Wednesday, July 07, 2010


(note: i've written indirectly about the effects of a DNF before: the anguish of failed expectations. but here, i've decided to tackle head-on something i consider to be a very crucial, very misunderstood subset of the DNF: quitting)

"quitting" is not a word that an athlete likes to hear. it's among the list of vocabulary (like "surrender", "dropping out", or "giving up") treated like the plague and as things (to borrow from J.K. Rowling) That Must Not Be Named.

quitting is not to be confused with the equally dreaded term "DNF". DNF (Did Not Finish) is more general, and refers to an athlete not finishing a race for any number of reasons: physical injury, broken equipment, canceled races, etc. quitting can lead to a DNF, but it deals very specifically with an athlete's choice to voluntarily stop and exit before completion of competition.

quitting is taken as a negative for several reasons:
  • it connotes personal weakness in character in terms of deficiencies in values associated with sports: motivation, courage, or drive;
  • it creates an obstacle in the mind, with the athlete now becoming much more aware of an inability to face personal challenges and thereby generating greater uncertainty as to personal capabilities, in turn increasing the possibility of accepting self-imposed personal limitations--something entirely contrary to the spirit of athletics;
  • it renders the sporting event moot, and means that all the sacrifice in time, energy, and resources (from the athlete or athlete's friends and family) was in vain and hence a waste representing an opportunity cost of things that would have been put to more productive use in other endeavors.
none of these are good in terms of encouraging optimum performance nor enabling positive outcomes. which is why so many athletes treat quitting like an anathema and avoid any proximity to its utterance.

in a way, this is good. the fear of quitting and its consequences serves as a spur prodding us to persevere in the face of dangers that intimidate us. it pushes to stay in the arena of competition despite our fears. it causes us continue in the race even though we're not sure we can. and in so doing, it forces us to expand our minds: it enables us to see that we really can do more than we believe, that we really can produce more than we understand, and that we really are more than we know. in short, it helps us to liberate and better make ourselves.

but it can also be bad. it can make us dysfunctional, and blind to the harm resulting from our dysfunction. it can lead us to overlook our well-being, to the extent that we persist past the point of injury and in so doing permanently debilitate ourselves. it can lead us to ignore the environment around us, to the extent that we fail in our responsibilities and thereby neglect or even hurt others around us. it can lead us to forget the point of competition, to the extent that we never discover the spirit of our efforts and never learn the nature of our actions and never realize the better aspects of our existence. in short, it causes us to limit and, in extreme cases, destroy ourselves.

which suggests that a refusal to quit, while often lauded and promoted, can sometimes be a problem, and that quitting is not always a negative thing. which raises the question: when is quitting good and when is quitting bad? or more succinctly: when should we decide to quit?

the answer is perhaps best found from first principles. that is, from recognizing the reasons why we engage in athletics and sports. both mean different things to different people, and hence require a measure of personal reflection about what it is that we individually are seeking from our own involvement in them. are we doing them for fun? are we doing them for camaraderie? are we doing them to release pent-up energy? are we doing them to resolve issues? are we doing them for glory? are we doing them for better overall (physical, mental, spiritual) health? are we doing them for personal fulfillment? we have to ponder these questions, since they then set what expectations we have in relation to our own involvement in athletics and sports.

this is relevant, because once we have set our expectations, we have a standard by which to judge our decisions. with a standard, we can recognize something as positive if it acts constructively towards achieving our expectations and as negative if it acts destructively towards not achieving our expectations. if it's constructive, then it's good. if it's destructive, then it's bad. which distills our decision to this: if something is good, we should continue it; if something is bad, we should quit it.

admittedly, it's not always this easy. things are often a mixture of good and bad. but we can always make a judgment as to the net effect--we can always sense in the big picture if something has an overall result of being good or bad. the important rule to remember is: overall, does it help achieve us expectations, or doesn't it? on a general level, is it constructive or destructive?

because on a deeper level athletics and sport, if nothing else, are about making us better. physically, mentally, spiritually. for ourselves, for others, for the world around us. and if what we're doing is not achieving our expectations, then it's not constructive and it's not making us better.

in which case, it's at that time that we have to make our choice: it's then that we have to decide to change...for the better.

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