A culture of pain and pressure
Why is it that an individual would chose to partake in sport, in full knowledge that the process could lead to injuries that could have serious consequences for their wellbeing, or at worst give them lifelong issues such as brain damage or persistent pain? Can culture hold the key?
When put like that it seems strange that so many people do partake in sports that contain high risks, and the same people return to such sports frequently after significant injuries. We have discussed before the lack of perspective that many athletes may need to have in order to pursue their sport and train as hard as they do, so we don’t need to go over old ground, but what is it about the culture of sport and society that encourages this behaviour?
Current western culture is led by, first and foremost it would seem, the underlying principal that outwardly visible success is a positive. If we take the example of the business and academic worlds, people who achieve visible success are the ones with the most money, or the ones with the highest level of qualifications and positions. But these individuals could have markedly flawed ethics, dislike their own lives or suffer from a mental illness, who knows? Yet these individuals are lauded culturally; the same is true in sport. The individuals who win are the ones that are revered. The recent European Championship week is a great example. A winner is delighted, everyone wants to talk to them, take pictures with them, and write journalistic pieces about them, whilst the poor old fourth placer could well be lonely, distraught and disappointed, possibly for a long time. Michael Carrick was quoted in the press recently stating that he was depressed for two years after losing the Champions League final. Culturally there is a significant difference between winning a gold medal and finishing fourth. If you re-read that last sentence, you may notice you got an automatic sense that “winning a gold medal” is inherently positive whilst “finishing fourth” is a bit of a let-down. But if we consider the reality of the differences in individual ability between the winning in 9.95 seconds, in a fictional 100m for example, and a fourth placed 10.01 seconds then we see the difference is minimal. The winner is not really substantially “better” than the person in fourth. But culturally there is a cleft. This cleft seeps into the athlete’s mentality, they must truly believe, as many do, that that gold medal is significantly better than the fourth place. If they could just win that gold then their lives would be better, they could even think more of themselves perhaps. This gold medal starts to become more important than anything else. To achieve this you have to push your limits, be constantly trying to improve, maybe even endure significant hardships. This is the mentality. Pain is one of these hardships, to be endured and outlasted. Personal health is secondary. Everything is secondary to winning.
The socialisation of team sport extenuates this even further. In this situation all of your team mates’ successes also depend on you performing. Professional sports ramp up social pressures to yet another level by having a whole business riding on individual players’ performances, and a potential legion of fans willing on players to perform and achieve. This is, quite naturally, likely to influence a player’s decision to ignore potential warning signals of pain, or even lead them to simply put up with and ignore significant pain as it is contrary to the cultural pressure they are under.
An additional contributing cultural factor maybe that “toughness” is often cultural reinforced. This is more common in males and can be demonstrated through tolerating pain, or injury. The cultural idea of ‘manliness’ is somewhat strange, a pressure to conform to a certain behaviour, put yourself at risk, be a hero for your country, even if it means fighting or indeed dying in a war. Is ‘manliness’ simply a manipulation in order to achieve a goal. Coaches want you to be manly to win, Generals want the same.
Some sports show clearly the importance of putting performance (or perhaps ‘manliness’) before health; Rugby, American football and Boxing are obvious ones. In these sports protagonists can expect serious injuries, perhaps, in extreme circumstances even death. Some of these injuries may recover well and leave little long term impact, but the serious injuries are unpredictable by their nature. The individuals who consider these risks not worth taking are the ones that don’t continue in the sport, or perhaps stop after their first more serious injury. Others might continue as they value the sport innately or they value the challenge to themselves. Testing the limits is something human beings often relish. Testing limits includes testing physical limits, perhaps it is an off-shoot of the desire for learning. Whatever the reason sport is a large part of culture, and culture a large part of sport. But should we stop and think occasionally as to what influence it is really having on us?