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  • Writer's pictureChris

Sport as a Rite of Passage

We think of rites of passage as monumental milestones in life. Events that as we endure carry us to our next stage. Whether it is graduation, marriage, or our first child, rites of passage are evolutions in who we are. Knowing this, your daily workout is a rite of passage. It’s an evolution from who you were before into who you are becoming.

At first you may be thinking, “Chris, a single workout can’t be a rite of passage.” Why not? A rite of passage is an earned liberation from the things holding you back. How does engaging in a fitness program or sport practice not do this? Mythologies around the world each have their version of the phoenix, a mystical creature who dies and is reborn in fire. The phoenix is transformed or liberated by expending heat or extreme energy. Your daily workout liberates you in the same way, it’s a rite of passage. You are burning away the old weaker you for a stronger more capable version of you after every workout, that’s the story of the phoenix, it’s a metaphor for rites of passage.

Society as it stands has been reaping rewards of tremendous progress since the industrial revolution, and even more so since the technological revolution we are currently going through (internet, smart devices, etc.) and although these advances are granting more people improved quality of life through technology and medicine, it is also reducing the urge to metaphorically throw ourselves into the fire or engage in something we see as uncomfortable and unnecessary. With that said, for a species that has survived for six million years and been in our modern form as Homo Sapiens for 200,000 years, to all of a sudden switch over to a life of unprecedented comfort for the majority of people is asking a lot of biology.

People are wired for hardship, driven for survival, and rites of passage are planned obstacles society has integrated in order to send us off on our next evolution, preparing us for the future by sacrificing the present. I argue sport teaches us this lesson better than any other voluntary endeavor in modern society? With only two percent of Americans currently serving in the military, it is hard to consider it a cultural rite of passage. Ancient societies such as the Spartans would separate their sons from their mothers for training in order to prepare them for war, and today we extend childhood by sending our children to college. College is a privilege, don’t get me wrong, I went to college and have three degrees and almost a dozen certifications, but is it capturing the essence of that physical hardship humanity has faced for hundreds of generations and has only been taken away within the last couple of generations as well as sport?

Sport is perhaps our last ritual of youth preparing young adults as contributors in society. During every college course I teach, I somehow or another finagle in the questions, “were you ever an athlete?” Almost everyone raises their hand. I then ask, “who has learned something from sports that school could never teach you?” Not one hand has ever gone down. There are some lessons which can be taught, but others must be learned through experience. That is the difference between knowledge and wisdom, one is taught, the other is earned through experience. Sports are perhaps our best teacher of these lessons. The engagement level of physical activity is a multi-dimensional mental stimulant, challenging us spatially and kinesthetically far beyond what sitting at a desk solving case studies can provide. Education can be found in multiple ways, in a world as diverse and dynamic as ours, to teach people how to strategize and execute plans in real-time is about as useful of an education as we can get.

When athletes act out their desires in physical space and learn who they are by controlling their body in a manner that is an expression of, “I am here to achieve a goal I have set my mind toward,” that is the essence of humanity. To strive to improve, or as Aristotle defined a flourishing or a purposeful life, it is doing what is worth doing.

If we want to live a fulfilling life, it must according to Martin Seligman’s theory of well-being contain accomplishment which begins with small achievements. Achievements that we can acquire every day during our workout. Achievements according to Seligman are the product of skill times effort. Fitness and sports are an ideal daily rite of passage to these small achievements leading us to greater accomplishments. If we want to become an expert in anything, it takes tremendous skill and effort. Skill and effort that according to psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues takes years of deliberate practice to master. Fitness and sport are a rite of passage to understanding this concept so we can apply it to the rest of life.

Every day we should be engaged in activities deliberately aimed at improving our well-being, these small rites of passage when completed can be checked off as milestones toward your next evolution or accomplishment. To help you achieve the extra push and guidance you need to burn off the old you through sweat and determination and replace it with a version of you willing to embrace hardship in order to improve your life, find a coach who can give you the guidance and feedback you need. Someone who can act as a mentor, showing you how to master the rite of passage that is your health and well-being and teach you how to accomplish amazing goals beyond fitness and sport with those skills.

Always improve,


*Did you know Chris has a book out called A Vigorous Life, A Guided Journey of Purpose and Fulfillment discussing topics similar to this one.

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