Is sport a therapy? Racing against the shadow

Over the summer months, while I was catching up on the latest in the cycling world, I came across this quote from Lance Armstrong “My therapy is riding my bike, playing golf and having a beer”. Armstrong finds himself involved in a legal battle since he admitted a history of doping that carried him to 7 Tour de France victories. This quote was captured in an interview that also reveals he is planning to write a book – one that would “right all the lies that he told”. Maybe his ‘therapy’ will be the process of writing, but for sure he doesn’t sound too keen on working with a counselling professional “A little bit of reflection helps to learn and grow, but I’m not going to dwell.”

When I read the article, I smiled at the quote. Yes, it is typical of Armstrong – a strong character, I am not surprised he is finding his own way to deal with what must be his world turning upside down. The article had reminded me of several conversations I have had with athletes across many sports, and some of the cyclists I have coached. I really value the positives that sport and exercise can bring to people’s lives. Yet, I think the shadow side can be overlooked in a contemporary culture that makes idols of elite sportspeople. Why do people aspire to sporting success? Love of the sport, or fighting demons?

“Sometimes I feel as if I’m racing with my own shadow. But that’s one thing I’ll never be able to outrun. Nobody can shake off their own shadow.”
― Haruki Murakami, After Dark

Similarly, I have heard athletes speak of a meditative process, “Running is my meditation”. To some extent, I can relate to that. Certainly there were times in my own competitive career when I was out training on isolated country roads: there was just me, my bike. my pedalling, my breathing. I felt very present, connected to my body. I believe 100% that moments like this, moments of ‘here and now’ are beautiful to experience, and examples of mindfulness in everyday life. However, is it really mediation?

rowers meditatingWhether we are discussing sport as a therapy or sport as a mediation, I believe we must consider intention behind the act. I often talk to my meditation students about the importance of a ‘formalised’ approach to meditating. One sits on the cushion or chair and is totally aware of what they are about to do, about to commit too. Just like preparing for sporting performance, where each training session is designed to be specific, when training the mind (which really, meditation simply is) we apply the same principles. We might say “It is my intention to sit for 20 minutes, and do my best to place my attention on the breath”. The word ‘formal’ can be off-putting, particularly when many people find meditation from the gateway of wanting to lower stress or anxiety! Yet all that is meant by that is our attitude – it is a deliberate practice, not something we fall in to by chance. And this is my point about sport being a meditation, or a therapy – maybe sport can be meditative and therapeutic…but that is probably not the intention behind the act.

So if one may benefit psychologically from time on the bike, time on the trails, time in the pool why am I saying it is not technically therapy or meditation in motion? Intention aside, am I being pedantic with my nouns and adjectives?

Two things come to mind. Firstly, where we are placing our attention. I would argue that when someone is in the act of running, cycling or some other sporting activity, focus (at best*) is being placed on the activity itself. In meditation, and indeed therapy, there is a deliberate turning toward the mind mirrormental / emotional processes – we tune in to our inner world, one of mental events and feelings; maybe some of those feelings are emanating from physical sensations but they are more likely coming from emotional processes than attempts to supply adequate oxygen and fuel. In therapy, the thoughts are interrogated and may lead to insight; in meditation we learn how to watch the thoughts arise yet not act them out. And that brings me to my second point – the relational aspect seen in meditation and therapy. In meditation, we are working with the relationship to our thoughts, feelings, and emotions: we practice resting with whatever arises and learn how to not react – with time, this teaches us how to make more skilful choices, and to respond. In therapy, relationship is crucial (speaking from the Humanistic framework within which I like to work). In partnership, the therapist becomes the mirror for the client. Some may argue my relational link between therapy and meditation is stretching it a bit – but in my experience (personal, and from client work), when we are working on our relationship with the mental events in meditation, many of the thoughts arising are introjects from others so there is an element of ‘self-other’ even when just one of us is on the cushion!

I am aware that the meditation master Osho considers anything can be a meditation…and I will not argue with someone with a lot more meditative experience than me!! Some meditation traditions offer a way to transcend reality and altered state of consciousness; I am speaking from a perspective of mediation being a formal practice bringing us to, rather than escaping, the here and now. Armstrong’s** use of leisure activities are (arguably) taking him away from the storm around him – and who can blame him? As we also need to be kind to ourselves – the key is being conscious of our choices, and I would offer not to confuse the motivation behind an act.

*I say ‘at best’ because very often attention is being ‘dissociated’ – research has shown that whilst elite athletes are more likely to ‘associate’ (be with the activity, in tune with physical sensations etc), the majority of people let their attention drift – very often so they don’t connect with the exertion!

**I would never have believed it possible to get Osho and Lance Armstrong in the same paragraph!

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