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Flourishing Amidst COVID: If Camus (and Aristotle) Were Your Coach

Youth athletes are in the midst of a legitimately challenging time, on so many levels.  Most can’t play the sport they love, the activity couched most deeply in their identity.  This is all exacerbated by recent cancelations of anticipated seasons and the uncertainty of when competitions will even resume.

As with many things in life, perspective matters.  Looking at a situation through an entirely opposing lens can truly change the situation for the observer, for better or for worse.  And, it turns out, not even the ancient wisdom of the gods lies outside the realm of perspective-changing.

Fifteen years ago, I was gifted a framed image by families of my water polo team and it’s hung on my office wall ever since.  It depicts the Greek character Sisyphus, rolling his iconic boulder up a hill: but, in this case, the rock is a massive water polo ball.  The famous quote from philosopher—and soccer goalie—Albert Camus lines the bottom of the image, “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a [person’s] heart.”

Camus was getting at some big picture existential, foundational stuff here, which, while philosophically fascinating, is not my current focus.  He captures some of the richness of being human and rolls it all into a single quote, a message which may be the best motivation at this point in our current affairs.

So the story goes, the Greek gods administered to Sisyphus what they believed to be the worst possible punishment: assign him a difficult task, for all of eternity, which has no end-game, no payoff, no possible external reward.  This punishment, they considered in their not-so-infinite wisdom, would be the worst punishment of all.  Because humans, of course, will only work hard, focus, and value that work if some future goal could be achieved because of it.

People often misuse the phrase “Sisyphean Task” in terms of a task which seems never-ending, in reference to household chores like the never-ending pile up of laundry or raking of leaves.  No matter how much laundry and raking is done, the piles still remain.  Yet in this case, when completed, there’s the immediate result and goal accomplished: clean clothes for the week and fewer leaves in the yard.  So, a “Herculean Task,” maybe, but not quite Sisyphean.

Covid and the ensuing pandemic have changed life for many young athletes.  As a coach, I fully recognize what’s been taken away, because I have seen it in the faces of my athletes every day over the past 8 months.  The activity they love most—in our case, water polo—has been diminished to solely swimming, conditioning, and working on core fundamentals in the water, with the use of balls (while still socially distanced) only recently allowed by county protocol.  This is all made worse due to the total uncertainty and unknown as to when—or really, if—there will be a season in the months to come.

All that being said, and with the recognition of truly profound suffering caused by this pandemic, we can now let Camus’ version of Sisyphus run its course.  The lesson of this allegory is relevant now maybe more than ever as many people, understandably, find themselves thinking, “Why am I putting in all this work with nothing to show for it?”  The answer, from Camus, is this: We should consider ourselves fortunate to even have a task—especially one we love—to throw ourselves into and to pursue on a daily basis, not because of some external goal, but because of the task itself.

That we find joy in the process.  Or, to reemphasize, that we find joy in the process.

Just this past week, we had two amazing training sessions: amazing because I pushed the athletes hard—as hard as I would if we were in pre-season preparing for games—and every single athlete in attendance truly went for it.  They did so without knowing what the future holds in terms of games, tournaments, or even seasons over the next months.  I couldn’t hide my elation on deck as I was motivated by their efforts and energy, as though I was pouring energy into the training and getting just as much back from the athletes.

And here’s where we get another bit of insight and, dare I say, self-help from Camus.  Following the aforementioned quote, he writes, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”  And by “happy” here, Camus doesn’t mean the surface-level happiness so often referenced yet, in the end, isn’t what we truly want.  He’s speaking about a deeper sense of happiness, couched in meaning and purpose and all of the seemingly elusive things self-help books purport to deliver: to borrow a term from Aristotle, that we seek something much richer and closer to flourishing.

The top of the image hanging on my wall includes my team’s singular goal since my first day coaching here 22 years ago: Be Your Best.  It is, essentially, my best attempt to summarize Aristotle’s opus in three words.  And it ties in perfectly with Camus’ command here as we look to focus on ourselves and, for the athletes, to just train and play for the sake of training and playing and challenging themselves.

We are at a rare moment in youth sports history: a chance to break from the trajectory which stopped in its tracks due to this terrible virus.  For just a moment, children can play the game for the sake of playing.  No starting team to make, no opponents to focus on, no awards to be sought and earned. 

There’s a chance this could all result in some athletes realizing they don’t like the sport after all.  And if so, that’s a big recognition: hundreds of future hours saved avoiding an activity they were doing for unhealthy and less than ideal reasons.  Or, more likely, many will realize they love their sport more than they had the opportunity to consciously recognize amidst the non-stop treadmill of the pursuit of external rewards.  And then, as they roll their respective boulders up their hills, they’ll do so from a place of joy.  And at that point, we must imagine these athletes truly happy, and likely better at their sport because of it.