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Philosophies for Life pilot: the results

11-10-13-mwc-1-1This year I’ve developed and trialled an eight-part course in practical philosophy, called Philosophies for Life. The pilot was financed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council via Queen Mary, University of London.  I trialled the course with three partner organizations: Saracens rugby club; New College Lanarkshire and HMP Low Moss prison; and Manor Gardens mental health charity.

The results were very positive –  the coaches of Saracens said the philosophy club was ‘the most popular thing we’ve done this season'; the participants at Manor Gardens philosophy club reported feeling more socially supported, more capable of coping with adversity, and much more interested in philosophy. And the participants of the prison philosophy club said they found the club more enjoyable and useful than the prison’s CBT courses, and became more interested in philosophy as a result.

I now plan to launch commercially, working with businesses, NHS mental health services and other organizations, and also developing an online course for the retail market.

The wisdom approach

I tried to develop a model of well-being education that balances evidence-based techniques with ethical discussion, approaching questions of the meaning of life in a pluralistic way.

At the moment, well-being courses in schools, mental health services, and businesses tend to be purely scientific / psychological. They teach evidence-based techniques for well-being, usually from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This is very useful from a practical perspective. However, a purely scientific approach either leaves out any questions of values or the meaning of life, or it simply assumes one definition of the meaning of life (for example, individual subjective well-being), and then imposes it uncritically and scientistically on participants. A purely scientific approach to well-being education easily becomes ethically illiberal and culturally insensitive.

On the other hand, the ‘critical enquiry’ method used by most philosophy clubs (and by organizations like SAPERE and the Philosophy Foundation in schools) is very good at facilitating group discussions of values and meanings, engaging people and respecting their perspectives. But it is perhaps too open and undirected –  it ignores the fact that ancient wisdom and modern psychology have discovered reliable hypotheses about how the mind and our emotions work, which it’s helpful to learn from the point of view of wisdom and cultural literacy. It leaves people adrift to rediscover wisdom from scratch, and does not teach any spiritual practices people can use.

And both the scientific and the critical enquiry approach to well-being education fail to teach people about the history and cultural variety of the pursuit of the good life, and how different wisdom traditions from various cultures have come up with differing answers to the question of the meaning of life. The Religious Education curriculum in England and Wales ticks this box – but RE tends to be entirely theory and dogma, rather than teaching spiritual practices people can use in their lives.

Philosophies for Life tries to combine the best of all these approaches. It teaches people evidence-based coping skills from modern psychology, and explores their roots in ancient wisdom traditions (Stoicism, Taoism, Buddhism, Sufism, humanism etc). Rather than just teaching instrumental ‘thinking skills’ emptied of ethical content, as CBT does, it gives people space to consider and discuss the original philosophical context for these skills, and the higher ethical goals they were designed to reach, such as inner peace, happiness, justice or oneness with the Tao / Logos / God.

Each session focused on a different ancient philosopher (Socrates, Epictetus, Epicurus, Plato, Aristotle, the Buddha, Lao Tzu and others), exploring one or two key ideas of theirs that we can use in modern life, and also whether evidence from modern psychology supports or undermines this idea. The session on the Buddha, for example, explores the importance of habits and training to the good life, and how CBT supports the Buddha’s claims about human nature and how to change it.

Then the second half of each session is a group discussion, both of the practical usefulness of the techniques we discussed, and of the philosopher’s broader ethical philosophy and the moral goal they were trying to reach (happiness, Nirvana, justice etc). The group discussion enables participants to accept or reject aspects of each philosophy, and to share their own stories and wisdom strategies. And it enables the course to cover various ethical life-goals and meanings without imposing any particular meaning onto participants.

I call my method the ‘wisdom approach’ and use the ‘wisdom tree’ as a symbol, because the course explores various wisdom traditions and how they share certain ‘trunk’ ideas about human nature, while then ‘branching out’ into various different life-meanings (happiness, social justice, Nirvana etc).


