The value of sport and physical activity is often found in the potential to bring people together, to form communities, to develop new friendships or strengthen existing ones. Self-determination theory, which often informs initiatives to promote exercise and physical activity, has relatedness as one key component. This often translates to emphasising social support and connectedness when aiming to foster participation in exercise. And when I have interviewed former athletes, a vast majority of them have mentioned friends and teammates as an important reason they started doing sports and why they continued doing it through difficult times.
While relationships in sport can be vitally important, I also feel that we sometimes overlook the value of sport and exercise as a solitary activity. Many people do sport and exercise alone, for example when going for a run or cross-country skiing. Or when going to the gym (there might be other people present, but many people still train alone). And for many people, doing these activities alone is a valued dimension of the experience.
The most famous example of sport as a lonely activity is probably Alan Sillitoe’s short story The Loneliness of a Long-Distance Runner, where running can be seen as a form of escape, but also an experience of positively experienced solitude that allows space for reflection and an experience of freedom for the protagonist. This kind of lonely dimension of running is certainly something that many of my research participants have talked about and often in a positive light.
But there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of loneliness. The governmental lockdowns and social distancing in the past year have increased many people’s sense of loneliness and had a massive, negative impact on their mental health. There isn’t anything positive about loneliness, if it is the condition of being physically and emotionally disconnected from other people against our will.
Psychologists typically distinguish between loneliness as the negative experience and solitude as the positive experience. Most of us have probably experienced the negative experience of loneliness, which is essentially about the lack of connection with others against our will. It can happen when we are physically separated from other people, but also in the middle of a big city or in a sports team. The negative impact of loneliness on human lives is certainly widely recognized. In sport, experiences of loneliness can arise from being bullied, ignored or not understood, and these experiences certainly do not support finding meaning in the activity.
In our research on ice hockey players’ injury experiences, the sense of loneliness brought by the injuries was a central theme. And it was not alleviated by being present in team practices and games; sometimes it was actually worse to be with the teammates. What was lost there was the sense of shared meaning. The injured athletes found themselves alone with their “problem” that others did not experience. Sometimes, it is possible that the healthy athletes do not want to know about others’ injuries at all, because it can threaten their own sense of security in their athletic life project.
Lars Svendsen’s A Philosophy of Loneliness provides a thoughtful exploration of the role and meaning of loneliness in our lives. While exploring the negative side of loneliness and its detrimental impact on our physical and psychological health, he also notes that some of the best moments in our lives can take place when we are alone. The moments of freely chosen aloneness (typically called solitude) can help us contemplate on our place in the world and examine our lives.
There are many opportunities for the positive experience of solitude in sport that can contribute to finding meaning in sport and life. Many runners enjoy and look forward to running alone at least sometimes. It is no surprise that there are many books about running as meditation and running and mindfulness. Activities like running, cycling and hiking can help us to reduce the noise that comes from outside and tune into how we are doing and how our life is. Also, in other sports, there is certainly space for practicing alone which can be vital for ‘figuring out’ the techniques and creatively exploring new ways to practice.
And often, doing sport and exercise can be the place where we can be not thinking of anything, just being there and losing ourselves.