‘Recently I was allowed to give a speech at the graduation ceremony at a school. The students were of course very happy with their paper. But in the end, that’s not what it’s about. That’s what my pep talk was about.
“You can only perform if you don’t feel pressure to perform. You don’t become happy automatically when you show on Instagram all day long how wonderful your life is. Young people live under immense pressure: from their peer group, themselves, their parents, their education, social media. They have to do everything. The choice is huge.
“I can speak about it from my experience as a top athlete. Endless training to win. Feeling heavy pressure when you lose. Train even harder.
“About fifteen years ago I discovered the work of the Stoic philosophers. That has brought me the mental strength that I still lacked in my physical performance. I once thought: stoic, that is emotionless, sober, cold. Nothing for a top athlete: he wants to burn, blast, become a champion… Until I read Seneca’s letters.
“Stoic means: if you want to win, you shouldn’t be winning at all. You shouldn’t focus on what you perform, but how you perform. The real heroes in the sport have a stoic mindset, even if most wouldn’t call it that themselves. It is not easy to catch athletes such as Marit Bouwmeester and Femke Bol talking tough. Annemiek van Vleuten made a terrible fall in a time trial at the Rio Games in 2016. Mentally and eventually physically she came out much stronger. Her great successes came after her fall.
“Men like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca were mighty fellows, real men. What they wrote did not arise in a calm, meditative existence. They were political elite athletes. Their stoic views were a means of survival, a form of self-protection in all their lust for action.
„’Exercising power for power’ is not an effective way to sustain yourself. ‘Win to win’ rarely works. How then? You have to discover for yourself how you perform best, how you can enjoy your efforts, how the heaviest physical work costs you as little mental effort as possible.
“That is what I try to pass on to our children. Our eight-year-old son always wants to win. After football training I can already see from his face how the practice game has ended. Angry look when he has lost. That disappears when I ask him: ‘How did you play yourself, did you give nice passes? Then the enthusiastic stories come loose. If you play purely to win, you lose the fun and you never really win.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 26, 2021