Thursday 14 December 2017

God in your corner

As Tanya Sweeney discovers, the link between spirituality and sport is one that is only now starting to be explored

Ireland's Katie Taylor: Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Ireland's Katie Taylor: Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

Tanya Sweeney

For most people, God rarely comes into sport and fitness ... unless, perhaps, you're blaspheming during a gruelling workout.

However, a team of experts are currently seeking to examine the link between sport and spirituality, believing the latter makes for a more rewarding and powerful experience for athletes.

Certainly, we in Ireland have seen the power of spirituality in the sports arena first hand: boxing champ Katie Taylor, after all, has been open about her strong sense of spirituality.

Referring to her momentous win at the 2012 Olympics in London, she told RTÉ: "I dreamt of this moment so many times before and now I just can't believe the grace of God in my life right now. I just want to thank everyone for all their prayers. I said it yesterday, as well, with all the prayers over the last week. I'd be nothing without God."

Elsewhere, Scottish sports psychologist Mark Nesti worked in Premier League football as a counselling psychologist. And, contrary to what many might believe, he notes that some of the Premiership's top footballing names are also highly spiritual.

"Of the four Muslim names on one team I'm thinking about, three are very serious about their faith and it's all over everything they do," he explains. "This is not about people finding religion ... these are players who have religious traditions and merge into this incredible world. They're finding out how to be a human in the brutal, volatile world of sport."

Needless to say, this image flies in the face of the long-held impression that some have of footballers as overpaid, overpampered yobs.

"It's a global, multinational league, and a high number of those players have strong spiritual and religious beliefs," counters Mark. "There, they find their deepest source of meaning, which helps them deal with the utter unreality or pressure of their job."

With more focus on researching spirituality in the field of sports psychology, Mark makes a distinction between spirituality and being religious ... and is at pains to redefine what we think constitutes being 'spiritual'.

"It's a terrible shame, but our view of spirituality is as this soft, pseudo-feminine, arty thing," he notes. "In reality, it's as much about people tackling hard and being ferocious as it is about being gentle. These people aren't playing to be saints ... they're playing to be human beings."

There is a longstanding image of top-ranked footballers and athletes on the cusp of retirement. After decades of ascetic discipline and focus, many of them are intoxicated with their newfound freedom after their careers end. Let off the leash, some tend to implode. Does a strong sense of spirituality inure sportsmen from this type of self-destruction? Not necessarily, according to Mark.

"Some of these people were off the leash from the start," he says. "Many high profile athletes have had demons to deal with, and it's been there throughout their professional careers. There is another category of people -- those who come out of their career and find that, having had that 'meaning' in their life and all the adulation from the age of 15 to 34, they find it difficult to replace that. If anything, we see people come out of the game and find themselves again. Spirituality gives them an identity beyond the transitory experience of being a celebrity. It reminds them that life is about something else."

And so the question looms large: a strong sense of spirituality certainly helps to tether athletes to themselves. But what of the mooted idea that spirituality could be an aid to performance? Here, Mark cites certain athletes' ability to get 'into the zone'.

"Being in the zone means you are lost in the task, and your mind is on nothing else," explains Mark. "When you're in that, you'll be the best you'll ever be. This is rooted in the spirit of play -- when a young child under five plays, they're so engrossed, they're not thinking of the extrinsic rewards. That's why (Lionel) Messi is the greatest footballer; because he plays like a child in pressured situations. It's not about being childish, but childlike. He throws himself fully into the task."

Seems that we civilians have plenty to learn from the greats in terms of our own regimes. Anyone who has ever been 'in the zone' during an intense workout or run will surely know the power of mind over matter.

"Some people believe that sport is an authentic way of finding yourself," muses Mark.

"When people fall on hard times, they sometimes turn to religion or pseudo-religion. It can be argued that sport seems to be the modern version of this.

"There's another side to it, however," he adds with a smile. "Sometimes sport is also just an opportunity to play for some people.

"It can be an awful lot like art, music or drama: in sport, you'll find the best examples of incredible joy and unbelievable disappointment."

Dr Mark Nesti is attending the conference 'Exploring the Link Between Sport and Spirituality' at St Patrick's College, Thurles, on January 24 and 25. See conferences for more information

Irish Independent

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