D.O.C. - 'What is up to us' as athletes

"Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing." (Enchiridion 1)

So famously begins Epictetus’ Enchiridion, his handbook of the Stoic practice. This is, of course, the same sentiment expressed by the 20th century Christian Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change; 
courage to change the things I can; 
and wisdom to know the difference.

The Stoic Dichotomy of Control (D.O.C.) is simultaneously the most intuitively simple aspect of Stoicism to understand and the most profoundly difficult to practice consistently. The intuitively simple aspect of the DOC is the assertion that some things are ‘up to us’ (within your power), and others are ‘not up to us’ (not within your power).

You would think that only a truly insane person would argue that everything is within their power; such a belief would be a sign of an extremely distorted sense of reality. Unfortunately, sanity is a matter of degree and most of us regularly behave as if we are insane by thinking and acting as if things outside of our control are ‘up to us.’ Myself included before I was introduced to the Dichotomy of Control.

Going into a competition as athletes, we will find ourselves in a pre-game huddle, with the most common theme or goal heading into a sporting match, is ‘winning.’

But do we really have complete control and ability over this desire and if we collectively choose to set winning the match as our goal, do we even increase our chances of winning that match? I’ll argue later that we might even hurt our chances of coming out on top.


Dichotomy or Trichotomy?

A dichotomy is a division between two things that are opposed or entirely different. Epictetus believed that our most important choice in life is whether we concern ourselves with things external to us or things internal. In the Stoic philosophy, a person should concern himself with all harm and benefit that comes from himself, as this is within our control.

If you think a bit more about it, this dichotomy is not quite complete, argues William B. Irvine, author of my favorite Stoic book 'A Guide to the Good Life' - as we should probably talk more about a trichotomy of control, dividing things ‘not within our power’ into 2 sub-categories:

  • Within our power.

    1. Things that are up to us (complete control)

  • Not within our power.

    1. Things that are not up to us (absolutely no control over them)

    2. Things that are not fully up to us (some control but not complete)


Within our power

1. Things that are up to us (complete control)

Epictetus defines our sphere of control in a nutshell:

The ‘power to deal with impressions’ is all we control.

He continues in saying that "we control our opinions, impulses, desires, and aversions, nothing more." I like to broaden Epictetus’ definition to our choices, perception, values, actions and goals we set for ourselves.

What do you have complete control over as an athletes?

I believe we have complete control over the goals we set for ourselves. If I say: my goal is to meditate twice a day, this goal is completely under my control. Nothing forbids me to increase that number to 3 per week, or decrease it to 1 per day, I can commit to accomplishing it or I can decide not to do it - it is completely within my control.

With that being said, setting a goal is different from achieving it. You have control when you set a goal to become an Olympian. But you achieving it falls under the category of things over which you have only partial control as it doesn’t depend solely on you and your will to achieve it.

Where we get into trouble, according to Epictetus, is our assumption that we have more control over events than we truly do, a mistake which he believes is the source of tremendous psychological angst.


Not within our power

1. Things that are not up to us (absolutely no control over them)

The weather serves as a great example. Whatever we do, think or say, tomorrow’s weather is absolutely not up to us. Therefore, it is useless and even foolish to worry about it. As Marcus Aurelius pointed: “Nothing is worth doing pointlessly.”

2. Things that are not fully up to us (some control but not complete)

Let’s take a simple example of things that we have some control but not complete over: a volleyball match. Obviously, we want to win, but our ability to achieve this outcome is not completely under our control. No matter how hard we prepare, how well we sleep, eat and how hard we try during the match - it doesn't guarantee us that our team will win. So how do we proceed?

Back to the example of a team getting ready for the big game and the coach shouts, “WE NEED TO WIN TONIGHT!” Everyone nods in agreement (what else would we do) the team collectively sets their focus to one goal, one outcome, an external goal, winning but is this healthy, efficient or even productive?

Goal Setting - Internal or External?

William B. Irvine, author of ‘A Guide to the Good Life’ has a different approach with the DOC in mind, reminding the athlete to be very careful about the goals he sets for himself. “In particular, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals when he has some but not complete control of a situation, such as winning a tennis match, he will be very careful about the goals he sets for himself.”

External Goals: Winning the match. (Someone we have partial control over)

Internal Goals: Playing to the best of his ability in the match. (Something we have complete control over)

Irvine goes on to add that “the Stoics realized that our internal goals will affect our external performance, but they also realized that the goals we consciously set for ourselves can have a dramatic impact on our subsequent emotional state. It is worth nothing at this point that playing to the best of your ability in a tennis match and winning that match are causally connected. In particular, what better way is there to win a tennis match than by playing to the best of your ability?”

As an athlete if we consciously set 'winning the volleyball game' as our goal, we arguably don’t increase our chances of winning that match. In fact, we might even hurt our chances: If it starts looking early on, as though we are going to lose the match, we might become flustered, frustrated or agitated and this might negatively affect our playing in the remainder of the game, thereby hurting our chances of winning. Furthermore, by having an external goal such as winning the match as our goal, we dramatically increase our chances of being upset by the outcome of the match.

If, on the other hand we set an internal goal playing our best in a match as our goal, we arguably don’t lessen our chances of winning the match, but we do lessen our chances of being distraught by the outcome of the match.

This is important to factor in the high amount of burnout from younger athletes due to their inability to succeed and win - in their focus and pursuit on external goals (things that aren't completely in their control)

Rather than taking the approach the Stoics and William B. Irvine recommend in enjoying the sport and the challenge of improving as an individual and as a team. Younger athletes have too much pressure to succeed, to win and to accomplish these external goals, usually set by their coaches and or parents.

By understanding the D.O.C. internalizing our goals with respect to tennis, volleyball or any other sport would appears to be a no-brainer. We can instead set our goal to play to the best of our ability knowing it has a clear upside – reduced emotional anguish in the game even if the team isn't winning, while allowing the athlete to be free, present and to enjoy sport and the challenge of improving with their teammates.

What do you think? Should coaches and parents help their athletes focus on internalizing their goals rather than the black/white dichotomy of winning and losing? 


Leave a comment