Psychology now has good evidence for some of these ‘trunk’ ideas about human nature (like the belief we can use our reason to know ourselves and change our habits). However, when it comes to higher life-meanings, science can’t prove them or disprove them. It can’t prove that happiness is the proper goal of life, for example. That’s why we need philosophy to help us reflect, discuss and choose our own life-philosophy.


Manor Gardens philosophy club

Manor Gardens Welfare Trust is a charity that works for the well-being of people in Islington. Our club met every Tuesday evening throughout March and April, initially attracting 15 people, which dropped to 12. Three quarters of the group were women, from their 30s to 50s, and were mainly Anglo-African and Anglo-Caribbean. The participants were mainly ‘mental health champions’ who do volunteer work for the charity.

I gave the participants a well-being questionnaire before and after the course, which asked them the extent they agreed to various questions, scoring their answer on a seven-point scale (with one being ‘strongly disagree and seven being ‘strongly agree’). This allowed me to get some sense of the impact of the course, however imprecise. It found the following

‘I lead a purposeful and meaningful life’  +12%
‘My social relationships are supportive and rewarding‘    + 21%
‘I am engaged and interested in my daily activities‘      + 6%
I actively contribute to the happiness and well-being of others   0%
I have control over my life and can move towards my goals   +6%
I am optimistic about my future  + 28%
When bad things happen to me, I can take steps to deal with them  +27%

The most significant impacts seemed to be in participants’ sense of social support, in their optimism, and their belief in their ability to cope with adversity.

I also asked participants for their own comments about what they liked and disliked about the course. Their comments can be grouped under four headings. Firstly, community: comments included ‘Tuesdays have been the highlight of my week for two months’, ‘a great sense of community, sharing, friendship’, and ‘great subjects taught and discussed in a very conversational manner that encouraged everyone to get involved.’

Secondly, the participants said they enjoyed learning about practical wisdom which they could use in their life. Their comments included: ‘I will take time to think about the bigger picture’, ‘relating theory to practice is what makes this course powerful’, and ‘the tools I have learned in this course and my belief in God will enable me to make major changes in my life’.

Thirdly, participants enjoyed the pluralism of the course – they felt they could learn about differing philosophies of life, without feeling their own faith or philosophy was threatened or undermined. This was a key aim of the course – to give participants a respect for various wisdom traditions, whether they are theistic, atheistic or agnostic. Participants’ comments included ‘Variety works well. It was interesting to hear how different people use different ideologies to guide their lives and how these ideologies can work well for different problems.’

Finally, all the participants said the course made them much more interested in philosophy – most of them having never read any before the course. Comments included: ‘I found the entire course inspiring; this motivated me to include more philosophy books in my reading list.’

Participants said they would have liked more of a range of philosophers, including black philosophers and female philosophers. They also said they would have liked the course to be longer, and to have a way to stay in touch with the other participants. Finally, they would have liked more materials to take away with them.

HMP Low Moss philosophy club

I taught the course over four Fridays in March to a group of 11 inmates in HMP Low Moss prison outside Glasgow. They were all male, mainly in their 30s and 40s, mainly white Scottish, and mainly long-term prisoners. The participants were already in a philosophy club run by Nikki Cameron of New College Lanarkshire, and my course benefitted from the thinking culture Nikki has created over the last year and a half. Nikki’s philosophy club explores questions through philosophical enquiry. I tried more of a ‘wisdom approach’, teaching practical ideas for life, and exploring their connection to modern psychology, particularly CBT.

CBT courses are already widely available in Scottish prisons and in other prisons around the world. However, these courses are usually compulsory, and either leave ethics out or include them in a quite dogmatic and non-criticizable form. I was interested in whether the participants would respond better to similar ideas presented in the context of philosophy, in which participants are not treated as malfunctioning brains to be fixed (low status), but as autonomous free-thinking philosophers (high status), who were not there just to take onboard ancient wisdom, but also to share their own wisdom. My sense was this made it more likely participants would engage with the course.

