Elite sport, human suffering, & the role of mindfulness

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University of New Brunswick


The nature of sport inherently requires athletes to exert their body and mind in pursuit of excellence. As part of this pursuit athletes must endure a necessary level of sport-related suffering, including sore muscles, fatigue, and managing pain, fear, and stress. However, within the context of elite sport this required suffering is often accompanied by extraneous, unnecessary suffering. Suffering becomes unnecessary when it no longer serves to propel the athlete in the direction of their goals or inhibits their ability to flourish as a human being. Contemporary examples of the unnecessary suffering within elite sport are highlighted in the cases of Clara Hughes, Mary Cain, and most recently Naomi Osaka. While each athlete expects and accepts the necessary forms of suffering inherent to sport, not all athletes are equipped to cope with the breadth of suffering that exists within today’s elite sport systems. As such, this study utilizes a philosophical lens to both examine the understanding of suffering within the context of sport and suggest that elite sport organizations and governing bodies consider implementing mindfulness as an “internal support mechanism” that may help athletes reduce the impact of their experiences with sport-related suffering—particularly that which is unnecessary— and thereby cultivate flourishing both in and outside of sport. This is not to position mindfulness as an alternative to the systematic changes required to eliminate exploitive and abusive practices in the sporting world; rather the practice of mindfulness may help athletes maintain their ability to flourish and achieve excellence despite suffering being a necessary component of sport participation.