Monday 18 December 2017

Faith can give athletes an edge but many see no connection between spirituality and sport

A general view of Dalymount Park floodlights and St Peter's Church in Phibsboro Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / SPORTSFILE
A general view of Dalymount Park floodlights and St Peter's Church in Phibsboro Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / SPORTSFILE
Irish boxing champion Kate Taylor raises her arms and points to heaven to thank God for her historic victory at the ExCel Arena in London during the 2012 Olympics Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Claire McCormack

The moment Katie Taylor beat Russian Sofya Ochigava in the Olympic lightweight final in 2012, the boxer dropped to her knees, held up her arms, and pointed her index fingers to heaven.

The Bray native had made it, she'd won, she'd written her name into Irish sporting history.

Yes she was overwhelmed, emotional, exhausted and wanted to inhale every inch of the atmosphere created by her rapturous supporters at the ExCel Arena in London. But for Taylor, what took prominence was to thank her creator, her mentor, her guide, her God.

Speaking to RTé moments after the win, the Olympic champion said: "I can't believe the grace of God in my life right now, I just want to thank everyone for all their prayers, I'd be nothing without God, I'm here because I've Jesus in my life and without him I'd be nothing, so praise God for giving me such a great victory today".

Taylor's openness about how her sporting talent is naturally and irrevocably linked with her strong Christian faith - handed down by her mother, Bridget - has struck a moot note, with spectators and the media, over the years. Some find it admirable, others feel awkward and uncomfortable when faced with talk of mixing sport and spirituality.

Taylor has made it so prominent, it cannot be ignored. It's a huge part of who she is. She can put forward an arguable case for the being the best female boxer in the world at any weight.

Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest boxer ever, converted to Sunni Islam in 1975. In 1967, three years after winning the heavyweight title and at the peak of his powers, Ali refused to be conscripted into the US armed forces, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam War. He was arrested, found guilty of evading the draft and stripped of his title. He did not fight again for nearly four years.

Questioning the connection between sport and faith is a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland.

Back in the day, older generations will tell you that before, (sometimes during), and after Sunday Mass were key moments to voice your opinion on that weekend's hurling and football matches.

They'd discuss the farmer's son down the road who had to do the milking before training, the young girl who looks like she is carrying an injury, and they'd give their verdict on the upcoming almighty showdown between rival parishes or inter-county teams.

Faith, parish, club, community - like it or not, were intertwined.

Some had a strong desire to spend a few moments in silent prayer before the battle commenced, many others just went due to force of habit.

It was commonplace to wear a miraculous medal on the pitch, or have a bottle of holy water in their gear bag, or have their loved ones light a candle for them on the day of a big final.

These customs were carried out as a means of blessing the athlete so he or she would play well, outperform their opponent, protect them from injury and of course, to give their team a bit of God's luck on the day.

Although some of these traditions and routines may still be part of some athletes' approach to their sport, our sportsmen and women are generally less vocal about it and younger athletes in particular see no connection between sport and spirituality at all.

Gerard Hartmann, the internationally famous physical therapist who has treated many of the world's elite sports stars, says athletes with no faith or spirituality, of any kind, are at a disadvantage. He says spirituality enables players to cope with failures, success and the pressure of playing at the highest level.

"I've worked 27 years as a physical therapist with some of the biggest and best sports people. Internationals and our biggest GAA and rugby household names, from Ronan O'Gara to Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell right down to Henry Shefflin and the people who haven't got faith are hugely disadvantaged," he says.

"I'm not talking about going to church every week, I mean faith and spirituality - going into a forest, going for a walk, taking in creation and appreciating the beauty of the world we are in. You don't have to be pious to be able to pray. We need to bring joy back into people's lives, and it's the same with sport - it's gone too serious, too competitive and we're losing the joy."

The Limerick-based physio, who in 1984 won the first of seven national Irish triathlon titles and represented Ireland in European Championships, World Triathlon Championships and Hawaii Ironman World Championships events, says people "got busy with life" during the Celtic Tiger and forgot about faith, and in a wider sense our spirituality.

He says corruption within the Church has also undoubtedly played a role.