Feedback from HMP Low Moss philosophy club

I gave participants a questionnaire after the course, which gathered quantitative and qualitative feedback. It found that 66% of the participants said they found the course more useful and more enjoyable than the prison CBT courses (some of the group hadn’t done the CBT courses). When asked what they liked about the course, participants emphasized knowledge, wisdom and community. They liked learning about ancient philosophers and their relevance to modern life. They liked learning ‘coping skills’ to help them with the stress of being inside (Stoic philosophy was particularly popular). And they enjoyed the community of meeting up each week with the same people to hear each other’s views.

While I was doing the course, Kristine Szfiris, a University of Cambridge criminologist who is doing a PhD on philosophy in prisons, interviewed some of the participants. Here are a couple of quotes from them. The first shows one of the coping skills participants learned from Epictetus:

Jules Evans was in doing something about philosophy and he was talking about how we can jump to conclusions, and I do that when I play chess. I just look at the board and I’ll jump to conclusions and then I make a move and it’s been the wrong move kinda thing. I think it gave me a better understanding. I think it’s just about focusing on things I can control and not focusing on things I can’t control. I find philosophy really interesting and worthwhile being taught in prison.

And the second shows the benefit of a pluralist approach which doesn’t impose any particular ethical philosophy onto participants:

With Jules coming in, his views and opinions are set one way but he talks about all the different philosophers which we can disagree with or we can agree with if some of their points are valid. It allows you to take  snippets from each one and take something away from it. It’s impossible to take it all in, not in such a short space of time but if you can take a little bit of it away and practice it for yourself, it benefits you greatly.

Participants said they’d like more materials to take away and study in their own time, as well as suggestions for further reading that is available in the prison library. It’s also interesting to think about how ideas from prison philosophy clubs can be extended out into the rest of the prison, and also beyond the prison walls once prisoners are released (via probation organizations and community groups). Sometimes the group discussions were fractious, and discussion topics could sometimes have been better picked and facilitated by me.

Saracens philosophy club

Saracens FC are one of the world’s best rugby clubs. This season, they broke the record for most points scored in the Premiership, but sadly lost the Heineken European Cup final and the Premiership final in back-to-back weekends.

I ran the Saracens philosophy club as part of Saracens’ ‘personal development programme’. Saracens is unusual among professional sports teams in having an explicitly ethical mission, of focusing not merely on external results, but also on the internal goods of the well-being and character of players and staff. Saracens also have a willingness to try the new and unusual, hence the remarkable feat of getting 12 players and staff to attend and enjoy monthly philosophy sessions.

In fact, ancient philosophy seemed to me very applicable to professional sports – if you search ‘philosophy’ or ‘Stoicism’ in Google News, most of the results will be from sports. While many people in education are wary of talking about values, coaches are more prepared to do it. However, there can be a culture clash between an internal focus on character and virtue, and an external focus on ‘winning at all costs’. One even felt this clash at Saracens, despite their unusually ethical culture.

The timing of the sessions and the participants in the sessions were all somewhat fluid, due to the team’s schedule and fixtures. The philosophy club regularly attracted 12 or so participants, including first-team players and coaching staff.

Feedback from Saracens philosophy club

Feedback was quite haphazard from Saracens, as the players were very focused on two cup-finals at the end of the season (both of which they sadly lost), and then immediately went on holiday. However, the coaches, when interviewed in the Telegraph before the Premiership final, were kind enough to speak at length about the philosophy club. Alex Sanderson, the forwards coach, said “it has been the most popular thing we’ve done this season”.

Paul Gustard, the defence coach, said: “We spoke about the art of friendship, a higher calling – that could be faith or family – and it was nice to hear people speak openly about how they have changed along the journey that we are all on and where they sat on the ‘Golden Mean’. It was pretty cool.”

Kevin Sorrell, the backs coach, said: “It was an open forum for players to bounce ideas around. It was pretty enlightening to hear about how players felt individually about certain incidents over the last 12 months. Everyone left the room with a better understanding of what made that person tick and how they react to certain situations.” And Neil de Kock, Saracens’ scrum half, said: “I took an enormous amount of value out of Philosophy Club by having open and having frank discussions with colleagues on various topics very applicable to our game.”

