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Sport and Competition

Courage: Working our Way Towards Bravery

A modern examination of the real requirements of fortitude.

I’ve spent a bit of time recently thinking about courage. I’ll be writing a number of posts on this topic over the next few months, but this is my initial offering and to get started the first thing you need to know is that courage is woefully under-studied.

While a number of positive psychologists (Seligman etc.) have poked at the subject as of late, their work does not go nearly deep enough to truly further the discussion. As far as I can tell, courage research is almost non-existent. There are few current studies, surveys, research experiments, etc. into the topic. Considering the massive spike in anxiety-disorders in the past few decades, this dearth seems especially troublesome.

As a way to open up a broader discussion, I came to the conclusion that a great starting point would be the language surrounding courage. In recent years, the definition of intelligence has expanded considerably, now including everything from pattern recognition skills through vocabulary and on to Goldman’s fantastic work on emotional intelligence. Along similar lines, I’ve decided to break courage down into a variety of categories and to begin putting cursory definitions around those categories.

This is by no means a complete list ( I plan on publishing a few more follow ups over the next few months). Nor are my definitions the result of anything beyond a lot of thought. Thus this blog is sort of a research experiment as well. Please send me your ideas as well. For purposes of full disclosure, I am now working on a new book called Two Decades of the Impossible about the incredible rise of action/adventure sports over the past two decades and the science of ultimate human performance. For obvious reasons, courage will be an important topic in this book, so anything great that comes my way will most likely end up in that book (of course, I will credit the source if the source wants to be credited).

1. Physical Courage: The most obvious category. This is a willingness to push the limits of one’s body. This is the kind of courage that shows up in all sorts of athletics, but I am thinking here not of group sports like football (which require courage, of course, but a different kind… see Battle Fortitude below), but of individual pursuits like skiing and mountain biking and motocross—places where injuries are both common and (often) significant.

2. Battle Fortitude: is a term that refers to one’s willingness to take grave chances with one’s life in the company of like-minded individuals. This clearly overlaps with moral courage (for example, this great talk by New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin on the Freedom Riders), but really applies to anything from football through war—meaning it pops up when one takes the “field (be it a battlefield or field of play) with “teammates.” Thus the courage required is a shared, cooperative psychological state, rather than an individual necessity.

3. Moral Courage: This is the courage to stand up for one’s beliefs in the face of overwhelming opposition. It’s best exemplified by the actions of a Mahatma Gandhi or a Rosa Parks. While it seems likely that there are examples of moral courage independent of other types, this particular subset seems to include parts of physical and intellectual courage (see below), alongside empathetic courage (again see below).

4. Intellectual Courage: Obviously, this is the willingness to come out in favor of an idea that others find patently ridiculous. I think there are probably a few subset in here as there seems to be some kind of fundamental difference between, say, Galileo’s courage to argue that the earth revolves around the sun (based on scientific evidence) and the courage to defend an idea like creationism (that flies in the face of scientific evidence), but how to tease them apart further is not yet clear.

5. Empathetic Courage: This variation gets little attention, but—as far as I can tell—should probably be the most celebrated of all categories. Empathetic courage is the ability to feel deeply for another being. A great example of this is the animal rescue community. I cover variations of this topic in my recent book A Small Furry Prayer, but the short summary is that empathetic courage is a variation on the maternal instinct (see below), only extended far beyond the confines of family.

6. Maternal/Paternal Courage: This one may be much more nature than nurture, but when parents do things like rush into burning buildings to save their off-spring, this is exactly what we’re seeing.

7. Decision Making in the Face of Uncertainty: As Daniel Kahneman proved over 30 years ago, decision making under uncertainty is not easy. In fact, in our modern world—where the proliferation of choice is both expanding exponentially and psychologically crippling (see, for example, this talk by Barry Schwartz)—just choosing what to eat for dinner is often a very complicated decision (and one that our species really didn’t start making in earnest until this century).

8. Stamina: This is different than physical courage. Physical courage requires confronting catastrophic consequences (thus there’s an element of heavy uncertainty at work here), while stamina—like the fortitude to run a marathon or swim across the English Channel)—requires the ability to confront constant pain and exhaustion for a set period of time (no uncertainty, tri-athletes know the race will hurt, but they also know they’ve confronted such pain previously and can take it).

9. Emotional Courage: This is a willingness to do something like get divorced or break up with your boyfriend and the like, where on knows that you will feel emotionally wretched for a considerable period of time afterward, yet you’re still willing to suffer those consequences for a greater emotional (ie. chance at happiness) pay-off later.

10. Tactical Courage: This is a willingness to put the lives of others at risk—like what happens when a general sends an army into battle or the CIA sends a spy into hostile territory.

11. Intoxication: A lot of folks would be hesitant to include this category in here (believing intoxication a kind of false courage), but based on Ronald Seigel’s work at UCLA, I would argue that intoxication is one of the oldest forms of bravery amplification known to man and one of the most frequent forms to surface in society.

12. Fiscal Courage: The willingness to risk one’s money, either in the stock market or the poker table or in start up companies the world over. Since money is nothing beyond a stand in for all things survival, this form of courage deserves its own category.

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