means that the main task is to make athletes believe in their ability and to be better prepared for a stressful situation.
There are many different methods to do this. Some of them are individual and specific thus refer to a particular event or group of athletes. In this article, I want to discuss only the main, in my opinion, approaches which may claim the role of concepts in sport’s psychology.

1. Understanding and dissecting stress situation

Basically it is some kind of psychoanalysis.

For example, Schinke and colleagues suggested: “A Protocol for Teaching Resilience to High Performance Athletes “.

This is an attempt to dissect the stress situation analytically. Athletes learn how to find the source of catastrophic thoughts and negative emotions. During analysis, athletes eventually understand that situation maybe not too bad, and there are always chances for success (Schinke, Peterson, & Couture, 2004).

Well, it may be a good method but from my coaching experience of many years working with boxers and kick-boxers, I can say that appealing to logic sometimes doesn’t help. People may be just irrationally scare!

2. To rehearse and to mock stress situation.

Stress often may be caused by unexpected situations. Planning helps to avoid unexpectedness as much as possible.
Rehearsed stress situation is already not so stressful. Athletes learn to accept pressure as part of their environment. Their response becomes automated thus less vulnerable to stress.

Look how dealt with stress All Blacks (New Zealand rugby team):

We were trying to walk toward the pressure. So we brought in… strategies like simulated training of unpredicted events, putting pressure on guys at training, trying to upset them…. And whilst the last thirty minutes of the 2011 final was pretty difficult… the players were aware of the situation we were in and had to execute our plans” (Hodge & Smith, 2014).

This is a useful method. Probably it is better to start from childhood when it is easier to manage stress and kid’s mind is still forming.

However how you can train “unpredicted events”? They are unpredicted! Can you anticipate and rehearse everything? Additionally, it is difficult to rehearse a life-threatening situations because you cannot allow putting an athlete at serious risk in training.

3. Cultivating  high self-esteem.

Another coping strategy: You have to believe in your ability, and then hard task becomes a challenge, not a threat. This approach is very popular in Western society where high self-esteem is cheered.

Well, believing in yourself looks good. But what when things go wrong? How are you going to maintain self-belief?
Here may appear a danger to defend self-esteem at any cost.

Chasing and defending their self-esteem people may get an emotional and motivational boost which may facilitate a success. However, in a long-term this pursuit may be exhaustive and counterproductive. Especially influence of inflated worries about self-esteem my be dangerous when a person fails to perform essential for him to/her task or when there is a serious threat to fail in a field which is crucial for self-evaluation. For athletes this is a performance.

Thus the problem is that person may overemphasise self-importance and importance of performance. When people are worried about their self-esteem, they concentrate on themselves to the detriment of others, progress in a chosen field and their personal development. Defending self-esteem person may become aggressive, intolerant to other’s opinions and even susceptible to cheating. This may be damaging for relationships and eventually for their personality at a whole (Jennifer Crocker, et al., 2014).

Exaggeration of the importance of performance leads, as I mentioned before, to increased stress.
However, as correctly pointed out Jennifer Crocker, et al., success in performance is not a fundamental human’s need and shouldn’t be chased at any cost (J. Crocker & Park, 2004).

In summary: Self-belief is a cornerstone of Western anti-stress strategy. However, despite some possible benefits, it is not a fundamental solution for stress.

“… people pursue self-esteem by trying to satisfy their beliefs about what they need to be or do to have worth and value; this pursuit has temporary emotional benefits when people succeed, but big costs when they fail” (J. Crocker & Park, 2004).

4. Religion.



Religion is another cornerstone, and it is probably one of the strongest.

Do you remember Viking’s berserks? They allegedly had no fear of death because they believed a place in Valhalla was waiting for them.

Another benefit may be some degree of fatalism. Not a lot depends on you; everything is in God’s hands. So basically no need to be much worried about choices and decisions.
You are under the patronage of God, and if you behave accordingly, He will protect you and rewards you. As Yuval Noah Harari put it “ Religion is a well-defined contract.”
You have to trust in God and believe that He’ll give you what you want.