As an organizational method, the philosophy club improved communication within the team, and also improved communication between the players and the coaches, helping them to see each other’s perspectives.

Again, the course would benefit from having more developed teaching materials, such as a handbook which participants could take away with them. Within an organization that has a very strong team-culture, like Saracens, it’s interesting to think of finding ways not just to reinforce that culture, but also to let people challenge it – otherwise group discussions just become ‘group-think’, rather than enabling people to think and speak for themselves.

Conclusions and next steps

The pilot was more successful than I expected. I initially wondered how philosophy would go down in these various communities (particularly the rugby club), and also how I would go down, as a plummy-voiced southerner. I think I went down OK, because I was open about my own vulnerabilities and flaws and didn’t claim to have all the answers. And the wisdom of ancient philosophies turned out to be very accessible to people from varying educational backgrounds, for many of whom this was their first exposure to philosophy.

The group discussions in the second half of each session worked well – people don’t want just to listen, they want to share their own ideas and experience. However, I think these group discussions were balanced well by the wisdom teachings of the first half of the course – people don’t just want to hear each other’s opinions, they also enjoyed learning about the ideas of Aristotle, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Epictetus and others.

The course worked particularly well with a demographic that is traditionally wary of group therapy – young men. Opening up about your inner life does not come particularly naturally either to rugby players or long-term prison inmates. However, both Saracens and Low Moss philosophy clubs were places where men could talk about what really mattered to them, and share life-strategies for coping with stress and adversity, without feeling ashamed or broken.

I now plan to launch the course commercially, by selling it to companies, to individuals, and to charities. It could either be sold as a full eight-part course, or as a one-day workshop, or as a two-hour session focusing on, say, Stoic wisdom.

There are two questions I need to answer: where would the course make the most money, and where would it do the most good?

Clearly, the most profitable way forward is to sell the course to businesses, business-people and entrepreneurs. Since the courses finished, I ran a workshop at a conference of business coaches in Spain, and the very positive feedback from that strengthened my sense of the commercial potential of running workshops on practical philosophy, resilience and flourishing for organizations. I’ve also joined the faculty of a school for entrepreneurs in London, called Escape the City School.

However, it would be an ethical mistake if the course was only taught to affluent businesspeople. I also think it has great potential to help people in schools, in prisons, in mental health services, and in the general population. I can afford to work with these groups if I subsidize it by working with business-people, and if I use technology to increase my impact.

The next steps, then, are firstly, building a strategy for the commercial launch of the course. I plan to work with a mentor and business coach to develop this in the next two months. Secondly, design and create teaching materials, such as online videos, handouts and activity sheets, and a website. I also plan to do this by September. Thirdly, expand my roster of clients and improving the course as I go on.

The best way to reach the biggest number of people is via the development of an online course. It will be important to find a technological infrastructure that can support this and take payments from participants. I may need to raise capital to design an online course and will discuss this with technology partners and possible funders in the coming weeks.

To read the 13-page report on this project, click here. If you’re interested in me running Philosophies for Life at your organization, as a workshop, a one-day event or as the full eight-part course, get in touch at jules dot evans @

Socrates among the Saracens

Is it possible to for a professional sports team to put character before external success? I visited Saracens rugby club to find out.

It can still feel weird discussing having had depression and anxiety to strangers in public talks. Although I’m fairly used to exposing myself these days (as it were), there are still occasions when I think ‘is this really a good idea?’ I had that feeling this week, standing in front of a gym full of colossal rugby players at Saracens rugby club, staring at me stony-faced as I discussed how ancient philosophy helped me through panic attacks. What the hell am I doing here? 

