Dealing with setbacks, the Stoic way

No gym owner goes through his career without any setbacks, so it’s important to be ready for them. One of the best ways to deal with setbacks is the ancient philosophy of Stoicism, which has been practiced since the times of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.

It’s also used in modern times and gained popularity through the works of authors like Donald Robertson and Ryan Holiday. Some great minds of the past were also interested in this philosophy. Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodor Roosevelt are just a few of them.

In this article I want to discuss a Stoic concept that can be very helpful to you as a martial arts coach: Turning problems into practice. Before we do that, I’ll give you a brief introduction to Stoic philosophy.

What is Stoicism

The goal of Stoicism is living in agreement with nature. First, that means that you must understand the small role you play in the universe and accept whatever fate the universe sends your way. It also means living in agreement with other human beings and acting in a way that is good for humanity. Finally, it means you should live in agreement with your own human nature, by aiming for the virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. According to the Stoics, living in agreement with nature like this should lead to happiness.  

One of the main ideas behind Stoicism, and one of the most useful, is understanding and accepting the difference between what is outside and what is inside of your control.

So what can and can’t we control?

We cannot control anything external. Setbacks, problems, someone testing your patience. They might sound like bad things, but to stoics they are not. That is because a Stoic sees everything outside of his control as being indifferent.

That also means that earning a big cash bonus, winning a team prize, or having a lot of new members sign up, is not necessarily a good thing. Just like the ‘bad things’, these are external events and thus indifferent.

So, what do you have control over? According to the Stoics, only two things: your mind and the intentions behind your actions.

This might all sound a little vague now, but let’s see how we can apply this knowledge practically. Specifically, when dealing with situations we might see as something ‘bad’ initially. 

The strategy

We can use a checklist for this approach every time our initial idea is that something ‘bad’ happened to us.

1. Take a breath

Wait for your emotions to settle down. Sometimes one deep breath is enough, sometimes you will need an entire week. Your initial reaction is hard to control, that is why you wait for it to settle down. Try to postpone thinking about the subject until you have calmed down enough to be able to go to the next step. Reminding yourself that nothing external (outside of your mind and the intentions behind your actions) can be good or bad.

2. Analyze the situation objectively

Now that you are calm, look at the situation objectively. What exactly has happened? Avoid adding any judgement to this description. See things how they objectively are. A famous passage from Marcus Aurelius’ meditations uses this to describe ‘good’ things, like wine, meat and even sex:

“Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage wine is grape juice […] Or making love—rubbing private parts together … “ – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.13

3. Practice the Stoic virtues

This step revolves around the idea of taking everything the universe gives you and using it as a gift, a way to train yourself. Stoics have four virtues they strive for: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.

Wisdom is about carefully thinking through situations, understanding what’s inside and outside of your control, being resourceful and keeping your purpose in mind. Justice is about doing the right thing and acting with integrity. Courage has to do with how you act. For example, enduring pain in a courageous way. It’s the opposite of acting cowardly. Finally, moderation is all about self-control and avoiding excesses.

Simple example: Say you bumped your toe against the leg of the table. This is a great moment to practice your self-control and deal with your pain in a courageous way.  Don’t scream, don’t complain, don’t kick your table in anger.

“‘I’m suffering severe pain,’ you may say. Well does it stop you suffering it if you endure it in an unmanly fashion?” – Seneca, Letter LXXVIII.

Example: The star pupil leaves the gym

Now let’s use an example that is a bit more complex than hurting your toe. Your star pupil decides to leave your gym for your competitor’s gym across the city because they will pay for his tournaments. Naturally, your first instinct will be to see this as something bad. You have put a lot of time and effort in this kid, and now he is betraying you for another coach, who is a very unpleasant person by the way.

Step 1: Take a breath

The Stoics acknowledge that we are no machines, and it’s normal that your first impression is that this is a bad thing. This is your involuntary judgement. After that first impression however, it’s time for your Stoic training to kick in.

Don’t act on your first impulse. Don’t yell at your former student, don’t post a long Facebook statement about betrayal. Just take a few breaths. If you feel especially upset, wait a few hours before addressing the situation in your mind.

Step 2: Analyze the situation objectively

Now that your mind has cooled down a bit (this could take minutes, but, in some scenarios, even a few days), it’s time to look at the situation rationally. What really happened, without labelling it as good or bad?

One of your students changed teams and told you that it was because the other team pays his tournament fees. That sounds quite different than: “my favorite student that I’ve put years of hard work into now betrays me for my unfriendly nemesis’ gym for a few lousy dollars of tournament money”.

Step 3: Practice the Stoic virtues.

Let’s start with wisdom. First you need to understand that you don’t have control of your student’s actions, they are outside of your control. Next, try to put yourself in the shoes of your former student. Attempt to understand his reasoning.

Maybe his parents were not able to pay for his tournaments costs anymore since his dad lost his job.

Maybe the conflict with another student a few weeks back weighed heavier on him then you first thought. Most of these things are outside of your control, but you can act in a way to avoid situations like this in the future.

That’s where courage comes in. Maybe you need to be more aware of your students’ home situation. If money were indeed a big problem you could have given him some opportunities to earn an extra buck, by letting him help you with private classes for example (see our article on private classes). 

Maybe you need to get better at spotting conflicts on the mat. Instead of ignoring it, you could have brought the two kids together to talk about what happened. Even just talking to your former student and telling him you understand his choice could be a courageous act. Recognize what you could do and act on it.

Then justice, how can we use this situation to practice justice? Do not hold a grudge against your former student. Do not tell your students to injure him the next time in competition. Understand that he decided he thought was best for him, there is no need to punish someone for that.

Moderation is mainly shown through your initial reaction. If you followed step 1 and step 2, you already showed self-control by staying calm and not overreacting.

Conclusion

We’ve seen that even an apparently bad situation can be turned into an opportunity to learn and improve. This is the power of Stoicism. By using a Stoic frame of mind and a few of their techniques, we turned a situation most people would categorize as bad, into something good for you as a person, and for your gym.

You practiced wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Your gym and your students will benefit from the insights you gained because of this situation.

Further reading
If you want to learn more about Stoicism, here are some great resources to start with. If you’re just getting into Stoicism, I would recommend a modern interpretation of Stoicism to get you started and accustomed to the ideas. Good starting points are:

  • Donald Robertson – Stoicism and the Art of Happiness
  • Ryan Holiday – The Daily Stoic

After you have an idea of the philosophy as a whole, it is a good idea to study some of the original works. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations are a great place to start. Other important Stoic authors are Seneca and Epictetus.

Published by Daniel de Groot

Daniel is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructor and active competitor. Since obtaining his master degree, he splits his time between his team in the Netherlands and Brazil, where he teaches at one of Brazil's premier academies, The House FC.

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