Friedrich Nietzsche was a sickly guy — definitely not an athlete, and not someone we would usually associate with sports. However, he has more advice to help athletes in his books than he has consonants in his name.

In order to get some motivation from Coach Nietzsche, let’s take a quick detour and learn about the history of his ideas. It all started with Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity. As Nietzsche saw it, religion — specifically prayer — makes people think of their lives on Earth as inconsequential in comparison to what happens in heaven. People  can be so focused on praying and looking to God for meaning  that they stop giving any thought to their everyday lives on Earth. But as Christianity loses ground in the modern world, people are no longer focusing on God the way they used to. Nietzsche went so far as to declare, “God is dead.” This doesn’t mean that people have stopped believing in God. It means that when most people make a decision, they no longer look toward their faith or a set of moral principles connected to religion.

Our old faith and our old set of morals were limiting but comforting. In today’s world, as religion becomes less central to our lives, we have to come up with new morals, which isn’t easy. A lot of the ideas our society was founded upon are not relevant anymore, and that creates problems.

Losing a moral structure results in nihilism, or the belief that life is meaningless. People often think of nihilism as a bad thing — a synonym for destruction. But according to Nietzsche, nihilism is much more complicated. Nietzsche described two forms of nihilism. First, there’s passive nihilism. A passive nihilist says, “Why bother? What’s the point?” A passive nihilist thinks humans can never really believe in anything, so it’s  not even worth trying to put together a structure of morals. This is the kind of thinking that makes people want to sit around and do nothing. It can make people lose any sense of themselves or their purpose. Understandably, passive nihilism can be viewed as something negative.

However, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche countered this with the idea of active nihilism: because God is dead and we have lost our old values, we need to replace them with new values. As we construct new values, we need to remember the importance of ourselves as human beings on Earth. For too long when we’ve thought about morals, we’ve disregarded the fact that we are living, breathing earthly beings, because we have been so focused on religion. So, what better way to keep ourselves rooted in our existence on Earth than with physical challenges?

Nietzsche believed that every person has an inner energy. This energy acts as a motor and pushes the individual to keep going further and further. Nietzsche called this energy the “will to power.” He wrote, “In my eyes, life is the instinct to believe, to last. Life is the accumulation of force, of power: where there is a deficit of drive and passion, there is decline.” It is exactly this kind of power that we express when we practice a sport. Exercise triggers active nihilism. It is thanks to this power that humans will be able to build a new system of values and morals.

When you get stressed before a competition or an exam, you’re often tempted to back off and hide from the challenge ahead. This is an example of passive nihilism — the feeling of detachment and hopelessness that makes you want to stay home, away from anything meaningful. Facing a challenge head-on is a way to remind yourself of your inner power, to remind yourself that you are alive.

Nietzsche also said that you need to not only keep your motor running but also challenge it so it develops and grows stronger. By constantly training this inner energy, you can reach what Nietzsche called a superhuman state. For Nietzsche, a superhuman isn’t a perfect person or a person with amazing genes. A superhuman is an ideal to  aim  for — the strongest and best form of a human. By striving to be a superhuman, you push yourself further than you knew was possible. When you work to overcome your fears, when you push yourself past your comfort zone and out of your habits, you liberate the power inside yourself. By constantly growing your internal energy, you can keep finding new sources of joy in your life and be free to celebrate things that are truly important and useful — like pleasure, hard work, courage, and strength. These values don’t come from God but from us, humans. We should celebrate the collapse of our old morals because we have the incredible opportunity to rebuild them. We have to use our active nihilism and let go of laziness, indifference, and passive nihilism in order to win at life.

As you wait on the marathon starting line and passive nihilism tries to knock you down, don’t let it. You’re stronger than that. You’ve made it to the starting line; the hardest part is over. Now it’s time to make your dream come true. Play that movie in your head one more time and then go — become the superhuman you have always wanted to be.

Excerpted from When You Kant Figure It Out, Ask a Philosopher by Marie Robert with permission from the author and publisher.

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  • Marie Robert


    Marie Robert holds degrees in French and philosophy; she is a teacher, Montessori school founder, and current academic program coordinator for Paris' Lycée International Montessori.