But what if He is not giving you what you want? Millions of religious athletes are eager to reach the top but they will not. Maybe their wishes are not good enough? Or He doesn’t care?

Well, I am not sceptical and even less cynical. Religion may bring long-term benefits to athletes. It can provide purpose and profound meaning to their lives. It helps them to remain faithful, patient and persistent despite defeats and difficulties. Advanced in religious development athletes understand that:
“. . it’s not the victory, it’s the path that you take to get there that makes you a better person, and it’s the sacrifices, and the training and the struggles and the work that you put in that’s going to make you a better person than rather just winning and standing on the top rung of the award stand ”. (Nick J Watson & Nesti, 2005).

However, in my opinion, despite significant benefits, religion still does not eliminate worries. At the end of the day why we make contracts? Maybe because we have doubts.

Coping with stress in extreme sports: It is not a goal which is important, it’s a journey.

Differently, from traditional athletes, their extreme colleagues have no concrete, ultimately important task. And their stress coping strategy comes from a different understanding of what is really important in someone’s life.
Adventure athlete’s approach is to develop: “Knowledge of self, rather than just self-belief” (Pain & Pain, 2005).
So, how they cope with stress?

1. No ultimate goals.

Due to not having competitive aims, they are free from worries about achieving a particular result. They do not have to meet somebody’s expectations. Rather than restrict themselves with the climb at a particular summit and to bet everything on it, they devote efforts to endless journey with no ultimate victories and defeats.
Or…Possibly death is their final defeat?

2. Acceptance of death.

We keep on worrying about death to the extent that we are not free to live” (Wong & Tomer, 2011).

Well, perhaps extreme athletes are free from worries about particular goals and competitions but what about fear to lose life?

Theoretically, we all know that we are going to die. However, deep inside we think that death is what always happened with others and we are scared to face a reality of our own death.
However, due to the peculiarity of their activity extreme athletes have to learn to accept the possibility of their death.
They have to accept this without exaggerated self-importance and paralysing fear.
However, it doesn’t mean  that “ I do not care.” Rather it means that fear to die must not prevent you from living.

When standing on a cliff edge, BASE jumper knows that he/she may die not somewhen “one day” but in the next few seconds. But they have to accept this possibility and jump…into life. One extreme athlete described his attitude to death in these words:
None of that shit (materialism) actually matters at the end of the day. … Just friendships, memories, experiences, you know. . . I think as extreme sports people we get to appreciate that a little bit more than the most. . . You just realise that life is finite, and there is an ending. We ARE all gonna die, that’s a fact. But it is all about how we LIVE, that actually matters” (Holmbom, et al., 2017).

And the following sentence may be a conclusion:

“In direct contrast to the Freudian position, we put ourselves at risk not because we have a death wish, but because we wish to confront and overcome our deepest fears” (Pain & Pain, 2005).

3. Don’t be afraid to be afraid. Accept fear.

Stress my lead to paralysing fear. And of course, fear of death may paralyse you. Yes, you may learn to accept the reality of death rationally, however, in the exact moment of jumping from the cliff or hanging on a rock above an abyss, this ancient instinct surges from the deep of your unconsciousness and freezes your limbs and mind.

The strategy which extreme athletes developed to overcome fear is to accept it. Thus they don’t fight fear and they don’t run from it as well. They transcend it (Brymer & Schweitzer, 2013a).
So they actually enjoy to be scared and being able to continue despite that and to control their fear.

Fear is a necessary medium of extreme sport which allows extreme athletes to explore and develop themselves. This is how the sea is necessary for the swimmer, although he may drown in it. Ability to move through the fear makes them stronger.

Furthermore, they consider fear as an essential element of survival which prevents them from doing stupid things.

Thus extreme athletes ”… live in relationship to fear. Extreme sports participants perceive the experience of fear as an essential element to their survival. Fear is spoken about as if it is a healthy, productive experience” (Brymer & Schweitzer, 2013a).

4. Accept that you are not in complete control.

You thought about everything. Equipment is carefully prepared . The route is learned. For years of practice, you have developed enough skills and got sufficient experience. You took into consideration a weather. Are you controlling everything now? No. Extreme activities have so many influences that it is impossible to predict and to control everything.

