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Sporting Enthusiasm and Authentic Achievement

Hans Lenk reflects on an Olympic climax of achievement Former Olympic enthusiasm.

Encore quatre minutes!” The loudspeaker sounds across Lake Albano, echoing back with a hollow grumble reflected from the crater walls. The Olympic final in the Eights is about to start. The shells are arranged at the take-off marks. Dull feelings in the stomach. Pull yourself together – now or never!

Partez!” The signal cuts the silence, releasing a hustling, bustling noise of coxswains’ piercing cries, of cracking, sliding seats and hasty splashes. The great, last race is underway.

Looking back: for four years we had lived only for this goal. There was hardly time for anything except daily workouts, travelling, regattas, races, times, diet, exercise, trimming boats, variations in condition, tactics, strategy. Rowing seemed to be the most important thing in the world. The sporting myth caught the imagination and built up motivation. To participate, to be in the swing of things, totally involved in this fascinating endeavour, seemed to be the greatest adventure of an active life. It had been a cooperative endeavour consummately tackled by the crew and its coach Karl Adam, highlighting and fulfilling a mythical dream. “The Eights – it is the team per se,” the German poet Rudolf Hagelstange wrote about our Olympic race of 1960 on Lake Albano, in the mountainous vicinity of the Olympic City, eternal Rome.

“One thousand metres, half way. Stay tough!” Ten hard strokes against Canada’s intermediate spurt. Three quarters of a length. And still five hundred metres to go – the last quarter of the last race. Muscles and tendons strain with pain, pushing, treadling against growing resistance. Air! Breathless and coughing.

Arms, legs become clumsy obstacles. A glance out of the boat shows that the Canadians are falling back; one length. The final spurt: “Still 15!” The boat jumps on again, accelerating once more. All the energy into this stroke – and again into the next! Darkness, buzzing ears, and a hoarse, coarse throat. The clumsiness seems unbearable. “14, 15 – through!” Breathe!

Falling, dropping. Darkness, points of light – exhaustion. “Stay moving!” Paddling on, panting, gasping. Relaxation... Gradually the environment reappears. The brown shells, the coloured racing suits, the roaring grandstands. Olympic victory!

The last, the greatest race. A dream came true; a ‘myth’ became reality. Is life but a race?

Being a, or even the, climax of achievement in life, such an accomplishment determines practical life a long time beforehand through training, shaping one’s mentality, personal commitment and devotion. What is the meaning of such on the face of it rather useless accomplishments, which render neither bread nor pay nor rent nor sustenance, nor even scholarships – at least in former times? Does an Olympic success make sense in itself, or perhaps by being applauded by many?

Indeed one does not live on bread alone. This might, superficially speaking, already convey a partial answer to these questions. The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset said that humans are creatures for whom the seemingly superfluous accrues towards a sort of necessity, amounting to or even constituting civilisation. More specifically, civilisation according to him should be ‘the daughter of sports’ and of the free exuberant activities of life. This follows Schiller’s and Spencer’s philosophy of the good life as being creative exuberance and play of all kinds. Ortega thinks it’s not primarily work and toil which lead to creative accomplishment, but sport and free active creativity, like play and other exuberant energy expenditure. Anything valuable for and in higher endeavours would result from the surplus from this sort of joyous life – the overflowing of power and the spending of the free energy not necessary for sustenance.

Life today seems far from such simple philosophies, but isn’t there a grain of truth in them? Sport is indeed energetic life. Its highest accomplishments cannot be artificially motivated, delegated or organized by command. You can order somebody to enter a marathon, but you can’t simply order anyone to establish a world record. In sport, as for any sort of top-level creative accomplishment, you have really to identify with your activities, plans, and decisions, or you will fail. Training and workouts require total dedication. In this way sport is an exemplary realm for understanding authentically achieved personal accomplishments (see my Eigenleistung, Zurich 1983, or Social Philosophy of Athletics, Champaign, IL 1979). “The structure of achievement is the same in all areas,” the coach of our Olympic Gold Medal team, Karl Adam, emphasised many times. This is certainly a bit exaggerated, but in any case the pertinent structures are at least rather similar, so that many an insight from sport, top-level athletics in particular, might be transferred to other realms of personal achievement. The phenomenon of authentic activity and achievement can of course be found much more widely than just in sport.

The Principle of Authentic Achievement

There are different principles of achievement in psychology, social psychology and sociology. The ‘achievement principle’ beloved of sociologists and economists has to be distinguished from individual and creative personal achievement, (which might itself in turn be the basis for social stratification or for the distribution of life chances and pay, monetary or social). But achievement in all areas is defined through evaluation and interpretation, which requires standards (or even scales) of capability and goodness, measures of difficulties. It requires certain favourable individual emotional and social conditions. For example, a pro-active attitude towards life and self-responsibility alongside liberal social structures are necessary for or at least conducive to what McClelland called the ‘achieving society’.

