I will never be as good as I was before. Why should I keep going?

Time passes for all athletes. For some of us, our best performances may seem to be behind us. Perhaps we had a greater capacity – or more time – to train and compete then. Maybe we were simply younger and stronger. We had more support, or put greater priority on being an athlete. Or we might still be there, but our performances just don’t make the mark they used to.

This can make us feel like we’re failing, that we’re washed up. The young guns entering the game now are faster and better. Nobody notices how impressive our accomplishments are, because they aren’t as impressive as before. We lose motivation. Why should we put in all the effort if the results just aren’t the same anymore? Shouldn’t we just pack it in, “retire” with honor, and do something else?

Some of us who have experienced longer periods of injury or illness might remember similar feelings of frustration, anxiety or depression. Then, we weren’t doing what we longed to be doing: getting better at our sport, and really challenging our fellow athletes. It felt like we might never make it back to where we once were. But now, when we don’t get better despite our best efforts, or due to other life priorities or the simple passage of time, we can feel futile, and simply lose hope.

Perspective is fleeting

Athletes aren’t always the best at what might be called “perspective”. We sometimes have a difficult time seeing our entire role in sport – or outside of it – when it is such a important part of our lives. This can be likened to an identity crisis. We, and others, defined ourselves by our performances, as winners, contenders, rising stars, or dark horses. But that kind of view is an exceedingly narrow one in sport – it assumes that we are only as much of an athlete as is written into results lists or tables. It does not account for our contributions to our fellow competitors, or athletes we haven’t yet competed against (or even met). It doesn’t consider other ways we build our Society and make it stronger.

The postulates can help us see these contributions more clearly. The first postulate reminds us that all are invited to the contest, and the invitation is permanently renewable. This is important even when we are already an athlete and “in” a particular contest. We need to remember that sport is a continuum of contests, with different levels of challengers and challenges. It is largely up to us to decide where we want place our own challenge. When we have a been at a particular level, it might seem natural to try and remain there. But what are we doing there if we are constantly frustrated, or not able to challenge as we had hoped?

We can see our role there in at least two ways. The first is to acknowledge that we are still giving our best and that keeps everyone else on their toes, even if they are very often capable of besting us. We are still contributing to our fellow athletes’ improvement, and if they don’t give their best then we’ll be there to show them that. The other way is to acknowledge that we ourselves are being challenged more than ever, and by continuing to develop our training and tactics in this pressure cooker, we might create a new recipe for victory again.

A different choice might be to vacate that level, and choose a different (perhaps lower) one. This is a rational choice for many of us, who know that we don’t have the time, resources, or life situation to challenge at our previous level. We might be able to equal our competitors’ time, energy and focus in a different setting, however. While this might feel like swallowing one’s pride, it really isn’t. We should, as athletes, always consider where we can maximize our ability to challenge, and find our place there. Moving “down” a notch might bring everyone else “up” one – and suddenly the level of the game gets raised for everyone. We once again bring out the best in each other.

Find your equals

Just as there is a continuum of contests in sport, there are a continuum of athletes. Many of us are facing the same issues in our lives as athletes, students, caregivers, workers, unemployed, or rehabilitees. It’s up to us to find fellow athletes to challenge on similar terms. This is something Postulate 3 – which states that the playing field must be level for the contest to be valid – might not directly address, but can be used to guide us anyway. Consider a minor league team going up against a professional one. While they might be playing the same game and by the same rules, the starting points from which they enter it are vastly different. Levels of support, time, resources, and priority vary greatly between the two. Our own life situations might mirror this. When we find challengers that are closer to our own situation, then we are seeking to level the playing field on a personal level. If we don’t look for them, though, then we create exclusion and gaps in our Society. It gives others the impression that there aren’t other athletes like us out there, or that such gaps are normal. This is in nobody’s interest.

Finally, Postulate 6, which states that one’s best effort must always be given, is vital to consider here. At any point in time or in any situation, we are can give no more than our best (ignoring all the clichés about giving 110% and the like). Your best might have been entirely different last season, or 15 years ago. Does that mean the best you are capable of right now is any less worthy than before? It doesn’t. It means you are being an athlete. We can all wish that we had more time, more resources, more understanding employers or spouses, more whatever. Being an athlete is about taking what you’ve got and putting it maximally to use to challenge your competitors. If that happens to be 30 % less than what you used to be able to give, then so be it. But don’t assume that contribution is any less important. There are former champions out there that would love to be challenged by you at 70 % of your former capacity. There are also up-and-comers that have never been challenged by something as tough as you at 70 % of your former capacity.

Still going strong?

The truth is this: you can be an athlete as long as you like, in any situation you like (assuming you respect sport and our Society across all of it). Sure, we’ll miss our fastest, strongest, and best performances of all time, but in reality we can lay down our fastest, strongest, and best on the day as often as we are given the chance. Think of yourself at 75 years of age going to toe to toe with the athletes that gave you an epic fight four decades previous. Or managing to get the upper hand on the prodigal new kid destined for greatness who wasn’t even born when you were on top. What do you think that would be worth to you? Or to your challenger? To anyone in our Society? We’ll all be the better for seeing it, and there will be no shortage of congratulations and grateful smiles when the match is over.