The God squads – the fallacy and the ferocity of religion in sport

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It’s getting harder to find a win not chalked down to Jesus, but while such actions go against true belief, they can go a long way towards tricking the mind towards victory, writes Ewan MacKenna

I say to people who pray, ‘Suppose God doesn’t answer your prayer’. And they say, ‘Well, it’s his will, I will accept his will’. So what’s the point of praying in the first place if he’s going to do what he wants anyway as there’s supposedly a divine plan. Why are you so arrogant as to ask him to change his plan for some narrow-minded reason whether it’s health or wealth? Do you think prayer works? You get about half the things you pray for – law of probability. Half you don’t. You write off the half you don’t, and the half you get you say, ‘Isn’t he great’. It’s just a game, a form of mental illness.
George Carlin – comedian, philosopher, atheist.

Walking away from last year’s British Open, Bubba Watson wanted a quick exit but didn’t know which way was out. It wasn’t so much a missed cut that garnered attention and had him in a spin, after all Royal Liverpool was never going to suit his game. But what did get glances was the fact he didn’t so much glide back to earth, he came down in flames. By the finish the most pious man in golf had blamed everyone from media to spectators as he was caught ranting on camera. Yet perhaps most humiliating was a journalist asking as he left 18 for the last time, “Where’s your God now?”

To some that may have seemed sacrilege aimed at a person of such deep faith. To others it may have been an overdue ribbing for a man that has suggested “his Lord and saviour Jesus Christ” was behind his two US Masters wins. But the question wasn’t meant to invoke either emotion. Instead it was a genuine inquiry into the pronounced everyday faith of Watson and conversely a belief that is key component of what makes him so good at golf. And therein lies the dilemma and the irony amidst what has become a major part of athlete speak and an ever bigger part of sports psychology.

Belief and faith may have long co-existed with sport but if they did, they were tucked well out of sight because other competitors and the press ridiculed religious athletes. Muhammad Ali was a rarity in professing he couldn’t lose to George Foreman with Allah on his side, and even though such a combination of spirituality and sport grew across the 1980s, there was still a wall of opposition best demonstrated when a 17-year-old Michael Chang won the 1989 French Open and was booed for thanking Jesus.

Brazil

Yet 26 years later and Jesus is everywhere. A game in March Madness didn’t go by without a nod and a wink to himself for being behind a victory. American football touchdowns are celebrated on one knee. At every press conference until their dismantling in the World Cup semi-final, Brazil pointed to a divinity in their progress. Even in Ireland from Katie Taylor to Andrew Trimble, the idea of the almighty and sport have slowly fused. It’s all so common now that one British newspaper not long ago ran a letter to the editor entitled, “Leave me out of your petty games. Love, God.”

George Carlin may have been right in calling out such faith and maybe in the real world his thoughts are true. But sport has graduated from the real world and this is just the latest example. When it comes to athletes, it can be a strength not sickness; mental reinforcement not mental illness.

Nobody has personified such separation better than Jonathan Edwards. A triple-jumping legend that once missed the 1991 World Championships because he wouldn’t compete on the Sabbath, by the 2000 Games, his gym bag as he entered the Olympic stadium contained all the usual gear plus a tin of sardines. His reasoning came from Matthew 14 and the feeding of the 5,000 as for Edwards such an item was the physical manifestation of his belief in God. By the time he retired, the double-world champion and Sydney gold medallist even became the host of ‘Songs of Praise’. But with sport, he never questioned his belief because the reassurance it gave him resulted in winning which for an athlete was rational; but without sport, questioning that belief became the rational approach. He is now an atheist but still attributes his success to a faith he today openly says doesn’t add up.

“Without doubt [those beliefs were helpful in the heat of battle],” he is quoted as saying in Matthew Syed’s book, ‘Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice’. “Looking back now, I can see that my faith was pivotal to my success. Believing in something beyond the self can have a hugely beneficial psychological impact, even if the belief is fallacious. It provided a profound sense of reassurance because I took the view that the result was in God’s hands and that God was on my side. It enabled me to block out doubt in the moments before I was due to jump.”

