Challenging yourself to challenge others

Dr Mark Nesti confronts the post-modern perspective and explains why sports development is about individuals, passion and the Socratic spirit

Dr Mark Nesti
Dr Mark Nesti at a post-modern podium

Those involved in sports development are increasingly being asked to bring about real and even radical change in the policy and practice of sport. This demands skills, knowledge and determination. However, it requires more than this. Just like success in sport participation, the best sports development persons will possess passion, intrinsic motivation and love for what they are doing. To achieve success will need more than being organised and methodical. It will need people who give of themselves despite the many knock backs they will inevitably experience. Sports development is for lovers of sport. It is not a safe and sensible career option like accountancy or law. This is personal. Employers should not recruit or promote anyone looking for a career in sport, only those still in love with it. For too long we have rewarded the wrong group. The machines are in control and they are making a mess of it. Surely, now is the time to return to the individual person first and systems second.

Some reading this might say, how typical of a psychologist to focus on the individual rather than society! This is the usual criticism levelled at the discipline of psychology, especially by sociologists who were educated during the great expansion in the social sciences during the 1960s. Behind this lies a very serious and important issue, one that arguably affects sports development and many other areas of life as well. Put simply, the question is about how much we are in control of what we do. Are we free to act or is our behaviour determined by our genes and the environment? This is not the old nature/nurture debate but is in fact about whether there is even such a thing as the human person.

For most psychologists there can be no talk of persons because this implies that we exist before and beyond our inherited characteristics and conditioned responses. To accept that we freely exist means that we have some say in who we become and what we do. In other words, we are at least partly responsible for our decisions and actions. Some existential psychologists following this view say that we are even able to become anything we wish. Writers like Jean Paul Sartre have argued that there is no human nature that exists in the first place. According to this view, human nature, like everything else including values, morals and ethics, are our inventions. There is no such thing as truth since it can be anything we wish it to be. This is known as the post-modern perspective and has dominated Western thinking for the past forty years at least. Following on from this, we were told that if something feels good it most probably is right, and that process was all-important since no one could convincingly say what we needed to deliver in the end or even why we should.

Fortunately, within sports development it has been impossible to act as a post-modernist! Because this is a vocation rather than a career, sports development persons have had to do the right thing, not just follow their feelings. They have been engaged in making judgements, throwing their whole selves into their work and standing by their decisions. To do this they have been relying more on their personalities, who they are and what they stand for, and less on the skills and techniques they posses. Despite the calls from the 60s generation for skills and more skills, work with persons and communities involves the living out of personal values and core beliefs. As an aside, it is to be hoped that the new generation will not slavishly follow the flawed post-modern ethics of the 1960s in their recruitment and promotion strategies. So come on all of you under 35-year-olds: your time is now! Lets wave goodbye to all of those hypocrites of 1968 and their fraudulent rebellion. They can take their fat pensions, second homes and abstract, self-centred ideologies and leave the stage to those who will not appoint the cynics or those without any fixed and flexible values.

A remarkable piece of research by psychologist Mihalyi Csikzsentmihalyi in 1996 with over ninety Nobel prize winners, sports stars and MDs from the top one hundred companies in the USA revealed that the constructively creative personality is always based on a synthesis of permanent traditions and openness to change. In sports development we too need people who are both spontaneous and orderly, passionate and objective, traditional, conservative and rebellious and iconoclastic. Feelings and empathy without being rooted in sound values and objective truth results in the elevation of technique over persons. The great French writer Bernanos warned us before the devastation brought by the Nazi party in the last war that a civilisation of technicians is a pretentious civilisation of underlings. Thousands of years ago the philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death for claiming that self-knowledge was more important than the delivery of techniques or political know-how. Is it too much to ask that sports development, whether operating at elite levels or grass roots, can provide a vocation for the sporticus passio, for those imbued with the Socratic spirit rather than the dead hand of bureaucracy and ambition?


Dr Mark Nesti is a reader in psychology in sport at Liverpool John  Moores University and the first team counselling sport psychologist at Newcastle United FC.




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“Despite the calls from the 60s generation for skills and more skills, work with persons and communities involves the living out of personal values and core beliefs.”

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