blog post 2023 12 15T092942.591

Would You Rather Be a Better Athlete or a Better Person? Why Not Both?

You’re standing before a pedestal table with two small bowls resting upon it. In the bowl on the left is a capsule-shaped blue pill, and in the bowl on the right is a red pill. An elderly woman with snow-white hair invites you to choose one of the two pills, explaining that swallowing the blue pill will make you a better athlete, while the red pill will make you a better person. Which do you pick?

Actually, forget pills. Let’s try a slightly different thought experiment. Same pedestal table, same white-haired crone, but instead of two pills you’re given a choice between two books, one titled How to Become a Better Athlete and the other called How to Become a Better Person Through Sport. Each costs twenty dollars, and you have exactly twenty bucks to spend. Which do you buy?

I won’t try to answer this question for you. But I know which book I would write if I wanted to make more money: How to Become a Better Athlete. Character development is a tough sell, frankly. Most people would rather do better or feel better than be better. I know that sounds cynical, but it’s true.

But here’s the thing: The person who shells out $20 for How to Become a Better Person Through Sport is more likely to become a better athlete. Using sport as a vehicle for character development isn’t an alternative to chasing performance—it’s a direct path toward it.

I know what you’re thinking: “What about Floyd Mayweather? Or Lance Armstrong? Or Tiger Woods? Sports history is littered with examples of people who became great athletes without becoming better versions of themselves!” Fair point. I won’t deny that it is possible for some people to reach their full athletic potential without focusing on character development. Nevertheless, I believe that if you wish to play the odds, you’re more likely to become the best athlete you can be by trying to become the best person you can be in the process.

They say virtue is its own reward, and it is. The main benefit of being a good person is being a good person. But virtue can also bring other words. For athletes, character virtues like discipline, patience, honesty, and courage can translate directly to performance. This isn’t just my opinion; it’s a proven fact. A 2006 study by Patrick Kariuki and Linda Williams found that high school students who earned higher character scores in a standard questionnaire also achieved higher grades. And a 2015 study by leadership consultancy firm KRW International found that CEO’s who were given high marks for character by their employees yielded an average yearly return on assets of 9.35 percent, compared to just 1.93 percent for CEO’s given low marks for character by their employees.

Before long covid ended my athletic career in 2020, I used running and triathlon as vehicles for becoming a better version of myself. I did this not because I didn’t care about performance but because I did. I understood that traits like impatience and cowardice held me back from performing better, and that by becoming more patient and braver I would move closer to reaching my full potential as an athlete. But developing my inner character was also an end in itself, and indeed a more important end than improving my performance. In fact, I would never have bothered working so hard to become the best athlete I could be if this mission had not been compatible with character development. I guess that’s my way of saying I would have swallowed the red pill if I’d had to choose one or the other.

As a coach, I take the same approach with other athletes that I took with myself. I want the women and men I work with to embrace character development as both an intrinsic benefit of their athletic journey and as a means to getting better at their sport. To be clear, I don’t see it as my job to turn my athletes into better people. That would be condescending. I merely invite them to turn themselves into better people, and assist them in the process.

There’s a story in the Torah that directly parallels this invitation. God appears to King Solomon in a dream and offers to grant him a single wish with no restrictions. Instead of requesting great riches, Solomon asks for wisdom. The irony is that only a person who was already wise would have asked for wisdom in this situation. So God rewarded Solomon with great riches.

Do you see the analogy? An athlete must already possess inner character to make the choice to use sport as a vehicle for developing inner character. But in making this choice, they are also rewarded with the very thing that the Floyd Mayweathers, Lance Armstrongs, and Tiger Woodses choice instead of personal growth, which is better performance.

Take the red pill.

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