And extreme athletes understand that. One extreme kayaker said that to be entirely in control it is better to abandon risky activity and go around a waterfall instead of paddling in (Brymer & Schweitzer, 2013b).
But even if you are living a normal life do you think you are in full control of it? If you feel so—it’s an illusion.

Perhaps extreme athletes don’t have such an illusion which, in my opinion, is good. This saves them from disappointment.

Doing extreme sport, you have to give up the attempts to control everything. Try to control yourself instead.

7. Knowing and gradually developing your ability and skills.

I hit the ground again during landing. I made a final “hook turn”too low and didn’t have enough time to set my canopy for a nice landing. If you think that most sky-diving deaths are due to canopy malfunction you are mistaken. Most of them happen because of low-turn landing. During sharp turns canopy rapidly gains speed and loses altitude. It is called “swoop”. You can exploit gained speed for a nice, long flight just a few centimetres above the ground. However, if altitude’s reserve is not enough, you will not be able to pull out from rapid descending and may hit the ground at speed up to 80 km/h .

It was exactly what I did. Only my sporting background saved me from injury. I managed to group at the last moment and after rolling in the dust was back on my feet.

“What are you doing Peter!”— shouted my instructor, an elderly man, limping towards me. He broke his leg many years ago during a hard landing. I didn’t pay much attention to his shouting. He always shouted. I considered him overcautious. A risk is necessary for sky-diving, isn’t it? At the end of the day, I want to learn swoop and to impress people with my landing. Like these guys.

I just need to do some more training.

On my way to canopy’s packing area, I passed by another instructor, a 35 years old man. I respected him. Always quiet-speaking he gave precise and non-emotional guidance. He was a Word champ in accuracy landing and despite relatively young age had vast experience. So when he started to speak, I stopped.

“I have been looking at how you are landing for a while, and I think that it is just a matter of time when you kill yourself. You cannot swoop.”

He said this very quietly, but his words struck me. It was not fear. I just realised with striking clarity that it is actually true: I am playing Russian roulette. I will not impress anybody. Most likely I will die in a rather stupid way trying to feed my ego. I was occasional sky-diver, and despite the relatively solid overall amount of jumps I was not doing sky-diving regularly; just from time to time. Swoop landing, however, demands precise calculation, continuous training, and maintaining a form. If you are not able to jump consistently, it is better do not swoop. And I stopped.

Extreme activity is not a place for a sudden realisation that your skills are not good enough. It may be already too late.

Most of the extreme athletes have a good knowledge of their abilities and develop their skills gradually and continuously with all necessary precautions. BASE jumpers usually start as sky-divers, and rope-free climbers start with the ropes (Brymer, 2017).

Sometimes they even can cancel their performance despite difficult and time-consuming preparation, if they consider conditions are not right. Arijs et al. described occurrence when experienced BASE jumper did not hesitate to cancel his jump despite all others did it because he thought that conditions are risky. (Arijs, Chroni, Brymer, & Carless, 2017).

I think you have to have some guts to go against a collective decision and insist on your own. Once, in a similar situation, I had jumped because others jumped (and they probably did it because I did ) and we all put ourselves under unnecessary risk.

Knowing your ability rather than just believing in yourself and your lucky star can save you from putting yourself in a trouble.

… there is a notable difference between impulsive high-risk takers and cutting-edge, expert, pioneering extreme sport proponents. Both types of participants risk injury and death while exploring their outer skill limits. Highly trained extreme sport expert proponents have developed the skill set to manage the frustration associated with deferred gratification and have learned to channel rather than be driven by their impulsivity” (Tofler, et al., 2018).

Flow in sports.

Well, can be an athlete in some psychological state where he/she is unsusceptible to stress?
That is where the concept of the “Flow” comes into light.

