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Philosophy, the mind, and endurance sports

You’re halfway up a hill climb, your legs are burning, and your body is screaming to stop. But a jeering voice comes from inside of your head, and it says, “stop whinging, you’re better than this”.

You’re near the end of a swim, and your calf begins to cramp. You direct your attention to the beat of your stroke. Focus on the 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Anything but the cramp.

You’re on the last lap of the race, sweat stinging your eye, and that stich isn’t going away. “Not long now,” you tell yourself, “just get to the end”.

Most athletes know these moments. They’re par for the course of any endurance event. When the body starts to hurt, and when your muscles cry out for attention, the mind takes over it. It acts as some mini dictator, or an overseer, who tells us what to do.

A lot has been made of the role of the mind in sports science, and in endurance activities specifically. Anecdotally, most athletes know about how important their mindset or mood is to performance. We use words like “being in the zone” or “I’m pumped for this”. The mind plays a huge role.

Some, such as Timothy Noakes, argue that (see here) the mind is a kind of “central governor” that pushes us, definitely, but will never kill us. It will get us to the end of the marathon, but it won’t exhaust us entirely. People can still walk after a race, afterall. 

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Kalen Emsley @ unsplash

Other studies show that having a fatigued mind often results in worse sports performance. Playing hours of video games (see here), or doing challenging activities, impacts how well your body can race or compete. As far back as the 19th century, thinkers like Angelo Mosso were proving how mental fatigue limited physical ability. 

So, yes, we know that the mind is important to sports. What we don’t consider, though, is what the mind of a sportsperson can teach us. There’s something going on in our heads when we do endurance activities that could, quite possibly, tell us something about the very nature of being human.

Philosophers and sports scientists, alike, spend a lot of time talking about “the mind”. But where sports science focusses on its practical implications, philosophers tend to ask questions like, “what exactly is the mind?”. 

It’s a thorny area, one for thousands of books, and hundreds of doctorates, but broadly speaking the philosophical debate falls into two camps: dualism and monists. 

Dualists are those who believe that the mind is its own thing entirely, and the body or the physical world is something altogether different.

Monists, in contrast, believe that the world is just one thing – usually physical substance. So ,monists would say that the mind is simply the brain, but a dualist would say the mind is unique and separate.

Dualism is not popular in philosophy departments, today, but was once the mainstream position. Although it can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks, and Plato especially, it was popularised by Rene Descartes in the 17th century. Descartes’ believed that the mind and the body must be two separate things because the two have different traits, properties or characteristics. For instance, physical, bodily things we can cut up into smaller and smaller bits, but you can’t cut the mind at all. For Descartes, if two things behave differently, how can they be the same?

Which is where the endurance athlete comes in. Anyone who’s ever found themselves in the middle of a race knows just how different the mind is to the body, and they can understand Descartes all too well. Athletes experience a unique mental life in two ways. 

Firstly, in how the mind can wander and fly away. A runner, swimmer or cyclist knows exactly what it means to be with their thoughts, and it can feel at times as if they’re rambling and going this way and that. Athletes spend a lot of time in their heads. Hours can sometimes pass, where the mind goes places whilst the body does its own thing.

Of course, this ability to go on “autopilot” is not unique to sports. Anyone who’s driven the same commute for years knows exactly what it’s like. The difference, though, is how the athlete does so in spite of their body. When an athlete is the middle of an event, their body will powerfully and relentlessly send signals to the mind along the lines of, “this is not a good idea”. With any kind of physical exertion there’s often pain, exhaustion and fatigue that’s trying its level best to make the mind pay attention to it. And yet, the mind is away doing its own thing. In many ways, the endurance athlete is closer to the Buddhist, or Hindu, deep into a meditative trance. The athlete who lives up in their head, ignoring and forgetting the body, knows exactly what Descartes was getting at.

Secondly, the mind is what pushes the body. All free human beings experience what is known as “agency”. We can all decide to do things as and when we want. I can lift my left hand right now, for instance. The mind directs the body. This is never truer than in the heart of an endurance activity. When all those niggles and aches kick in, when your body screams at you to stop or to slack up, your mind kicks in to force it to behave a certain way. It’s the mind that’s the master of the body, and not the other way around.

Of course, this is not to say we can force our body to do anything. No matter how determined a person we are, a broken leg won’t let you run a marathon and a collapsed lung means you won’t be going swimming. But what endurance activity teaches us though is the order, or hierarchy of things. Our mind beats the body, and not vice versa.

So, here we find philosophy in sport. That internal dialogue we have with our body. That ordering, commanding, determined voice that demands the body do something exaggerates and defines the difference between the two. 

It’s still true that dualism has more logical and scientific holes than a swiss cheese, but endurance activity at least hints at its appeal. Every time we say, “let’s just get to the end of the road” or “only four more laps, now”, it can feel like we’re talking to another thing. Our mind, up in some lofty, intangible place, is looking down on and directing something altogether different.

In short, when we really push ourselves, it’s almost like we’re two things, entirely.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His book, Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas, is available to buy now.