Intersections of Athletics and Virtue

Summer always inspires me to think deeply about ultimate.  This year, that’s resulted in reading a lot of military strategy (about which I’ll hopefully have something to say soon) and re-reading Timothy Gallwey’s classic, The Inner Game of Tennis.  Inner Game is probably my favorite book on coaching and teaching, and I’ve long attempted (and often failed) to implement lessons from it in my own work in the classroom and on the field.  On this re-read, I was struck by the affinity of the central pillars of Gallwey’s method with Josef Pieper’s writings on the virtues.

At the heart of the process outlined in Inner Game is the idea that true learning requires, first and fundamentally, that we see reality as it really is and allow ourselves to act accordingly.  The word “allow” is significant here.  Gallwey suggests that there’s a sense in which your body already knows the techniques, strategy, etc., which you’re attempting to master and that the goal of the teacher is to shepherd you towards a realization of this, guiding you towards something already present, as opposed to pouring new, alien knowledge into a previously empty vessel.  We might think of this as akin to the idea that a block of marble already contains within it a statue, and that the artist’s chisel merely strips away at the excess, making manifest an inner form which has always been.  Learning considered this way is essentially a form of remembrance or re-cognition, an understanding which has a long lineage in classical philosophy and towards which I’m deeply sympathetic.

This all maps very closely on to what Pieper has to say about the virtues.  For, to Pieper and to the classical tradition which he inherits, to be virtuous simply is to live in accordance with reality.  Therefore, to recognize, to see, things as they really are is the root of all virtue, the first and most important step which lies at the heart of the good life.

All duty is based upon being.  Reality is the basis of ethics.  Goodness is the standard of reality.  Whoever wants to know and do the good must direct his gaze toward the objective world of being, not toward his own “sentiment” or toward arbitrarily established “ideals” and “models”. He must look away from his own deed and look upon reality.

A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, 11

The apprehension of reality and making of decisions in accordance with it is, more properly speaking, the virtue of prudence:

Prudence, the formal basis and “birth mother” of all human virtue, is the cautious and decisive faculty of our spirit for shaping things, which transforms the knowledge of reality into the accomplishment of the good.  It encompasses the humility of silent, i.e., unbiased, understanding, memory’s faithfulness to being, the art of letting things speak for themselves, the alert composure before the unexpected.  Prudence means the hesitant seriousness and, so to speak, the filter of reflection and yet also the daring courage for definitive resolution.

Brief Reader, 15

It is, I believe, the hesitant seriousness accompanied by daring courage for definitive resolutions of which Pieper speaks that athletes experience when they’re “in the zone.”

Gallwey’s directive to the student to see things as they truly are, and to the teacher to guide the student towards this recognition (primarily through images, another affinity between Gallwey and the classical tradition), is thus ultimately a directive to cultivate prudence within the domain of sport.  To achieve mastery, we must become virtuous, at least with respect to the area in which we seek mastery (think also of courage, justice, and temperance in Ultimate).

We quickly realize a problem with this: at any given time, we only have access to a narrow sliver, the barest hint of a larger reality.  Yet we must act and, more often than not, act rapidly.

The man who does good follows the lines of an architectural plan that has not been devised by himself or even totally understood by himself in all its components.  This plan is revealed to him moment by moment only though a narrow cleft and a tiny gap; in his transient condition, he never perceives the specific plan for himself in its global and definitive form.

Brief Reader, 17

There cannot be a system or rulebook which governs our reactions in all situations.  Any such attempt a comprehensive guidelines will flounder against the shoals of reality.  The athlete rigidly cycling through a preset list of reactions will fail.  A morality which is predicated solely on the following of some abstract set of rules will collapse.  Instead, we must shape ourselves through the application of broad principles to the immediate apprehension of reality through a constant, self-reflexive process of re-orienting ourselves to that reality.

Thus, we must determine those principles.  And in the meantime, open our eyes.


One response to “Intersections of Athletics and Virtue”

  1. […] The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey – The best book on teaching and coaching that I’ve ever read, deeply insightful and a must read for anyone engaged in pedagogy.  Ideally, this would the basis of my own teaching/coaching, but I worry that my attempts have largely been a failure.  I wrote a little about Inner Game in conjunction with Pieper’s writings on virtue here. […]

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