the scholar athlete

I’ve become very interested in the concept of the Scholar Athlete. According to Plato:


It’s nice to read something that fuels your own biases so I’m sticking with Plato on this one. Those who are committed to a physical practice while also furthering their study, those are people who are poised to make, take and give the most to life. A lack of endeavour in one of those directions is not something I find appealing.

Physical practice is something that is often confused, as is the term athlete. It can seem exclusive, as if it needs to be focussed on performance. Performance suggests arduous training, the fire of competition and something demonstrative for the approval or judgement of others. This is where people get this wrong.

Being an athlete can take many forms. You could be a sprinter, rippling with muscle, ready to break records and chase history but I’d posit that you could also be kayaking around on holiday, idly exploring the coastline and immersing yourself in nature.

Not everything is a race to the finish line. Being an athlete is celebrating your physical capacity to move, however that manifests.

Studying is often greeted suspiciously in athletic environments. ‘Don’t tax yourself’, go home and sit on the sofa, relax. This are how many athletes are encouraged to spend their down time. ‘Scholar’ also sounds exclusive; it conjures images of university spires, dusty libraries and old books.

Again this is wrong.

There’s such a wealth of ways to learn now, so many avenues for expression and communities to join, that being a scholar and studying could mean so many things. For me it’s reading and writing (I’ve recently added the writing part) but it could be painting, coding, learning a language or formal further qualifications. It can be a macro pursuit like a Masters or a micro pursuit like daily journalling.

Let’s also keep this away from the pursuit of better. The mere act of doing it means that you will probably improve but there’s no need to aim for constant improvement, more the delight of losing yourself in something, similar to how you feel when cycling slowly around a foreign city, a feeling of discovery rather than conquest.

Even though I’ve retired from competition, I’ve kept up a physical practice and it’s less onerous than people assume when they ask ask me about it. By combining some different forms of exercise and parsing them out throughout the day, I’ve found a holistic approach that does more with less, Less But Better if you like. The whole thing probably takes at most 30 minutes each day.

Writing has become my work but these posts are my deliberate practice - low pressure low stakes ways of getting me used to ‘shipping’, publishing relatively coherent things each day. These can take longer than my physical practice but they help me coalesce some of my thinking around different topics and will provide the basis for future, more informed pieces.

There are some professional athletes who have managed to maintain scholarly pursuits while competing at the highest level. In some ways this is easy, institutions are happy to bask in the reflected glow of an associated famous athlete, but it also involves some sacrifice, of time, of energy and of focus.

John Urschel

John Urschel

Some will feel that these other pursuits actually lend energy to their physical pursuits, making them focus harder and train smarter than they would otherwise. Some actually end up leaving athletics behind to pursue their other interests, people like John Urschel, an NFL player turned mathematician.

Finding some of the people is becoming a bit of a side endeavour for me, a small gallery of inspiration that I’ve been adding to over time. If anyone knows any Scholar Athletes that I could take a look at, particularly female ones, please let me know.

Ben Mercer