The universe seems to be talking extensively on the subject of sacrifice lately. Fourth of July celebrations always hum along this theme; and along with other adventures (the details of which are unimportant here) I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the sacrifices of athletes. Sacrifice and its bestie commitment, are some of the most fascinating sport psych topics to me.
It has long been my theory that one of the most defining characteristics separating elite athletes from the rest of us is the ability to tolerate such total immersion in one activity.
In my opinion (I don’t believe that there is specific research out there offering evidence to support this, so just an opinion at this point), all other variables being equal – talent, coaching, conditioning, physical health and freedom from injury – the person who would be successful would be the one with the ability to accept the need for sacrifice and tolerance for the discomfort that this brings. It would be the person who could withstand making the same sacrifices over and over again for years. It doesn’t take much imagination to know that this is a very unpleasant thing to do at times; most of us could not cope with it.
Humans by nature struggle to accept discomfort. Buddhist teachings talk extensively on this subject: we typically want what we want and in the most expedited manner possible. We search out short-term comfort without thinking of the impact on big picture goals. We itch for new and novel experiences; too much of the same thing becomes tedious, prompting us to abandon the half-completed project long before achieving completion or mastery. But not so with successful athletes (and by extension, often coaches and other support staff).
After a decade of observing some of the highest level of sport, I have witnessed untold numbers of sacrifices made in the name of sport. While typical students escape for rest after a hard semester, many athletes only take a few days to go home or miss out on holidays altogether. Those who are able to take a day or two for fun often have to make arrangements for workouts and must avoid indulging in holiday revelry so that they can make weight or stay on track with their training program. They make decisions about injury management not according to pain scales or even the best long-term outcome, but often what works best with their athletic schedule. While many enjoy semi or fully funded college educations (although not nearly as many as you would assume), it is not unusual for athletes to spend less time considering what they would like to do for school and a future career because they are busy being athletes. And travel/competition schedules often mean missing out on class, having no time for office hours, and taking tests on the road. Trust me, there are nerdy athletes out there for which this is a real dilemma 🙂
For better and sometimes for worse, being an athlete often demands sacrifice for just the hope of a reward. And because rewards are never guaranteed, my encouragement to athletes is this: be intentional about the sacrifices you are making and why. Take that extra minute – or ten – to determine what values are prompting your choices. Sometimes these sacrifices will not end as you wished. Clarity about WHY you chose plan A, B or C, can help you feel less resentment towards your sport or the people around you (who often pressure athletes intentionally and unintentionally to make certain choices). Understanding your WHY also helps you cope with any regret you might experience later, reconfigure your plan, and move forward.
Being able to make and tolerate sacrifice, to delay gratification of what you want now for a more meaningful later, is a tremendous strength. Most of us would likely benefit from further refining this skill. No time like the present! Get out there and do not just what comes easy, but what matters most to you!