Sport: Investment or Cost?

I’ve often struggled with the characterization of elite athletes making ‘sacrifices’ to represent their country or reach a pinnacle in sport. Articles that discuss what an athlete ‘gives up’ to succeed, misconstrue investment with cost.

Personally, I did not feel that training and competing for Canada was a sacrifice. I did not feel that I was ‘putting my life on hold’. I certainly did not believe that sport was ‘costing me’ anything. Rowing for Canada in the 80’s and 90’s was a gift, an education, a charmed life. I was making a choice to pursue what I loved: rowing, competition, excellence, striving…

I chose rowing.

I chose to occupy the space between water and sky.

I chose to get up early.

I chose to ride my bike in the morning mist to a beautiful canal on the Trent Severn Waterway.

I chose to spend my March break or reading weeks at a training camp in Victoria.

I chose to move to St. Catharines in my final year of highschool in order to train for the junior team and as a consequence I chose to miss my convocation because, frankly, rowing was more important to me.

I chose to live on a small stipend for several years while I competed because it was all I needed to row full time.

Elite athletes are not sacrificing their time, they are investing their time in sport, themselves, and society. And as with all sound investments, the benefits are tremendous: failures, successes, joy, pain, learning, mental and physical health, peace, reflection, mental and physical strength, confidence, self awareness, appreciation for diversity, tolerance for ambiguity, focus, discipline, communication skills, conflict resolution skills, leadership skills, compassion, collaboration skills, intercultural awareness, an expanded worldview, problem solving skills, perspective, holism, diligence, persistence, open mindedness, growth mindset, openness to growth and change, receptivity, adaptability, appreciation for nature, connection to the earth, connection to others, connection to self, love, fun, happiness.

If an athlete believes that s/he has put ‘life on hold‘ or has ‘given up so much‘ for sport, then I believe s/he may be experiencing poor coaching – a coach who frames sport as all about ‘sacrifice’ and ‘costs’ – which is missing the point.

The purpose of sport is human and social development: “winning with benefits”, benefits to the individual and, through them, benefits to society. Truly valuable sport must include developing the whole person: their mental, physical and socio-emotional health AND performance which takes a great deal of investment by the athlete, coach and community.

I would love to see countries investing in sport more fully, but only if they are investing in the kind of sport that actually offers a return on those investments. The sport that offers the best ROI is the sport that meets ALL of the metrics:

  • athlete physical health (no injuries, strong, fit)
  • athlete mental health (no injuries, strong self concept)
  • athlete socio-emotional health (confident, aligned, purposeful)
  • athlete physical performance (capacity to achieve goals)
  • athlete mental performance (focused, knowledgable, tactical)
  • athlete socio-emotional performance (leadership, community contributor, citizenship)

Imagine a sport system that demands that sport leaders meet all of the above metrics, not just ‘winning’, not just physical performance metrics, not just ‘medals’, but all of those things as well as mental, socio-emotional and physical health and performance.

It’s a grand goal, but that’s what sport is.

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