I was invited to Saracens’ training ground in St Albans to give a talk about ancient philosophy, virtue ethics, and the Greeks’ ideas on the good life. I believe, and Saracens also believe, that ethics are right at the heart of sport. Sportspeople, on a daily basis, are faced with the questions that Socrates first raised: is it worth being an ethical person?  What is the appropriate trade-off between external and internal goods? What does it mean to succeed at life? How do we cope with external pressures and still maintain a good character?

We, the spectator-public, like to think that professional sportspeople are shining knights, that sports coaches are founts of moral wisdom like Coach Taylor in Friday Night Lights. We look to professional sportspeople as moral guides – recently I was at a conference on well-being at work, where the keynote speaker was Sally Gunnell, who was greeted like a demi-goddess by the assembled businesspeople. But professional sports looks much better from the outside than the inside, and what’s good for external success (prizes, profits) is not necessarily good for a person’s character or well-being. You can be a highly-successful athlete and still a very messed-up human being.

Professional sports is not necessarily the character-forming crucible we amateurs think it is. It’s big business and razzle-dazzle spectacle, with huge amounts of money involved and an intense focus on winning at any cost. David Priestly, who is head of the Personal Development Programme at Saracens, says: ‘People have an incredibly romantic view of professional sports. But it can be a very brutal world, a machine that squeezes everything out of a person and then tosses them aside. Most of the people in that world are very far from being role-models. Most people in professional sports shy away from anything explicitly about ethics. It’s just about winning. Younger players can see people at the top of their sport who are doing very well while still behaving in a questionable manner.’

The Saracens revolution

Which brings us to Saracens. The club was 50% bought by a South African consortium in 2009, who appointed Edward Griffiths as the CEO – the man who’d managed South African rugby in the run-up to their nation-building 1995 World Cup victory. Griffiths promised a ‘Saracens Revolution’ which would turn rugby into a glitzy, entertaining and crowd-pleasing spectacle. Saracens matches would alternate between Wembley and a new astroturf stadium in north London, match attendance would rise from 14,000 to 80,000, spectators would be able to watch replays on their smartphones, even order pizzas from their seats. The club was now in the business of ‘making memories’.

Brendan Venter

But the other side of the Saracens Revolution was a focus on character and virtues, as proclaimed by the South African director of rugby, Brendan Venter. He’s a doctor, a Christian, and something of a rebel, who’s surprised journalists with comments like: ‘You can’t think about winning all the time. I’m far more interested in my players, along with me, improving as people. That’s basically the only thing that really matters.’ He’s also said: ‘If we win everything there is to win but we’ve broken relationships, we’ve lost the plot. We’ve missed our point of being on earth, it’s as simple as that.’

Venter, who studied to be a doctor while playing rugby, insisted the players need to be well-rounded and prepared for life after rugby. They need to be cared for as individuals with souls rather than commodities shoveled into the money-furnace. Their academic pursuits should be just as important as their physical fitness.  Players were asked to write essays on ‘the ideal 20-year-old’ and to think about questions like: ‘How does the ideal 20-year-old treat women? How does the ideal 20-year-old treat alcohol? How does he handle his finances? How does he deal with life in general?’

Alex Goode, the 25-year-old Saracens and England full-back, saw the revolution first-hand, having come through the Saracens Academy as a teenager. He says: ‘The old Saracens was not a particularly friendly place. There’d be quite brutal banter. Players lived spread out across Hertfordshire and hung out separately  A lot of the players were in it for their own benefit and not the team, they didn’t make sacrifices for the team. Now, there’s much more of a feeling of togetherness. The players and families are really taken care of, and the flip-side of that is we have to work incredibly hard.’

The Revolution seems to be succeeding. Having never won the English rugby premiership, Saracens were runners-up in Venter’s first season (2009-2010), then won it in 2010-2011. This season, however, has been tough – they led the Premiership by wins and points, but then lost in the play-off semi-final, and also lost in the Heineken Cup semi-final to Toulon. The defeats raise the age-old question again: is it worth putting character before external success?

