Threats to meaningfulness in sport

No discussion about sport as a meaningful activity would be complete without considerations of the threats to that meaningfulness.

We know that many youth athletes drop out or decide to quit. Some studies, mine included, have described how professional athletes consider sport merely a job and just “play the role of the athlete” without buying into the values, philosophies, etc. involved in the elite sport culture. And many non-elite participants do not sustain their engagement consistently, but stop participating, try again (after New Year) and then stop again.

In their article “Meaningful work as realization and justification: Toward a dual conceptualization”, Lepisto and Pratt (2017) provide a wonderful explanation of two different ways of losing meaningfulness in work. I will discuss these two different threats to meaningfulness and provide some thoughts on their relevance in sport.

On one hand, from a realization perspective, the threat to meaningfulness is alienation. In this view, the “problem” is in loss of autonomy, the dullness of work, repetitive tasks, and being used for purposes that are not one’s own.

In a sport context, the athlete could lose ownership over their sport practices due to controlling coaches, or in youth sport, also due to controlling parents. Their sport involvement could be driven by parents’ hopes and dreams and not their own.

Or, athletes and exercisers can simply become bored, especially if they are doing the same thing day in, day out. Myself, I can’t imagine running more than 10 minutes on a treadmill even if I love running outdoors. And I have spoken to some swimmers who didn’t swim in a long time after retiring from the sport. They had enough.

On the other hand, from a justification perspective, the threat to meaningfulness is anomie. Here, the “problem” is more existential. It is about the lack of a justification why the work (or sport) is “good” and “worth doing” at all.

We can certainly discuss whether elite sport institutions can convincingly make the case for the “goodness” and moral worth of elite sport. Crises surrounding athlete abuse, harassment, eating disorders, and mental health issues certainly show that sometimes elite sport institutions can cause massive harm to those involved. And moreover, there is a lack of convincing evidence that elite sport events inspire recreational sport participation and in that way bring any benefits to the general public.

In the Nordic countries, there are enduring tensions between “the traditional” sport-for-all and “the foreign” elite sport. Some consider the latter antithetical to the values of the society.  

I am not sure whether I’ve heard athletes questioning meaningfulness of sport from the justification perspective in my qualitative studies. However, I have spoken to sport psychology scholars/practitioners who do not want to work in elite sport because they do not want to contribute to a cultural institution they do not believe in.    

In a recreational sport context, it might not be that participants often question the moral worth of sport participation. However, they could consider other things in their life more important. Are you going to pick up your kids from the kindergarten or go play some sports? Even if sport is worth doing, some other things are even more so.

Further reading:

Lepisto, D. A., & Pratt, M. G. (2017). Meaningful work as realization and justification: Toward a dual conceptualization.Organizational Psychology Review, 7(2),99–121.

Published by Noora Ronkainen

Researcher | Author | Meaningful Sport 🗻🏄| Co-host Physical Activity Researcher Podcast🎙

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