Re-Imagining Competitive Sports

Circus and Sports have many similarities, however these two “universes” approach performance quite differently. Many circus artists conceptualize their body as being intricately connected with thoughts and emotions, and use movement “creatively” to communicate evocative messages to their audiences. In contrast, athletes push their bodies in search of biomechanical and physiological “perfection” and they train their mind to get an edge over their opponents. Put simply, artists use their bodies “creatively” while athletes use their bodies “correctly”. What are the consequences of this quest towards movement correctness? Would there be some benefits to use the body more creatively in sport? And, if so, can moving creatively serve other purposes than mere motor performance?

At the core of athletes’ quest towards biomechanical and physiological “perfection” is linearity. You only have to attend a few sports training sessions to realise how linear and repetitive sports often are. Picture these scenarios: Gymnasts are lined up repeating the exact same movement all at the same time, hockey players are waiting in line for their turn to execute an agility circuit the exact way they were instructed to, and golfers are hitting balls in a prescribed manner, while lined up at the driving range.

All of this is done under the careful supervision of a coach (nowadays assisted by some type of technology); a person supposedly holding the truth about how one should move. A coach can be seen as a person with power, sometimes possessing a “life-or-death” sentence on the athlete’s future. Yes, this might sound a bit dramatic, but it is pretty close to reality. In fact, this linearity comes from the belief that there is ONE (or very few) correct way to perform a movement, to optimize performance and aspire to the highest level. By repeating the correct technique, through deliberate practice, athletes are expected to reach automaticity, which should enable them to perform the movement when it matters the most.

Although rote repetition can be useful for the mastery of certain movements, findings from skill acquisition research reveal that repetition is not the optimal way for developing varied and adaptable skills. In fact, research shows that the human system is a complex system composed of many elements (e.g., physical, cognitive, emotional, social, etc.) that all interact simultaneously, enabling a person to perform a motor task. Since each human system is slightly (and sometimes greatly) different, forcing everyone to conform to one way of movement can be detrimental to the development of the athlete’s potential, at many levels (motor, psychological, social, etc.). So how can we re-imagine sport to allow everyone to fulfill their potential?

Interestingly, Circus can provide relevant insights to answer that question. Instead of following guidelines, executing prescribed movements, and conforming to strict rules, circus performers generally connect to their mind-body-environment to explore novel ways to move and express themselves. This process seems to enable them to progressively discover their natural movement tendencies and form a solid foundation to push their limits and create those awe inspiring moments for their audience. In line with this circus approach, sport scientists and practitioners are now supporting the benefits of sport environments that promote the free exploration of movements through learning methods such as constraints, variability and problem solving.

These nonlinear methods create a certain level of chaos in the athlete’s system, which momentarily destabilizes them. By searching for solutions to regain stability, athletes explore their own way to move and might find solutions that are more adapted to their specific needs. When nonlinear methods are combined with the appropriate social support (e.g., from coaches and peers), it creates what I call a “risk-friendly environment” which can help each athlete fulfill their potential, and also enable the possibility for the emergence of novel and original movements that contribute to their development.

It thus seems that Circus Performers ‘dance’ more and Athletes ‘compete’ more. Dancing is done in the spirit of abundance, which welcomes nonlinearity, and subsequently unlocks infinite possibilities. Competition is rooted in the spirit of scarcity, which creates a sense of fear, danger, survival (think musical chairs). Fear is one of the greatest hindrances to creativity. I feel that competition is not inherently bad for sport, rather that it is a necessary ‘part’ but, not the ‘whole’ thing. So how can we re-imagine competition to make it feel more like a dance?

From my experiences and observations, I feel that the sports (both training and competition) is largely unbalanced, giving greater emphasis to masculine traits (competitive, domination, self-assertion etc.) and less to feminine (cooperation, partnership, integration etc.). Growing up I (dan) played baseball, basketball, and ran cross country. If I was pitching, and we lost the game, I would go home and criticize myself, and think of all the wrong things that I did. I would leave the game disappointed. Clearly, I was having a completely unbalanced masculine experience, which did not bring me the joy and satisfaction sport should provide.

Here is another example. Picture a tennis match with two players. One is balanced, the other imbalanced. The balanced player sees the match as a dance, and the other player as a partner, both working to challenge one another, and transcend their limits. The imbalanced player sees the match as a competition, and the other player as an opponent, and has the intention to dominate and destroy the other player.

Ram Dass beautifully described this, “… you compete on the tennis court, but you come onto the court collaboratively to compete. So you are both collaborators and competitors, and that’s what good sportsmanship is about. When you forget one of those, you lose it. If you forget that you’re competing, you give away the game, and that’s not good sportsmanship. If you forget that you’re collaborators, you get very vicious.”

I believe How we do anything is how we do everything. Hence, the way you compete impacts the way you train, and vice versa. As long as athletes will only be competitors, training will remain linear because the attraction towards movement perfection will be too strong. As long as athletes will only be competitors, there will simply be no space for collaborative dances to unfold.

The spirit of collaboration reminds me of the story of Ubuntu, where a group of kids are asked to race towards a bucket of apples, and the winner gets them all. Instead of trying to beat one another, the kids join hands, and split the apples evenly amongst the group.

Even within the same team there can be individualism and ego. Doc Rivers, the former coach of the Boston Celtics, emphasised the concept of Ubuntu to his team, emphasising that “the strength of a team is its players; the strength of the player is the team.” This mindset helped the Celtics win the NBA championships in 2008 and serves as a powerful example of how collaboration, and unity, amongst teammates has the potential to lead to great achievements.

Living systems are inherently creative, diverse, spontaneous and dynamically balanced. These characteristics enable new forms to emerge in nature, in order to adapt and sustain. Sports training must open up to allow these natural processes to happen. Nonlinear approaches and balanced perspectives are part of the solution.

Imagine that to warm up, gymnasts would be allowed to use the gym equipment in any way they want the same way parkour performers creatively use cities’ structures. Imagine that hockey players could design their own agility circuit or that golfers would be asked to hit balls with various emotions. What would be the impact of adding creative moments as part of training on an athlete’s performance and well-being? Would this allow them to dance with the competition and become genuine collaborators? Would this lead to the dissolution of elite-sports? Or would it enable athletes to be more like artists?

We invite you to think about these questions and take a moment to imagine how you could make the sport(s) (or any performing activities) you are involved in more flexible and collaborative. Because at the end of the day, how you do the activity impacts the difference in how much you enjoy your experience and ultimately, how much you holistically grow from it.

Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash

Lead Author: Véronique Richard (first six paragraphs)

Veronique Richard completed her Ph.D. in sport sciences (sport psychology) at University of Montreal and a postdoctoral fellowship at Florida State University. Her research focuses on movement creativity and its related influences on performance and optimal psychological states. She is now an associate researcher at National Circus School and a mental performance coach for Cirque du Soleil and Canadian National sports teams.

Anchor Author: Dan Rudolph

Daniel Rudolph is interested in exploring alternative, experiential learning opportunities for people of all ages. He is passionate about forming community, and building public spaces for meaningful, transformational gathering. Currently he is spending a lot of his time learning juggling and facilitating gatherings. He also enjoys writing and sharing poetry.

Dan, and a small team, are in the process of publishing a series of articles titled ‘Live Human Signposts’ that showcases individuals that have taken alternative paths to higher education and/or are pursuing regenerative livelihoods, which is being commissioned by the Ecoversities Alliance. In March, Dan will begin an apprenticeship in Vermont at the MAPLE Monastic Academy.



Can you imaging a more harmonious future?

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store