Taylor

Some might call it the power of placebo. In 1944, with an Allied mission gone wrong in Italy, Doctor Harry Beecher found himself with too many wounded and too little anaesthetic. Administering salt water under the guise of painkillers, he discovered you can trick the mind. By the ’80s, investigations from Korea to the States showed religious belief bolstered performance as top athletes use it as a coping mechanism in a similar way. As Syed wrote, “The thing that often separates the best from the rest is a capacity to believe things that are not true but are incredibly effective.” For Edwards and so many more today, their sporting placebo is God.

“The one thing that should not be underestimated is how powerful having a genuine religious belief can have on athletic performance,” says journalist Kieran Shannon, who as a sports psychologist has worked with leading teams across the Irish spectrum. “It’s not that their religion or belief alone helps them. It is that, whether they know it or not, some of their religious practices and outlooks are essentially forms of mental skills. What I am saying is that someone who practices mental skills will more than likely outperform someone who doesn’t.”

By extension, when Shannon interviewed Katie Taylor in 2011, she mentioned she wasn’t into sports psychology, instead noting God was her psychologist, the bible her psychology manual. “And the thing is, it is for her,” he adds. “She is continuously in keeping with good mental skills practice and best applied sport psych practice without knowing it because of her religious faith and practices.”

That prayer psychology for many can mean a source of strength and coping with anxiety, alleviating doubt and providing motivation. But it’s an area the recently deceased former head coach of North Carolina Dean Smith – who was over Michael Jordan – found troubling as a serial winner at sports but a hugely religious man. “It is common these days to see athletes pointing to the sky and uttering a prayer after a completing a pass or scoring,” he said in his autobiography. “In June 1999 after a crucial NBA playoff game, I heard a gifted athlete thank God for the win and his outstanding performance. A suggestion that God has given a victory has always bothered me.”

Edwards

And there are athletes on the other side of the divide who are bothered with religion hoisted onto them. Cork Olympian and European Indoor 3,000m medallist Ciarán Ó Lionáird found the emphasis on religion in sport so heavy when joining the Florida State athletics team that he’d step out of pre-race prayer huddles and formed an evolution club for athletes. “I think the difference in US sports is there seems to be a strong expression of the notion that God somehow impacts results or is worthy of credit for a performance. That sounds incredibly self-involved and narcissistic. I don’t think God if he did exist is concerned about my races.

“It seems that as society moves more and more to the selfie-generation, an obsession with oneself carries over and helps propagate religious expression as ‘me, me, me. Thank God you did it for me’. I sometimes look at those who are really religious in sports and see it as being an advantage though. The ability to buy into something so strongly is something that can help an athlete overcome so in terms of sports psych, perhaps it is valuable, yeah. But I’d rather look in the mirror every night and know who I am, and live that. I believe in my coach, my support team, my sponsors, my footwear and myself enough that I don’t feel I need to look to imaginary sources of inspiration for belief.”

And that’s ultimately what it comes down to whether atheist or otherwise – ways of unearthing belief. But for those athletes who are convinced God is on their side, that’s the oxymoron. All in all, if you truly believe, then that faith can provide sporting advantages; but if you truly believe, you should know sport is way below the place of faith.

Abridged version, Sunday Business Post
12 April, 2015

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3 comments

  1. Alex McGreevy · · Reply

    You should try out Crusaders FC – the original god squad.

    Bunch of headers.

    Alex

  2. Really enjoyed this Ewan. It has occurred to me before that in any competition, there must be more competitors ‘let down’ by God rather than ‘rewarded’. There can only be one winner, as they say. I also read ‘Bounce’ and found it a compelling read. Good references from it.

  3. Bram Kramers · · Reply

    Now if there was just such thing as a god or so. Everytime you see these poor misled and brainwashed young people pray or attribute a win to some invented “being” one must feel sad and sorry for them. They do look like fools to the rest of the free…I mean REALLY free world.

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