Well-conceived and important contribution to Nordic philosophy of sport

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Gunnar Breivik
Norwegian School of Sport and Exercise Science


Kenneth Aggerholm Talent Development, Existential Philosphy and Sport: On becoming an elite athlete 210 sidor, inb. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2015 (Ethics and Sport) ISBN 978-1-138-02553-0

Kenneth Aggerholm
Talent Development, Existential Philosphy and Sport: On becoming an elite athlete
210 sidor, inb.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2015 (Ethics and Sport)
ISBN 978-1-138-02553-0

Kenneth Aggerholm defended his doctoral thesis in the autumn 2012 at Aaarhus University. It was called “Elite-Bildung. An Existential-Phenomenological Study of Talents Developing in Football”. I have already given a review of the thesis in idrottsforum.org. I was in general very pleased with the doctoral work and found it ground-breaking and innovative. I am now pleased again to give a review of the thesis, which has become a book on Routledge. It is not often that a young scholar, fresh from doctoral work can get his work accepted by a big publishing company like Routledge. The book is a thoroughly revised version of the thesis and of two earlier articles, and it has, in my opinion, brought Aggerholm’s work further on. It is a well-conceived and important contribution to the development of Nordic philosophy of sport.

The focus of the book is on talent development and the approach is based on phenomenological and existential philosophy. The subtitle of the book, “on becoming an elite athlete”, already signals Aggerholm’s new approach to talent development. Whereas most studies of talent development take an instrumental and natural scientific approach, Aggerholm uses a phenomenological and existential perspective that is meant not as an alternative theory, but as a supplement to existing theories. The goal is not so much to describe the what and the how of talent development, but rather the why, the meaning that must have a central place when talents are developing their sporting skills. The book is primarily written for young athletes, but since athletes are more interested in practicing than in reading books, it is more relevant for sport students and people in academia, as well as for coaches, leaders, and people who are close to the practice-field of young athletes.

In the first chapter Aggerholm lays out the theoretical foundation and framework for the book through an insightful presentation of the phenomenological and existential approaches of Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and others. Aggerholm here shows his independent and thoughtful handling of difficult questions and viewpoints. To me it was interesting to see how he uses Heidegger’s analysis of technology to characterize the way modern sport operates. Similarly the nuanced analysis of the phenomenological ideas of a pre-objective lifeworld and of subjectivity is neatly executed.

Talent developing means both developing and forming oneself and being formed in relation to an image, a role model.

In chapter two Aggerholm discusses what it means to be a talent, in contrast to have a talent. The common viewpoint among people, and in most scientific studies, is that talent is something that you have, it is, as cited in a definition, ”[a] set of characteristics, skill sets and abilities that are developed on the basis of innate potential and many years of practice, competition and interaction with the surrounding environment” (Henriksen 2008:22, cited by Aggerholm, page 26). Here talent is understood as an essence that you have, as an investment you must make, and as something that is dependent upon socio-cultural factors. All these factors are relevant, but they point to something in the past. Aggerholm’s existential perspective turns the view away from the past and directs it towards the future. Talent is not something you have. It is more something you are, or rather, something you can become. It is about developing your potential. Aggerholm here builds on Sartre’s idea that existence precedes essence. It is through your life, by living it, that you become something and eventually develop an essence. So it is about becoming what you are not yet. And it can, following Nietzsche, be expressed even more strongly: become what you are on a higher level.

According to this perspective talent development should not be seen as a process whereby talents are developed by deliberate practice and technical drills towards expertise. Talents are not passively developed as yielding talented material. One should rather see talents developing by existential involvement in a process of Bildung. This is discussed in the third chapter of the book, which is by far the most encompassing. Aggerholm uses the concept Bildung to point out that talent development should be more than mere development of sporting skills. Talent developing means both developing and forming oneself and being formed in relation to an image, a role model. The athlete must be self-sufficient, but is also an apprentice in relation to a master, a coach. The process of developing is described through four key notions; freedom, self-transcendence, excellence and habits. Freedom means that talents are free, but it implies also that they must take care of themselves. Talents have to develop responsibility, make choices and commit themselves through an existential attitude in order to have a lasting general attitude to their life situation and being able to handle the daily choices they have to make. The notion of self-transcendence points to the fact that talent development is not only a process in the athlete but a process that transcends the individual. The athlete has to relate to other people and the surrounding world. Aggerholm uses the terms intersubjectivity, collective and institution to describe the interaction processes that the athletes are involved in.

Talent development aims at excellence. The athletic endeavor towards higher performance levels is accompanied by processes of practicing, competition and development of athletic virtues. The final key concept is habit which is used to discuss how athletes can get their aim right. How can they be wise? Aristotle’s concept phronesis plays a key role in defining the athletic habits and how they can be properly developed.

In sports one can question established truths, use humor and jokes, express things by playing styles and develop ways of doing things that are uncommon.

The first part of Aggerholm’s book has “Navigating in the landscape” as its theme. The second part is called “Moving in the landscape”. It is in this part of the book that Aggerholm comes up with some of his most interesting and creative ideas about talent development. And not only that; he presents a new perspective, a deeper understanding of some phenomena that are not clearly seen by most footballer eyes. The best players are creative. Aggerholm makes an in-depth study of phenomena like ‘wonder’ ‘question’, ‘expression’, ‘humor’ and ‘repetition’. They may seem more at home in the theatre than in sports. Aggerholm manages to make them relevant for the sports arena in a convincing manner. The faint and the dribble are examples of creativity. But a dribble can be repeated or be performed with variations that make comments on the first one. In sports one can question established truths, use humor and jokes, express things by playing styles and develop ways of doing things that are uncommon.

It seems to me that it is especially in the second part of the book, where the focus is on creativity in various forms, that Aggerholm’s own creativity comes to its right. Here he develops new perspectives, interesting analyses and introduces new terms and concepts. Sport and the performing arts are brought closer together. To succeed with his project, Aggerholm brings to the table an independent and well developed understanding of existential and hermeneutic phenomenology. He demonstrates an advanced and skilled grasp of difficult and subtle philosophical problems. The language of Aggerholm’s book is excellent, the preciseness and the way of expressing difficult points are quite impressive. And I particularly appreciate how Aggerholm manages to let the individualistic aspects of existentialism be expanded to encompass the inter-subjective, and even collective and institutional aspects of human existence.

After all this praise, which I find well deserved, I’ll offer a couple of critical remarks. I feel sometimes that the author becomes too eclectic and jumps from one existential or phenomenological author to another, from Kierkegaard to Sartre to Merleau-Ponty to Heidegger. Some of the differences vanish; they are lumped together in the common boiling pot. On the other hand one could defend the author by admitting that he has a very good grip on an existential-phenomenological ‘ground-model’, a certain way of reasoning and doing philosophy.

Another problem is related to normativity. There is in most cases a normative ‘positivity’ in the description play, theatricality, humor, etc.. But sometimes these phenomena come out in a negative way. In many cases, and on many occasions, football players deliberately try to fool the referee, for instance by a dive, to get an undeserved free kick or penalty kick. Creativity can be used for many purposes not only the good ones. The author discusses normative ambiguity in some cases, like ‘humor’ versus ’irony’, but the normativity question has more shades of grey than the author allows.

But these are minor points, mere scratches. All in all, Aggerholm’s new book is an interesting and excellent piece of sport philosophical work.

Copyright © Gunnar Breivik 2015

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