The Jerry Maguire of sports coaching

Venter stepped down as director of rugby and went back to South Africa in 2011, following a series of family bereavements back home, but he’s still technical director. The ethical revolution, meanwhile, continues through the Saracens Personal Development Programme, which is run by David Priestly and David Jones. The latter David is a philosophy grad, who read my book and got in touch. He has the unique vision that philosophy has a place in professional sports – and he’s stuck his neck out by inviting me to speak to the lads.

His boss, 34-year-old David Priestly, has a remarkable, zen-like calm about him. He is something of a Jerry Maguire-figure in that he genuinely believes winning isn’t everything. He says the ‘performance-based myopia’ of professional sports can be morally corrupting for players and staff. This is somewhat heretical in professional sports, even in the world of ‘performance lifestyle coaching’, which is meant to be provide care and guidance for sportspeople but is often just as obsessed with winning at any cost.

Priestly is different. He’s nick-named ‘The Priest’ at the club because he is something like a moral compass for the team, keeping them honest, challenging them to live by their mission-statement, rather than just hanging it prominently on the wall. For example, if a match-winning player fails to meet the ethical standards of the club, will that player be dropped before a big game? Is the club’s commitment to virtues just window-dressing, or does it translate into actions? The players will watch to see how the management acts, and will adapt their behaviour accordingly.

David Priestly is the Jerry Maguire of performance consultants

Priestly tells me: ‘Players can smell it a mile away when you say one thing but behave differently. But if you genuinely live by what you teach they will respond to that.’  He has the backbone to stand by his beliefs even in a high-pressure workplace, and the wisdom to recognise that even hard-as-nails rugby men need the occasional opportunity to be vulnerable.

He has written:

In my opinion it is neither ‘soft’ nor ‘fluffy’ nor easy to listen to someone sharing their innermost difficulties. In fact, when someone feels able to bare their soul and be completely vulnerable in my company, I actually believe it to be an incredibly privileged experience. [Sports psychologists] obsessed with performance will never even get close to touching this kind of information…When you are told that you need to be tough, why show that you are vulnerable?

He gives me some advice as I go in to talk to the players: ‘They will be interested. They might put forward a tough-guy front, but they’ll be listening intently.‘

Virtue ethics and sports psychology

There’s a good turn-out for my first workshop, 20 or so players and coaches, including various internationals like Chris Ashton and Steve Borthwick. And so, with these assembled tough guys in front of me, I launch into my talk. It feels slightly surreal at first, but I tell myself to keep going.

After the initial weirdness of exposing my soul to a room full of rugby players, I settle into it, confident that virtue ethics has important things to say to sports psychology (and vice versa). Sports is a lot about emotional control, and no one understood emotional control better than the Stoics. They insisted our emotions come from our judgements and perceptions. We can change our emotions by becoming more aware of our beliefs and attitudes, and more skillful in what we say to ourselves.

This is a familiar idea to sportsplayers, who have already been drilled in the importance of ‘attitude’ to winning, although one of the players asks me if the Stoic idea of controlling your perceptions and emotions means ‘always being positive’. I reply that no, being ‘philosophical’ is not necessarily the same as never feeling negative emotions. Aristotle thought sometimes anger and grief were appropriate responses to life’s tragedies. I say this not realizing that one of the team’s core values is ‘be relentlessly positive and energized at all times’…which sounds a bit exhausting. Surely it’s OK to be frightened, angry, upset or lost sometimes?

Not sure about the last one…

The Greeks’ techniques for creating ethical habits are also obviously useful to sportspeople, particularly the idea of repeating maxims to yourself over and over. Sportspeople already use ‘mantras’ and mottos to ingrain attitudes, and Saracens has its mission statement posted on the walls around the gym. I talk about the Greeks’ idea that excellence isn’t just about how you perform in the classroom (or the rugby pitch) – that it extends out into all your interactions, how you treat your wife, your children, the younger players, the referee, how you cope with setbacks in your life. Everything is training.

The players are particularly interested in Epictetus’ idea of focusing on the things you can control in life without freaking out over the things you can’t completely control (your reputation, your body, other people, the weather etc). Again, this is not a new idea in sports psychology (or management – it’s one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits), but it still resonates.

