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The Role of Faith In Sport

Summary

We live in a world that values winning above just about everything else. In Chapter One I described some of the factors that are acting to increase the pressure that athletes are feeling to win, and at the same time, decreasing the faith, self-confidence, or trust they have in their ability to accomplish that goal.

Copy of Videos included in the the book \'The Role of Faith in Sport\', by Robert M. Nideffer

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Technology and the breakdown in global boundaries have resulted in a leveling of the playing field, and in dramatic increase in the number of competitors. These changes have resulted in athletes having to dramatically increase the amount of time and energy and personal resources that they have to invest in themselves in order to be competitive. Young athletes are specializing in a particular sports earlier than ever before. They are putting in more time in the weight room, and on the practice field than ever before.

The risks and the rewards have increased dramatically. With respect to rewards, between 1973 and 1983 top ranked tennis player Bjorn Borg won $3.65 million dollars in prize money. Between 2003 and 2016, Novak Djokovic won more than $100 million dollars in prize money. Also, consider the changes in the highest baseball salary paid over the years: In 1930, Babe Ruth made $80,000; in 1950, Joe DiMaggio made $100,000; in 1970, Willie Mays made $135,000; in 1990, Robin Yount made $3,200,000; in 2010, Alex Rodriguez made $33,000,000. As to risks, athletes have to push themselves harder than ever, dramatically increasing the likelihood of career ending injuries. In the process, there may be illegal use of performance enhancing substances to facilitate recovery and increase level of performance. In addition, the use of pain medications to deal with the consequences of the abuse of their bodies has dramatically increased.

Today, there is more fan involvement in competitive sports than every before, and athletes are subject to the verbal and sometimes physical abuse from those fans. Also the media can be absolutely brutal and within the competition itself, trash talk and “psych outs” are the rule rather than the exception. So you begin to get a sense for the pressure competitive athletes have to cope with today.

All of the factors mentioned impact not just the athlete, but also all of the individuals the athlete relies on, including family members, friends, and coaches. All of that pressure makes it difficult for the athlete to maintain trust or faith even in those who are most important to him or her. Those are the pressures that erode and/or make it difficult for athletes to develop faith or confidence in themselves and their abilities. Those are the pressures that lead to the downward performance spiral that athletes often refer to as “choking.”

 

Chapters Two and Three provide you with a picture of the full spectrum of performance, from the downward performance spiral referred to as choking to the transcendent experience of being “in the zone” (chapter three). In Chapter Two I describe how the emotional responses to pressure affect both the mental and physical performance of athletes. On the mental side, the athlete’s focus of concentration narrows and thus interferes with the ability to anticipate and to see everything that is occurring. Decision-making and judgment are compromised because the athlete lacks some of the information needed to make his or her decisions. On the physical side, there are changes in respiration rate and muscle tension that have a negative impact on fine motor coordination and timing, while increasing effort and fatigue. It is the interaction between the mental and physical changes that creates a feedback loop, which results in “choking.” Contrast that with what happens when athletes perform out of their love for the game and the joy that comes with the process (as opposed to the outcome) of competing.

When an athlete becomes so caught up in the joy of performing that he or she loses all sense of self, that athlete enters “the zone.”   Gone are concerns about the outcome of the performance, and athlete loses awareness of the past and has no thoughts about the future. Instead, the athlete is “living in the moment.” Mind and body are fully integrated, and there is no need on the athlete’s part for any conscious adjustment or intervention. Everything happens automatically, effortlessly, and the athlete has a feeling of being in complete control, anticipating everything before it happens, without any effort being expended at all. To enter that space, the athlete needs a bit of luck, but he or she also needs to be able to let go of all of the distractions, worries, and concerns associated with anticipated outcomes of the competition.

 

Chapter Four deals with the role that faith plays as a mediator of performance. Faith, trust or confidence is a measure of the extent to which an athlete actually believes that he or she can achieve a desired outcome. The greater the faith the athlete has, the easier it is to let go of distractions and to control the negative emotions that interfere with performance. Thus, it’s more likely that the athlete will be able to enter the zone. On the other hand, the less faith, confidence or trust the athlete has, the greater the likelihood of distractions and negative feelings, and the more likely the athlete is to “choke.”

