Performance-Enhancing Vices

In June, I returned to ultramarathon racing after an extended time away. I had not raced since 2019, due to what I am calling the “pregdemic” — a combination of pregnancy and the COVID-19 pandemic. It was odd to have these two events coincide — one which changed my own life (becoming a mother), and the other, which changed everyone’s lives (the pandemic). One event was wonderful (becoming a mother), and the other was a catastrophe (the pandemic). Last summer, there was a rising public discourse about extending grace to one another in these unprecedented times, and I had to catch myself from thinking that everyone else had just had their first child too. We all adjusted to big changes and new responsibilities. We were disrupted from our routines. We had to figure out where running fit into this new rhythm of life — in the pandemic, or in the pandemic and new motherhood, in my case.

Anyway, this June I returned to competition. I am not sure if I expected to be the same person when the gun went off, but I was not. Physically, I was not where I wanted to be. For months, I put in solid training volume and added speedwork as the event approached, but I developed a gait inefficiency in late spring that lingered into summer. In the week leading up to the race, things took a turn for the worse, and I felt askew almost right from the gun.

Internally, I was not the same person either. My longest run leading up to the event was 14 miles — a paltry sum in the face of a 50k — but being away from my family for long training runs felt selfish. I lacked the myopia or singularity of focus on performance that used to characterize my training, and I was not desperate to prove myself. In the race itself, when my hips tightened and I fell off pace at mile nine, I felt happy for the girls who were running well, rather than unhappy for myself. While, overall, these were constructive changes for the sake of a well-ordered life outside of sport, they made me a less successful performer on race day.

Sabrina Little - 2021 Caunsett 50k

Sabrina Little at the 2021 Caumsett 50k, her first race back post “pregdemic.” Photo courtesy of Sabrina Little.

Competition and Vice

I have often wondered whether competitiveness is sustained by certain vices, such as selfishness, intemperance, pride, and envy. I call these performance-enhancing vices. These are defects of character, or traits that otherwise detract from a well-ordered, flourishing life, which help one to be a successful athlete. In general, we can identify them by asking ourselves whether certain traits that help us to succeed athletically also impede our ability to be loving friends or responsible citizens. Performance-enhancing vices may also compromise our long-term ability to live a full life outside of sport. Here are a few examples:

Envy

Envy is “feeling bitter when others have it better (1).” Unlike greed — which is plainly acquisitive and just wants what others have (e.g. I want more money like you have) — envy wants the very thing the other person has (2). It is motivated by feelings of comparative inadequacy, so resolving a perceived imbalance, in whatever way possible, appeases envy. Envy would be assuaged if your competitor ceased to be talented in a certain respect, even if that meant neither of you were talented in that way.

Envy is a vice common in athletics, where competitors compete for a limited good (victory). It can be performance-enhancing because feeling inadequate is motivating. Envy can drive a person to do all the little things in practice and to fight hard in a race so no one else secures the victory. Still, envy is a vice. It is a bad quality in a friend and in a competitor. It can’t celebrate the victories of other people. It is insecure and insatiable, and it will always have more work to do, trying to correct for comparative imbalances. It is a performance-enhancing vice.

Pride

Pride, or superbia, is an inordinate desire for one’s own excellence, or an inflated sense of self (3). It is often described as the root of all other vices because it inclines one toward other vices, such as vainglory, deception, and envy. Pride crowds out the love of others through self-importance, so it is a bad quality in a citizen and in a friend. However, it is a helpful quality in athletics. Pride is performance-enhancing because a proud person is inclined to strive for greatness, to seek fame, and to be engaged in the activity of reputation-protection. All these inclinations can make a person both an effective athlete, but an otherwise difficult person.

I do not think an athlete must be proud in order to be successful. For example, Aquinas writes about a kind of virtuous magnanimity, or greatness of soul, in which one aspires greatly with a fitting, rather than inordinate, desire for excellence. Still, I can see how the vice of pride might aid performance.

Selfishness

Selfishness is a lack of consideration for others. It inclines a person to put themselves and their own interests first, and this is both an asset to training and a defect in friendship. This is the performance-enhancing vice I have been thinking about recently because of the pregdemic.

There is a way in which parenting squeezes the selfishness out of you, at least in the early days, when keeping a human alive is an all-consuming task. Over the past year, motherhood has been an edifying and wonderful imposition on my time that has forced me to work on my character in this respect. (Thanks, Lucy.) But if I am being honest, being a little selfish with my time was profitable for me in preparing for races in the past. It was a vice that sustained my ability to fit in training volume and to focus on my preparation, rather than investing this energy in thinking about other people. It was a performance-enhancing vice.

Why Does This Matter?

If I am correct and there are certain vices that are performance-enhancing, this creates a pedagogical puzzle: should we grant bad qualities in an athlete for the sake of performance, such as in the case of a peak performer or professional athlete, or should the goals of sport always be secondary to having a good character? A second question is this: is it possible to be a great athlete and a great person at the same time, or are there necessary tradeoffs in our character to perform well?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I raise them because, culturally, we often speak of sport as an unqualified good for character development — producing discipline, grit, and courage, for example. Sport likely does help us to develop these virtues. But it also seems possible that there are certain vices reinforced in athletics, which sustain competition, yet make us less happy and loving people overall. These are performance-enhancing vices, and we need to figure out what place they have in our sport.

Call for Comments

Are there other vices you believe are beneficial to sport, yet may impede upon a person’s character in daily life?

References

1. DeYoung, R. (2009) Glittering Vices. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. p. 41.
2. DeYoung, R. (2009) p. 43.
3. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae II.162.2.

Sabrina Little

is a trail runner and ultrarunner for HOKA and Nathan Sports, and a Philosophy PhD student at Baylor University. She is trying to figure out whether it is more unreasonable to pursue mountain running in Waco, Texas (elevation 470 feet) or philosophy in the year 2018. Learn more about Sabrina on her website.