Julian Evans on competing with compassion

The practical philosopher talks about a sports club where everybody wins
Julian Evans on competing with compassion
June 13, 2016   |    Julian Evans

Being a ‘practical philosopher’ involves taking ideas beyond academia and exploring how they can make people’s lives better. I found Ancient Greek philosophy a huge help when recovering from anxiety and depression in my 20s and was surprised so few people in our culture knew about it. So I set about trying to change that.

Over the last five years or so, my work has taken me into prisons, churches, armies and governments, but one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done has been working with Saracens rugby club, the north London team which has just won the double – the English premiership and the European championship cup. Saracens also provided a lot of the players and coaching staff who helped England win the Six Nations this year. I’ve been working with Saracens for the last three years. So – how can a philosopher possibly help an elite sports team?


Saracens is, in fact, a pretty unusual organisation in that it tries to think hard about its team’s ‘culture’ and values. Unlike most elite sports teams, it places those values above simply ‘winning at all costs’. It tries to put the players’ wellbeing before profit and silverware, treating them as people rather than commodities.
It also tries to create a culture where the players know, empathise and, even, love one another.

To contribute to that culture, I come in every other month and run a philosophy club. For the first half an hour, I give a talk about some therapeutic idea from ancient philosophy. For example, one of the early talks I gave was on stoic resilience and the idea of focusing on what you can control, rather than worrying over what is beyond your control. That’s a particularly useful idea when, as a sportsman, the referee is making bad decisions, you’re injured or when the media is giving you grief. Elite sportspeople are not the gods advertising portrays them as – in fact, a lot of their life is beyond their control. They have to learn to accept that and focus on the things they can control.


Then, after the talk, there’s an open discussion between the players and coaches who’ve come along (it’s voluntary). When I gave a talk on the philosophy of anger, it was followed by a vibrant debate on whether anger is always a vice or not. One player shared how he learned to control his temper by putting a rubber band round his wrist and snapping it every time the red mist descended.

The philosophy club encourages an open, communicative culture, where people are not embarrassed to talk about their emotions and not afraid to talk with management. Hopefully in the future, other organisations will see the value in making the most of philosophy and all it has to teach us – it’s a matter of companies putting the wellbeing of their staff before profit.

Focus on what you can control, rather than worrying about it


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