In Chapter Four I make three important points. The first is that faith, in contrast to what some believe, is based on data or evidence that supports it. The more convincing the evidence to the athlete, both logically and rationally (objectively) as well as emotionally (subjectively), the stronger the faith, the better the performance, and the quicker the athlete recovers from adversity. Second, because of all of the pressures mentioned in Chapter One, the faith an athlete has in his or her ability to win is not as strong as we would like it to be the vast majority of the time. The data simply isn’t there to support the kind of faith required to let go of distractions and control emotions well enough to get into the zone. Third, in the absences of sufficient supportive data, athletes need to redefine their goals to avoid choking and to increase the likelihood that they will perform up to their potential. They do that by shifting from the goal of winning to a goal that focuses on controlling the processes that determine how well they perform. They shift, for example, to making the ability to let go of distractions and/or to control emotions more important than winning. Emphasis is on controlling what they can control (e.g., their own thoughts and feelings), rather than on something they aren’t in complete control of (e.g., winning).

 

Chapters Five and Six focus on the steps athletes can take to increase the likelihood they will “get into the zone,” and decrease the likelihood that they will “choke.” In Chapter Five you can see in action the kind of painstaking preparation and hard work that goes into developing faith in the belief that you can accomplish your goal or objective. In Chapter Six you learn how Attention Control Training (ACT) can be used to prevent the development of downward performance spirals and to increase the speed with which you recover from mistakes or adversity.

The ACT procedures work by providing a pathway for you to let go of negative thoughts and doubts and by giving you a way of restoring appropriate levels of muscle tension. This is no magical cure because it is your faith in your ability to use the ACT procedures to manage tension and distractions that is critical. That faith requires evidence that supports it. The only way you can accrue both the objective and subjective evidence is to diligently practice the procedures. It is that which will ultimately lead to the subjective feelings of relaxation and to freedom from negative thoughts and doubts.

Unfortunately, it is the constant external pressures placed on the athlete to win undermine and prevents them from putting in the time required to develop their confidence in the ACT procedures and/or in any other interventions they might try. That pressure prevents them from having faith in the belief that what matters most is getting the best out of themselves as opposed to winning. “Sure, the coach tells me that what matters is that I perform up to my potential, but I can see that what he really cares about is winning.”

The pressure to win undermines the dedication and time required to develop the skills/techniques necessary to control distractions and emotions. It is the pressure to win that causes so many coaches and athletes to rely on miracles and to see non-existent cause-and-effect relationships between things that happen during a competition and winning.

 

In Chapter Seven I talk about those times in sport when something magical or mystical seems to happen and a team or an athlete that appeared to have absolutely no hope of winning turn things around. They were “choking,” completely out of it, and suddenly they are in the zone and their opposition is destroyed. Such magical moments may be attributed to great halftime speeches, to the discovery and use of an old putter, to the particular colors worn that day, or the pregame meal. The good news about these events for the athlete is that they put a W in the win column. However, by believing that the miracle (what ever it was) has somehow restored their confidence and faith in their ability to perform, athletes lose motivation to work on the development of those mental skills that will make a consistent difference.

Miracles do happen. We see athletes and teams suddenly get it together and completely turn things around fairly often. In Chapter Seven I explain what it is happening that allows that to happen. Chapter Eight then focuses on those times in sport when it is not only appropriate for an athlete to place faith in someone else, but also a requirement for success. The athlete may need to rely completely on the coach for tactical information so that he or she can focus on execution. An athlete’s ability to control negative thoughts and doubts may depend in part upon the faith he or she has in a teammates ability to perform. Finally, in this chapter, I use examples from sport to show how coaches use the information to provide the structure and direction that help athletes or teams break out of a downward performance spiral.

 

In Chapter Nine, I talk about “when enough is never enough.” Having an athlete who has all the talent in the world yet just can’t seem to pull it together and make the most of that talent, is one of the greatest frustrations for parents, coaches, and sport psychologists. The number of gifted athletes who fail to take advantage of their gifts is much higher than we would like to think. It is the deep-seated feeling that enough is never enough, that failure is inevitable, and that with failure will come a loss of respect, rejection and isolation. It is that growing fear that causes athlete’s to “self-destruct.” That feeling is most likely to develop when the athlete’s gifts are more important to coach or parent or spouse, than they are to the athlete.