"I don't think faith has been nurtured in our young people, I think a generation or two has passed and they haven't seen it, that's my opinion. If mammy and daddy haven't been connected I don't know how the young can."

He says pressure on young people to be popular and to have the "perfect" body has also pushed them away from their faith.

"I deal with a lot of top-class athletes who are very mature and who have spirituality, whatever their faith, but I'm also seeing the 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds who are very naive and insecure."

Quoting Tipperary hurling legend, Lar Corbett, a friend and former client, Hartmann says, sport "buoys" them up.

But when they face setbacks, through injury or disappointment, he says those with no spiritual dimension can find it very difficult to weather the storm.

"If they are not doing well in sport their world completely falls apart. I've had to pick up the pieces. They get injured, dropped, and go completely off the rails. They are absolutely destitute in how they feel about themselves.

"Next thing they're getting into all kinds of trouble because they miss that connection that sport has given them - it gives them their complete identity."

Hartmann, whose clients have included champion runners Sonia O'Sullivan and Paula Radcliffe, says players with a belief in some greater power can overcome injury quicker than those without spirituality.

"How can I help someone get over an injury if they don't have belief? They need to believe in something greater, if they have a pillar, a faith, they really have a greater chance of getting over it."

He says we're losing athletes prematurely too: "A lot give up too quick. Some will get very disillusioned and they will go through all the psychological traumas. They can't see the light at the end."

Recently, Hartmann treated a young athlete who was so stressed over his problem that he was taking 36 pain relief tablets, containing codeine, every day.

A few years ago, he also treated a young inter-county GAA player, who had togged out with his team for a championship match in Cusack Park in Ennis. But during the warm-up the player was nowhere to be seen.

"The kit man went in and looked in the changing room, no sign of him. He went into the toilet and saw his legs underneath the cubicle. He had collapsed. He had taken nine paracetamols since 8am that morning, he was trying to hide a serious injury from his manager for fear of not getting his spot on the team.

"There is huge stress involved, your family are going to the game, your brother is coming back from England to watch, you just don't want to let them down. Ego is huge, your whole life is tied into it and how you view yourself, you can't fail."

He says he can pick out players with a spiritual dimension as soon as they walk into his office.

"It might seem disingenuous to those who don't have faith but there is a radiance and a karma in them and it's absolute. A lot of the athletes I get have been injured for two and three years. They've had every scan, injections, treatments, physical therapy, surgeries and they are still not getting better. Many don't have greater belief and negativity is poisoning them, they are often growling in misery."

He says spirituality can also help athletes comes to terms with retirement.

"It's a very difficult place to be, they don't want to leave what they've had for 15 years, but it's even more difficult when the person hasn't got belief, the void can take years and years to get over, it's like a divorce or a death," he says.

Hartmann says his own deep faith helped him through sudden retirement when he was just 31 - he fractured his hip in a freak cycling accident in Florida.

For 40 years Brother Colm O'Connell, has lived and coached World and Olympic distance runners in Kenya's Great Rift Valley. He says he is also concerned that young people are not attaching sport to religion in any form.

"In today's world with the glamorisation of sport and the win-at-all-costs approach, the money and exposure involved, I can well understand how young people are losing the spiritual aspect of it," he says.

He believes the time has come to open up discussion on the advantages of having a holistic approach to sport. He believes if spirituality is endorsed by teams, players and individual athletes it will give them a greater edge than any pioneering training strategies.

"Spirituality can make you a better athlete, that was the foundation of my experience of getting into sport," he says. "In Kenya many of the athletes come from rather poor, deprived, subsistent levels of existence and they have a great belief and trust for the future that life will be better, that if God is on your side who can be against you, and I plugged into that and built on that."

Brother Colm, from Mallow, and Hartmann, say Katie Taylor and Tyrone manager Mickey Harte are leading the way.

"The more role models we have out there the more we are opening up the conversation and the less people will be afraid of it, some are connecting but they are very silent about, possibly for fear of judgement," Hartmann says.

"Katie is a real role model and sometimes the person who is leading the way gets a rough deal, she is breaking he mould and I would encourage her to continue her mission."

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