Flow can be described as a state when people:

1. Can concentrate on a limited stimulus’ field.
2. In which they can use their skills to meet clear demands.
3. People are so absorbed with the actions that they forget their problems and their separate identity.
4. People are obtaining a feeling of control over the environment.
5. People may go beyond their ego- boundaries and merge in one system with the activity. (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014)

Example of flow state can be found not only in sport but in many other fields like, for example, music and poetry. It attracts more and more attention from psychologists. However, in this article I want to discuss flow concerning sport and specifically to find an answer on the question: can it be a panacea from stress?

Well, in this state, athletes should be so absorbed in the action that they will not actually be vulnerable to external influences and anxiety.
Their movements are fluid, automatic and natural. Decisions are spontaneous, intuitive, fast and, at the same time, correct.

However, this state may be fragile.
From the definition of  flow it follows that to get in this state subjects have to perceive task difficulty as not exceeding their perceived ability to fulfil the task. In simple words, they have to be sure that they can make this. This assumption, accepted by many researchers, is a cornerstone of the flow concept (Harris, Vine, & Wilson, 2017).

However, this assumption reminds me the definition of stress: the state when a person perceives his/her ability as being not enough for perceived task difficulty.
So the logical consequence of these two constructions is that flow can happen only in optimal and stress-free conditions.

And one of the fathers of flow concept Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi pointed out that flow is vulnerable when there are worries about money, competition, and death (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). To all of these we may be exposed while doing traditional and extreme sports.
Thus we return to our starting point and can conclude that:

You can only be in  flow when you get rid of stress, rather than  flow can actually guarantee you freedom from stress. Worries and anxiety can destroy flow.

At least it is how many Western sport scientists understand and define flow phenomenon now.
Even the greatest examples of contemporary athletes like Messi and Federer are not always in flow and stress-free state. Why? Is it a fundamental contradiction between flow and competition?


Lionel Messi before the match with Croatia during World Cup 2018. He was not in  “flow” in that game.

Managing stress in Oriental philosophical tradition and psychological training.


It seems to me that sometimes contemporary sports psychologists “open” things which long been known to Oriental martial art masters. I already wrote about that in my article on implicit learning.

Problems of stress and flow were well known to kung-fu teaches as well. And, in my opinion, their approach was much more fundamental and comprehensive.

Differently, from western martial art training which had predominantly practical application, Japanese and Chinese martial arts were considered as a method of self-development.

I am not knowledgeable enough to discuss this topic in deep, however, in my opinion, the quintessence of eastern martial art practice is to develop person’s non-involvement into action and non-attachment to “self” which is a basis of Taoist and Buddhist philosophical traditions.

Attachment to life is one of the strongest instincts for humans. Thus it is not surprising that some of Taoist and Buddhist masters chose martial practices, where this threat is present, as a powerful method for development of “non-attachment”.

Moreover martial arts adepts should not consider themselves and their opponents as something separate and hostile but rather as the constituent elements of a single system and Universe at a whole. Master has to learn the laws of Universe’s functioning and never violate them in pursuit of subjective desires, passions and aspirations. It means “non-involvement”. If he/she achieves this stage they will be able to merge themselves with the actions and with opponent thus react without thinking, spontaneously and correctly (Abaev N.V, 1983).

This state of is to some extent similar to what after thousands of years western psychologists named “flow”. Not surprisingly, some adepts of traditionally western activities started to use the word “Zen” when describing their highest psychological states.

Probably the key difference between “western flow” and “eastern Zen” is that in the eastern philosophical tradition you have to practise non-attachment in everyday life thus basically live in non-attachment/non-involvement way rather than implement Zen or Tao only during an activity.

So, for Zen masters, their stress-free and flow state follows from the right way of living and actually was independent of particular actions and conditions.
Your spirit must be free and unruffled, regardless of whether you are fighting or weaving baskets when shooting archery in a shooting gallery or standing on the edge of a thousand meters abyss.

Thus it is not an action that brings you into  flow; it is Zen (Tao) that makes every action you perform  flow.

Is it worth it?

This question is constantly asked in both traditional and extreme sports.

Though in traditional sport predominant narrative is hard work, sacrifice and eventually victory and reward, the reality is quite different. Despite putting tremendous efforts, most athletes have not made it at the top. So what is their reward?