Unfortunately, the success that builds faith in the average athlete’s ability to perform only increases the pressure to perform that these athletes feel. Thus, all of the strategies that parents and coaches normally use to build confidence don’t work. In fact, more often than not they just increase the tension and conflict that exists between the athlete and those who are trying so hard to help. Athletes are so afraid of failure and of not being able to measure up that they find self-destructive ways of escaping. By so doing (at least in their own mind) they avoid having to face the fact that at times their best isn’t good enough.

Keep in mind that these fears are not unreasonable. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to support them. The media, fans, and often even family and friends show respect and appreciation for the athlete in direct proportion to whether or not they are winning or losing. There are three primary ways of trying to deal with this lack of trust and fear of failure: counseling, adopting a philosophy that emphasizes personal integrity and values effort over outcome, and faith In God.

With regard to counseling, there are times when the emotional relationship between an athlete and a parent or a coach becomes more important to the athlete than the competition and winning. Athletes then care about their need to feel accepted and loved by that individual. When that is the case, the athlete’s fear is being driven by the emphasis that is being placed on performance by the coach or parent. Counseling can work, but only so long as the parent or coach really do value the relationship more than winning and maximizing the athlete’s talent. For trust to develop parents and/or coaches have to be willing to let the athletes walk away from the sport should they choose to do so with no guarantee that they will ever return.   As you might imagine, very few coaches at the higher levels of performance, are willing to do that. They have too much riding on the success of the athlete. Small wonder that many coaches view sport psychologists and counselors with suspicion. This type of counseling does nothing to improve the athlete’s performance in the short term, and often not in the long term either. It does is clarify for the athlete what his or her priorities are, what he or she really cares about.

 

Chapter Ten talks about the appropriateness of adopting a philosophical position that makes effort and personal integrity more important and more valuable to the athlete than winning. Examples would include Rudyard Kipling’s philosophy of life as expressed in his poem “If,” and in the Olympic Ideal which says:

“It isn’t whether you win or lose that matters, but how you play the game.”

For most athletes the ability to adopt a philosophy that makes effort and integrity more important than winning depends upon the support that they receive for adopting that position. If the data is there, if for example their parents, have espoused that philosophy and lived their lives in ways that are consistent with it, then the athlete is likely to experience success when using it to manage concerns about winning, and to maintain the kind of mental toughness that ensures they will fight to the bitter end. If the data is not there, then that along with the fact that all the world at large cares about is winning will undermine the athlete’s faith and prevent them from managing their performance anxiety.

The attempted adoption of a philosophy like Kipling’s or the Olympic Ideal is unlikely to have any positive effect on those athletes haunted by the feeling that “enough is never enough.” For those athletes the fear of failing to measure up remains as strong as ever because they know that there will be times when they will fail to maintain their integrity and give their best effort. More than anything else, they need to be able to develop faith in the unconditional love and acceptance of those they care the most about.   Apart from counseling, some of these athletes may benefit from developing faith in a loving, forgiving, God.

 

Chapter Eleven is about how faith in a loving, forgiving God can provide the structure and support some athletes need to manage their performance anxiety, and on occasion, to overcome the fear of enough never being enough. For that faith to develop, just like developing faith in anything else, the athlete has to have convincing evidence to support it. That evidence comes from family, from a faith community with similar beliefs, scripture, and life experiences.

The athlete who is head and shoulders above his or her competition has no need to place faith in anything other than him or herself. That changes dramatically as the level of competition increases and as the differences between competitors decreases. That makes it important for athletes to recognize when they need to alter their goals and focus on some aspect of the process of competing as opposed to the outcome. Instead of winning, the goal becomes controlling a particular physical or mental skill that is critical to performance. That goal might be aimed at reducing distractions and negative thoughts. It might be focused on controlling muscle tension, or more specifically on the muscle tension that interferes with the use of proper technique for say ball toss on serve in tennis.

Whatever the goal the athlete decides to focus on, they are going to have to gather evidence over time supporting their ability to performing under pressure. That faith can only develop through dedicated practice and ultimately through increasing success in highly challenging and competition conditions (see the example of Dana Kunze in chapter five).

The issue is different for those athletes who find their performance anxiety or frustration and anger increasing instead of decreasing in response to success. For them, the problem is not about wining or losing in the competitive arena. Instead, the problem revolves around an underlying fear of loss of respect, love, and appreciation. More often than not that issue can only be resolved through counseling that focuses on the underlying issue, and/or through the development of faith in a loving, forgiving, accepting God.