Achievement may be evaluated in different ways; for example from the perspective of outcome, results, effort, input, competitiveness, capability, talent, susceptibility to and/or absence of control and intervention, safety, etc. Standards of achievement can be quantitatively interpreted in terms of, for example, success on the market, productivity (the output-input ratio), the increase in output/minimization of input, the fulfilment of duties and formal tasks; or in terms of individual effort, or surpassing others, or even in terms of the exhaustion of personal, social or economic resources, opportunities and capabilities.

The so-called achievement principle is a formulation which describes material rewards and social stratification in relation to one’s actual or potential personal achievement, particularly in vocational matters. One has to distinguish this principle from the microeconomic as well as from the social psychological principle of achievement – the first relating to economic success, the latter describing achievement readiness, or motivation.

For the philosophy of education, the social psychological principle requiring readiness for creative activity and achievement – self-motivated, self-interested performance – is certainly the outstanding principle. The kind of authentic personal achievement produced I would like to call ‘eigen-achievement’, or more generally, authentic or proper ‘eigen-activity’. [Eigen is German for ‘self’ or ‘own’.] By these phrases I mean deliberately self-motivated, self-engaged, voluntarily performed personal achievement and activity. The concept also refers to achievements which can only be recognized through interpretation, for example in the arts, sciences and in many creative realms – even in sports. The social psychological principle of achievement motivation should not be misinterpreted as applying in a narrow economic sense only. Our (Western) personalities notably develop through their eigen-achievements.

Educationally speaking, fostering the mentality of personal achievement seems to me to be indispensable. Self-motivation should as a rule be preferable to obedience to a teacher, necessary though that may sometimes be. It also seems very important to distinguish between self-motivated ie authentic achievement, and achievements imposed by others (a fact the social critics of the 1960s notoriously overlooked). For the former, what’s necessary and effective are personal will and readiness, devotion and self-overcoming, as well as self-control.

Is life but a race? Probably not; but in an intriguing, rather deep sense, human life is primarily authentic activity, or even eigen-achievement: it is evaluated, creative personal activity. Eigen-achievement is an element of an engaging and ‘real’ life in its original active sense, ie really active being. Real meaning resides in acting and achieving, in self-determined, self-structured, goal-oriented activities. One’s personality – at least the type of personality common to Western cultures and societies – mirrors itself and even constitutes itself chiefly in works and actions, in expressions and results, brought about and consummated by the individual – by achievements in the wider sense. Individuals distinguish themselves in the eyes of others by novel, creative, at times even unique accomplishments; but they’re also motivated by their aspirations to surpass their previous achievements. Of course, a person’s character isn’t only reflected in their achievements: it would be at times really inhuman to judge everybody solely on that basis. However, achievements and accomplishments do proffer a special opportunity for distinction, self-development, self-confirmation and self-education. In a society and culture tending towards the levelling of everything, generally incurring no real menacing danger any more, and too little tension or challenge, our highly-civilized lives rarely require us to call on our emergency reserve capacities. Therefore, to test themselves, people create artificial, self-designated tension by makeshift challenges and risk-seeking. Extraordinary challenges or strenuous tasks take unique effort, devotion, energy, risk, endurance, and in particular, creativity. This shows humans are the eigen-achieving beings par excellence.

However for a whole generation or so the culture didn’t look like this. The so-called ‘leisure society’ didn’t seem to highlight the ideals of active achievement, at least at first sight. Yet for a decade or so, achievement-orientation through adventurous challenges, or at least the vicarious reliving of them, have been ‘in’ again. This is true for risky sports, as well as for a considerable portion of our younger generation with respect to achievement orientation generally (as the Shell Youth Study of 2000 confirmed).

An open question is how to combine achievement principles with other fundamental axioms of humanity. There is a plea for a humanised principle of achievement – avoiding the extremes either of achievement defeatism or total achievement fixation. This new achievement principle should be placed centre-stage for education and also to influence the cultural climate of companies and other organisations.