In extreme sports things may be even worse: “have not made it” very often means death. Is the risk worth it?

Two types of narratives in sports.

We used to see crying athletes. And they cry not only when they are losing but very often after the big victories.
This suits very well to a dominant idea about sport in our society: Athlete worked hard, sacrifice everything for victory, and finally he/she won. Now it is a good time to cry.
Public so desperate to believe in these nice stories that it expects athletes must conform to this image.

However, although many athletes really believe and follow this narrative, some of them just pretend to do so and actually “playing” an ideal athlete (Carless & Douglas, 2013). In reality, these sportsmen prefer to train clever rather than hard, and there are things in life which are more important for them than sport. These may be family, love, friendship, etc.

There is another narrative about sports which is openly or covertly supported by more and more traditional and particularly extreme athletes— sport as genuine enjoyment, discovery, and self-development. However Western society yet doesn’t ready or doesn’t want to accept this.

Interestingly, the traditional sport which is mostly not life-threatening is often described in war metaphors like “battle”, “sacrifice”, “victory”, etc. This serves to raise stakes in competition and make it looks for the general public as a matter of “ life and death.” Look if you have doubts .

At the same time, in extreme sports, where death threat is real, completely different description is used. Extreme athletes tend to describe their sport as a journey rather than a war (Arijs, et al., 2017; Nick J Watson & Nesti, 2005). This attitude has a deep meaning, and it is probably the best way for improvement and even for survival in extreme sports.

The real question is whether this approach is possible in the traditional sport which is all about winning?
Well, this is not only possible but probably it is probably the best way to practise it.

When ancient, extreme and traditional all come together.

Once the mother of my student told me: “ Peter let’s find a Buddhist monk  who can use his non-traditional methods to make our son the World Champ. We can pay him good money.”

Well, maybe we could find the monk who will take the money (why not?), but the first thing he will teach our boy will be humility and the rejection of the idea of ​​becoming the world champion. This is a kind of eastern paradox.

I often hear that all great sportsmen were highly competitive from childhood and only competitive kids can make at the top in traditional sport. In my opinion it is just another cliche. The ways to the top may be different.  We shouldn’t try to force uncompetitive children to be obsessed with winning. This is how to push them out of the window from the tenth floor. They will not survive this way. Better to find another approach.

However, we shouldn’t be hypocritical and pretend that traditional sport is possible without competitions.
So how can be revelations and experience of extreme sports and eastern martial arts transferred into the competitive world of the traditional sport? And what is a justification for doing this?

Yes, this can be done if a competition is considered as part of the sporting environment rather than its ultimate goal.
Like there are the rocks for solo-climbers, cliffs for BASE jumpers and waves for surfers.
Like it is fight for Orient martial art masters.

Sport and competition are the means and parts of the wider and deeper process of self-exploration and self-development. If you accept and be able to implement such  attitude you cannot lose and actually you have no reason to be stressed.

Paradoxically, this approach may be even better for achieving highest traditional goals. You can go through Olympic and world titles on the way to higher summits of self-development and exploration, and you will never stop.

Western sport psychologists just started to explore phenomenon of flow. Many of them try to artificially bring athlete to this state with the goal of winning. They cannot succeed. Flow or non-attachment/non-involvement, were long ago known by martial art masters and sometimes it is known to extreme athletes nowadays. And their experience and knowledge tell us that flow cannot be achieved when it is burdened with the obsessive desire to win, the fear of losing and the pursuit of self-esteem. Flow and true stress-resilience is a consequence of the right attitude—sport is endless journey of self-self-exploration and development.

We coaches have to encourage such an attitude in our students from their early years. On the other hand, from childhood to put everything on victory, although it can bring results to the chosen and the lucky few, will almost certainly leave the overwhelming majority of sports participants stressed and disappointed.

Thus this is a conclusion:

…traditional performing might be also effective if guided by deep values and close connection with ‘thy self.’… lives (during and after sports) might be more prosperous if winning and traditional way of being and doing for elite achievement were put into a different perspective (not the ultimate and only goal), one cultivated by meaning and purpose” (Arijs, et al., 2017).



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