The Premeditation of Evils

As training is under way for the first hiking challenge event of the year, the Maamturks Challenge, it has got me thinking about the pain of training and it’s benefit.

When training for any big event, we often put ourselves through many months of pain for an event that will only last several hours. Is the pain and hardship really worth it for just one event?

I think so, but the real value of the effort is not for the event itself, rather the value is in the pain and suffering itself.

The endurance sports writer, Matt Fitzgerald, writes about pushing through psychological boundaries to achieve higher athletic performance.

Fitzgerald maintains that the perception of effort is the true barrier to elevated performance, not the body.

According to Fitzgerald, if you feel worse than you expected to feel in the event, then your perception of effort will increase and your performance will suffer. On the contrary if you brace yourself for a hard time, then how you feel during the event will be no worse than you expected and you will be setting yourself up to get the most out of your body.

This runs against the grain of the current trend of positive thinking. A positive mental attitude of always expecting the best will eventually leave you feeling worse when your lofty expectations are not met.

I’ve noticed this with myself where preparation for competitions that haven’t gone to plan, such as concern about not getting enough sleep or being in a bad frame of mind and then as a result going into that event expecting very little. I have noticed that I have often outperform more on those occasions when things don’t go to plan than when I have had high expectations from things being perfect.

This is not a new idea, nor is it solely related to sporting performance. It’s an idea that dates back over two thousand years to Stoic philosophy.

Rather than practicing positive visualization, the Stoics practiced the opposite, negative visualization, or what they called the premeditation of evils.

A stoic would spend a few minutes every morning visualising everything that could go wrong that day. When that bad event didn’t happen they would take joy and appreciation that it didn’t occur. If the bad event did happen, then they would be prepared for it and it wouldn’t disrupt their tranquility.

The Stoics, like the Buddhists, understood the folly of attachment and realised that one will eventually lose all one’s possessions, if only by one’s own eventual death, and so cautioned about becoming overly attached to anything external. A stoic would advise to value what is innately one’s own, such as one’s attitudes, beliefs and choices. Anything external is outside one’s own control. Being dependent on any external entity or condition surrenders one’s freedom to it and turns one into a slave. One of the most famous proponents of stoicism, Epictetus, was actually a slave, so he knew what he was talking about.

In a sporting event, stoics would advise to do all the necessary training and preparation to perform at one’s best, but then not become overly attached to the outcome. Like an archer taking the perfect shot but missing the target due to a sudden gust of wind. The archer would praise himself for taking the perfect shot and would be completely unmoved about missing the target.

A premeditation of the evils that can befall one either in a competition or in life, sets you up to appreciate the simpler things in life that, as a human, you naturally take for granted.

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