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Is ‘why’ good for us?


Jonathan Hobbs

As a self-coached athlete, I put a lot of thought into my training – why do I need to do a certain session? why am I even doing it in the first place? I believe that sport (and anything we do) should be accompanied by some sort of philosophy or at least a reason. I am always wary of being influenced by habit or groupthink. However, sometimes I am guilty of over-thought and perhaps I ought to spend less energy worrying about my training and just focus on doing it. And is it necessary for us to know why we are doing it? Do our reasons and motivations affect the benefits we gain from exercise?


I was flicking through the pages of Middle Distance Running – written by the eccentric Australian coach, Percy Wells Cerutty – and stumbled across the second appendix, which is titled, ‘On Intellectualism’. Throughout the book he is very critical of Roger Bannister and here he singles him out as someone who was too intellectual – that this prevented him from reaching greater heights. In the same paragraph he gives the same criticism to John Landy, the second man after the Bannister to break the 4-minute barrier. (It is insightful, if not ironic, that it took two intensely thoughtful athletes to overcome that pervasive mental block.)



Cerutty believed that overuse of the mind hampered the natural or instinctive physical abilities. He pointed out that many great athletes have certainly not been academic people and he was not wrong – considering the great sporting achievements of Sir Mo “Yeah, no, definitely” Farah, for example. Clearly, those with such a singular focus on their sport have no time or need to think too deeply about the wider world, but Cerutty was certain that such thinking is harmful in itself.


Recently I also glimpsed an article in Athletics Weekly about Niamh Emerson who is, apparently, a rising star in the heptathlon. In order to replicate good training performances in competition, she uses a mental trick: “we literally need to be robots”. Putting aside the metaphysical challenge of how a person can ‘literally’ transform into a robot, this takes anti-intellectualism to another level. This is not especially new. Dr Steve Peters’ ‘Chimp Paradox’ talks about suppressing or managing emotion in favour of automation. These are techniques that help athletes to perform excellent physical feats. There is also much made of the state of flow and even more made of ‘being in the moment’.



This is all an attempt to avoid what is known as ‘analysis paralysis’ or ‘choking’ or, if one delves too deep, spiralling into the disease of nihilism. We simply do not have the time or mental power to make all of our decisions consciously, much less understand them all.


However, outright rejection of this thoughtfulness is dangerous. If you do not allow yourself to engage your mind then you will miss out on the benefits and eliminate its very purpose. A robot cannot feel the enjoyment of competing nor experience the satisfaction of success. Even if pleasure is not the main goal, an outcome cannot truly be beneficial if it is not appreciated.


Another, more philosophical, question is whether the athlete is even capable of success if they are not conscious. If the athlete simply does whatever their coach instructs, are their achievements their own or do they belong to the coach? Cerutty quotes another author: ‘When we are being drilled we are the tool of the instructor.’ It requires admirable faith and considerable selflessness on both sides for an athlete to render himself a mere tool of another.


Further, if an athlete surrenders control of their actions, this risks ignoring valuable insight and input. I see athletes, field athletes especially, being dictated to by their coaches. The coach, sitting in the stands, tells the athlete to wait for the wind to change, for example. The athlete watches their coach, anxious for them to give permission, and dare not make a decision of their own. Somehow they agree that the coach, some 30-40m away, is in a better position to judge the conditions and the athlete’s readiness than the athlete standing there. More than once, I have seen this lead to a delay, if not total breakdown, in communication, then panic, and failure.


It does not take exceptional intelligence to win at any sport – race walking, with all its technique and tactics, is hardly theoretical physics. Many academics, if they ever divert themselves to think about sport, realise this and are often tempted by snobbery. But all people cannot be judged by only one attribute and no individual can be superior in every aspect. Therefore the ancient Greeks believed that men should be educated in a wide variety of skills, just as we have with our national curriculum. As such, just as academics ought to practise exercise, athletes ought to try and engage their minds.


There are, indeed, limits. It is very valuable – in terms of motivation, progress, enjoyment and virtue – to consider why you do what you do. However, there is a point at which one must simply take for granted that it is the right thing. In mathematics, a text called Principia Mathematica sought to set out a foundation upon which could be proven all mathematical truths. It went to such depth that it took several hundred pages before it could even be proven that 1+1=2. This is not an exercise that is conducive to making forward progress. Sometimes, it might just be better to heed the Nike marketing slogan and, ‘Just do it’.