Strengthening Motivation: Team Achievement as a Prototype

Many achievements in life are brought about by teams, so examining the requirements and processes for achieving success in team sports should be very fruitful. It will then be possible to apply some of the results to other achieving groups and teams – and also, mutatis mutandis, to companies and educational institutions. Studying outstanding performances at least in relation to the amount of effort and energy put in should turn out to be quite rewarding. I was a member and later a coach of top-level rowing crews (including an Olympic 8+ gold medalist crew, 1960; an European Champion 8+, 1959; both as an athlete – moreover, another World Champion Eights, 1966, as coach) as well as in medal-winning Fours (1958: 4- as an athlete; and again coaching a 4+ in 1965). Here I studied the group dynamics of crews from a social psychological perspective. The results are discussed in my Team Dynamics (1977). There were some remarkable interconnections between the internal structure of the team and external guidance, as well as concerning the social environment, competition and coaching. The increase of achievement motivation and the felicitous guidance of a team depend on all these factors. Conflicts and tensions within crews as well as with the coach or with leading personnel are rather common. One has to take them into account too. Conflicts can’t always be fully resolved once and for all, but one has at times to moderate, and mitigate, them in order possibly to turn the attitudes, mentalities and tensions into positive achievement-increasing impulses. It isn’t only harmonious, conflict-free teams who are capable of world best achievements, as social psychologists had notoriously earlier claimed. Leadership conflicts, group tensions and conflicts, even competing cliques, are simply normal. The World Champion Eights of 1962 was dominated by an ‘achievement clique’ of the four allegedly strongest rowers, and the team was emotionally split into the two competing factions, each under their respective leader. The crew nevertheless increased its overall strength. Everybody had to stand out and compete against almost evenly-strong substitute rowers in the skiff and in small-boat races, in training workouts as well. The small boat contests provided an objective standard of comparison, acknowledged by all rowers. Such internal competition creates a rank-ordering within the crew, which by itself regulates and mitigates or even defuses some internal conflicts. Clique conflicts and leadership tensions can be predicted on the basis of so-called sociometric questionnaires and behavioural enquiries, and could be used to manage or solve leadership needs using the social psychological dynamics of the training camp. (For details, see my Team Dynamics).

What can be learned from the connection between achievement motivation and the teamwork of these crews? Internal integration varies inversely with external competition – as Homans’ ‘laws’ of microsociology imply. Moreover, contrary to the traditional doctrines of social psychology, clique conflicts are not necessarily detrimental but should be considered normal and can be manipulated to be used in a positive, achievement-increasing way, and to control the group and the training camp – as long as the conflicts are not strong enough to tear the team apart. The personal success of the individual rowers is necessarily dependent on the success of the crew: thus internal competitiveness positively increases the general achievement level. Again, often rather conflict-driven crews are capable of top-level, even world best achievements. Frequently, conflict-ridden teams are more determined and engaged: they seem to be more innovative, intense, and stronger, and this high tension expresses itself in the relationships within the teams. Thus internal competition combined with open internal discussion may be profitably used to regulate internal conflicts while raising the achievement level.

The so-called ‘democratic’ self-control of a group by participatory decision-making and the participatory style of leadership makes regulation of internal competition more visible and easier to handle. By this sort of ‘objectification’ many a conflict can be diffused, mitigated, regulated, even dissolved or defused. At the same time, participatory leadership strengthens identification of the crew members with the team as a whole, and their communication encourages joint planning for training and races. This very factor might even mobilise reserves of motivation unreachable by normal efforts (most notably, under the traditional authoritarian style of coaching). Internal testing of the team is therefore as a rule much more effective than ‘external’ preaching or admonishing. The principle of authentic achievement therefore recommends increasing output by giving the group self-control through participatory leadership.

Finally, the motivating power of self-gratifying activity produces a sort of satisfaction and even fun in striving for the top level, and may give one extra ‘hype’ because one more deeply identifies with such self-chosen activity. Moreover, the urge for eigen-achievement figures within so-called ‘flow’ experiences (after Csikszentmihalyi), ie, not only in free creative activities, but also in rhythmically-structured activities like rowing, cross country skiing and other ‘swinging’ activities, which render a self-propelling motivation. This also applies to team sports, teamwork in all creative realms, and in group education too. In general, the characteristics of toilsome work, high energy expenditure and playful athletic activity become fluid at the limits of the highest authentic and demanding devotion.

The Authentically Achieving Being: Conclusions

What do all these experiences and social psychological results mean for the philosophy of education and for the anthropology of the achieving being?

Any comprehensive doctrine of the human being has to encompass many perspectives. ‘The human being’ can’t be covered by just one definition or formula. Its essence cannot be characterized by just one unique trait. Kant’s question ‘What is a human being?’ can be only answered in a very complex and multifarious manner. We need to take into account the human and social sciences as well as the biological and medical disciplines. However, philosophical anthropology cannot content itself with just being descriptive; it should try to integrate some overarching central ideas of what a human being is and should be according to our self-understanding. To work these traits out in a united model is a necessary yet demanding task.

The well-known characterization of humans as the acting beings (after Schütz and Gehlen) seems to me not specific enough. A rather special nuance regarding human action is that it is potentially not just behaviour, but also basically consists of improving a goal-oriented activity according to some systematic criterion or standard, through methodical planning. In short, it is achieving activity, with criteria which have to be met. The human being is not only the responsible being, but also the eigen-achieving being. Humans, and only humans, can act by way of methodically and systematically planning, by exercising and coaching or being coached for ever-improving quality: we can eigen-achieve, as I say. Achievement thus can be an expression of personal freedom of will and action. Eigen-achievement depending on authentic personal motivation (eigen-motivation) is thus a good expression of the active, creative personality.