One player tells me, privately, they’ve not been picked for a big game this coming weekend, but they’ve decided that the coach’s choices are beyond their control. Rather than sink into a week-long funk of resentment and depression, the player has decided to focus on what’s in their control – their own beliefs, their own attitude.

We talk about not using externals as an alibi for your own bad behaviour – the referee, for example, your team-mates, your wife, your childhood. Letting go of the past is such a key skill for sportspeople – whether that past is your childhood, the last match or the last point. Andy Murray said in a recent BBC documentary that one of the main things he’s worked on in the last year is not wasting energy thinking about past points during games. Priestly says to me, ‘So much of what I’m trying to get across comes down to the three words: ‘Let it go’.

We also talk about the idea of not caring too much about your status and reputation, not building your house on sand as Jesus put it. Professional sports people have to deal with an incredibly volatile status throughout their life, as Alex Goode tells me. ‘It’s a big shift from schoolboy rugby to professional sports. Suddenly, you go from the blue-eyed boy of your school team to a situation where no one cares if you’ve played England Under 18s, and you’re on the bench and not playing all the games. That’s hard to deal with.’

Alex Goode playing for England against South Africa

Then, like Goode, you might get to play for England, another huge step-up in terms of pressure and publicity. He says: ‘Suddenly, everyone wants to talk to you about rugby. By the end of last season, for the first time, I didn’t want to talk about rugby any more, I needed something separate from it.’ Goode was then injured and side-lined, thereby perhaps missing the Lions tour. Injuries can be existential crises for sportspeople, depriving them of the activity by which they define and validate themselves. Alex got through the disappointment of his injury partly by having ‘something separate’ – he tells me he’s found pleasure in reading novels, and is interested in becoming a journalist after rugby.

A lot of the volatility of elite sportspeople’s status comes from the media, which can be a circus mirror, distorting reality into simplistic narratives. In 2006, the 19-year-old Andy Murray was being interviewed with his friend Tim Henman. They were teasing each other about the World Cup and Murray joked he’d support ‘anyone but England’. The joke was seized on by a journalist and hung round his neck like an albatross for years. It prompted Tony Parsons to fulminate that the comment was ‘the tip of a toxic iceberg of anti-Englishness’. Journalists divide humanity into heroes and villains, and sports stars can be canonized one day, demonized the next. They have to live with that volatility of image, accept that its out of their control, and let it go. Not easy.

Not just means, but ends

Saracens centre Nils Mordt doing some inner training

So there are many meeting points between sports psychology and virtue ethics. What philosophy brings to the table – why Saracens asked me there – is that philosophy isn’t just about techniques for on-the-field success. It’s also a way to question what success actually looks like, what end or goal we’re using all these techniques for. Is winning your ultimate goal – your God – or is there something higher? It’s possible to win a lot of medals and lose at life.

I put it to the players that there is something more important than external success, that you can live a good life even if you fail to win the World Cup, say, or to win the league.

This does not go down that well with the players. ‘I don’t even consider failing’, says one player. ‘It’s not an option. If you think you won’t get a goal, why bother trying to get there’. It’s a fair point, and I am reminded again of the difference between philosophy and professional sports – sometimes there is a tension between internal and external goods. A complete obsession with winning might be very good for professional sports, while in some sense…bad for the person?

After the talk, several players came up and shook my hand, which was heart-warming, because I’d wondered how my talk would go down, as a small philosopher in a world of big athletes. I subsequently went back for a second workshop, and this time I talked less and let the discussion flow – what was really interesting was how the players started listening to each other, swapping stories, letting themselves be vulnerable. The best way to learn is not to teach from the front, perhaps, but to let the group help each other along. Anyway, I’ve applied for funding from the AHRC to prepare and teach a course in 2014 at Saracens, as well as in Low Moss prison in Scotland and a mental health charity in London. Fingers crossed we get it and we can continue exploring the role of ethics in professional sports.

How do you balance collectivity and individuality?