Religion and Sports
Body, Mind, and Soul: Spirituality in Sports
As the authors note, these are often the qualities that are embodied in the frequently used 'mental toughness' descriptor. These findings are suggestive that certain aspects of spirituality in athletes may add to the array of coping mechanisms they have to deal with adversity, as well as to serve as a 'buffer' against stress. Of course, one may wonder if this necessarily translates into improved performance on the field, which is a question left unanswered at this time.
There are potential confounders and biases present in the study as well, and one should be careful not to attribute causality at this time; the nature and direction of these relationships are often difficult to tease out. This study also highlights some of the difficulties encountered when studying aspects such as spirituality, for it is difficult to randomly 'assign' spiritual exercises and beliefs to a treatment group vs. placebo group and assess for effects.
Nonetheless, the conclusions of the study are generally in agreement with previously published findings of the benefits of spirituality. At the end of the day, prayer and general spiritual well-being do appear to offer additional coping mechanisms for adverse situations and help to contribute to stress reduction, all of which can add to the 'mental toughness' aspect of athletes.
The implications and application of these findings, though, remain unclear. Should programs and institutions promote 'spiritual well-being' to improve athletic performance? Is there an appropriate way to do so while respecting one's rights to freedom of belief and practice? Some have suggested that programs can implement certain aspects of spirituality, such as team-building exercises to emphasize connectedness to others and foster well-being. Going further, many programs have an optional prayer before and after games as a way of providing 'fellowship' and contextualizing the moment in a broader sense. This and other practices are certainly open to debate, however what remains clear is that as the stakes and stress of competition grow, athletes often turn to spiritual practices for additional comfort and solace.
For further reading and research on sports and religion, Dr. Yoonas recommends Joe Drape's "Increasingly, Football Playbooks Call for Prayer," published in The New York Times [October 30, 2005]; Marilyn Baetz and John Toews' "Clinical Implications of Research on Religion, Spirituality, and Mental Health," published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry [2009, 54(5): 292-301]; and Heather Ridnour and Jon Hammermeister's "Spiritual Well-Being and Its Influence on Athletic Coping Profiles," published in the Journal of Sport Behavior [2008, 31(1): 81-92].
Zaakir Yoonas, M.D. is passionate about athletics and the mental aspects of peak performance in competition. He resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a Psychiatry Resident at Stanford University Hospital and Clinics. He received an M.D. from the University of Maryland and prior to this graduated from UC Berkeley with a B.A. in Economics.
You can see more of Dr. Yoonas' articles on his blog, The Sports Psychiatrist. You can also follow him on Twitter (DrYoonas) and/or join his Facebook group 'The Sports Psychiatrist'.