By Ken Reed

I coach a middle school girls basketball team. Practice for the season starts in a week. As such, I’ve been doing some preparation and planning for the season.

In doing that, I came across some old wisdom that I think is very applicable to athletes of all ages today. It comes from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c.50 – c.138).

Now, I have no idea if Epictetus was an athlete, or had any interest in sports. He does mention the Olympic Games (ancient variety) in some of his quotes. That said, two of his more famous quotes can have great application in the world of sports:

“Some things are in our control and others not.”

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

Epictetus stressed focusing on what you can control and letting go of the rest. Too often athletes and coaches don’t do that. They spend too much time worrying about the outcome of the contest and too much time worrying about what people might think or say about them if they don’t perform well.

When you think about it, athletes basically have control over four things: 1) their effort; 2) their attitude; 3) their preparation; and 4) their response to anything external.

Everything else involved in a sporting event is out of their control completely, or can only be partially influenced. Consider a few things that go into winning an athletic contest but are out of an athlete’s control: what the other team does, the officials, and the weather. Each of those things can certainly impact the outcome of a game, but they are external to the individual athlete.

So, the focus for an athlete must be on giving maximum effort, playing smart by executing the game plan that was prepared prior to the contest, and having a great attitude (including being a good teammate, playing with a high degree of sportsmanship, and responding to adversity in a positive matter). All the rest? Athletes have to flush them and get back to focusing on what they can control, like their effort on the next play.

Once the game is over, an athlete and coach can identify what needs to be worked on in order to perform better in the next contest. The best athletes and coaches learn from both victory and defeat and become better because of it.

Sports psychologists and mental game coaches are becoming a much bigger part of the sports landscape these days, and rightly so. Traditionally, coaches and athletes have focused almost entirely on improving physical skills in sports. As a result, the mental game has been overlooked for far too long.

This will be the first year I’ll have Epictetus on the bench with me as an assistant coach. I’m hoping I can translate his wisdom in a positive way for my middle school girls.

In the big picture, I think the two Epictetus quotes I highlighted in this post can help athletes — at any level — be the best they can be.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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