The principles of achievement and achievement-comparison, of competition, and of equality of opportunities and chances, almost perfectly materialise in sporting and athletic contests – in any case more here than in any other realm of life. Sport seems to be the particularly apt means of expression and realm of comparison for top-level achievements. Does this explain part of its fascination? Similar things can be said for other realms of creative achievement, such as the arts, including performing arts such as dance and theatre; in music; in literature; even in science and philosophy. All these realms of authentic creative accomplishment are educationally speaking of the highest significance: they offer opportunities for self-distinction by one’s achievements within a generally conformist society which nevertheless emphasises individual distinction. Indeed, a human does not live on bread alone: we also live through authentic personal achievements.

Democratic societies are especially dependent on authentic motivation and the readiness for achievement, and should foster these as effectively as possible in any potential form. This is especially important in a world curtailed by consumerism. Popular creative activity in arts and sports are attractive vehicles for inculcating the disposition for eigen-achievement, and particularly important for adolescents, because sporting achievement is more easily accessible at that age than high-level scientific or artistic production.

Furthermore, the principles of equality of opportunity and comparison of achievement by competition are most easily approached in sport, both in training and in competitions. Nepotism and privilege count as little here as property, affluence or power. It is only achievement that counts in sport – at least, ideally speaking. (In professional sports, however, as in any publicly impressive show-off disciplines, we have problems due to the betrayal of the ideals, such as doping, the manipulation of results, bribery and pretence. This is human: all too human, indeed. But it does not devalue the ideal picture.)

Sport can be understood as a model in which the values and guiding norms as well as the basic principles of McClelland’s ‘achieving society’ figure more clearly than in the wider culture. In sport the achievement principle seems to be a ‘purer’ one, allowing much clearer conditions and comparisons than in industry and economics. Artistic and sporting achievement, as any creative activity whatsoever, have indeed much in common regarding their motivational foundation. As realms of creative activity and eigen-achievement, they are all educationally speaking of the highest significance: They give necessary opportunities for self-distinction by outstanding and symbolic achievements. Thus the athlete, like the artist, can symbolise even a ‘Herculean’ or ‘Promethean’ myth of exceptional and highly-valued excellent accomplishment, stemming from personal engagement, devotion towards a task and aspirational goals and aims. (See my article in Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 3, 1976.) To be sure, achievement isn’t everything, and achievement as such, taken just in the abstract or by formal evaluation (for example in athletic records), barring meaningful social objectives, would not be recommended as a cure-all for education or for behaviour in general. But without authentic personal striving for accomplishments and personal improvement, without the strong will for particular achievements and creative activities, higher civilisation wouldn’t be possible at all. The civilised being is the eigen-achieving being. As mentioned, this idea comprises an ideal, expressing human striving for the better. Thus personal authentic action, eigen-achievement, is an indispensable expression of creative life and a free society.

It has to be stressed again that primary motivation should go before the secondary (or indirect) motivation characterised by gratifications, opportunities, chances and so on. We need enthusiasm for tasks and work to be done rather than only looking for secondary compensation. There is a danger in our over-regulated society and in its formal institutions of education that primary motivation is eclipsed by secondary motivations, by checks and controls and the perfection of curricula, as well as by over-sophisticated differences in grading at school. Over-administration tends to produce a narrow job mentality that almost kills the initiative deriving from a personal enthusiasm for real tasks and challenges. This exacerbates a dilemma in education: society relies on the mobilisation of enthusiasm for achieving objectives, which can’t be manufactured but may be most easily destroyed by over-administration. Personality, and particularly the creative capacities, are not the products of administration. Here initiative, inspiration and trust as well as freedom are much better than even perfect control and checks. Aspiring young people must not lose their enthusiasm and initiative in difficult job situations or in competitions. The more one identifies with one’s self-chosen task, the more one can achieve therein.

Generally speaking, the insights we can gain from studying top-level sports teams, as well as the philosophical interpretation of the authentically achieving being, need to be integrated with the goal of cultivating the social and psychological factors of achievement orientation – above all in education. The dynamics of the achievement process are rather similar everywhere – or even “the same,” as coach Adam had it. Indeed self-engaging activity and authentic achievement are essential components of human self-understanding. The human being is not only the rational/cognitive, social and cultural, ever-self-civilising and creative being, but also the authentically achieving being.

© Professor Hans Lenk 2007

Hans Lenk won the gold medal for rowing at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He is now a professor at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany, and is President of the International Institute of Philosophy. The last three chapters in his 2007 book Global Techno-Science and Responsibility Muenster: LIT, Germany, address these topics of creativity and achievement in greater detail.

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