Spirituality and the Athlete

You know, sometimes I hate parties. As long as people think I’m a “jock,” things go well. With my size, it is easy to field the questions about the Super Bowl or lifting or sports in general. It is when people find out my “day jobs” that problems arise. I’m a professor of religious education and the director of religious education for the Catholic diocese of Salt Lake City. I’m in the “religion business.”

And, it never fails…the very next sentence most people usually say is: “I am a very spiritual person.” I used to nod and agree with them because I thought I understood what they said. Now, however, I go one step farther. “What do you mean by ‘spiritual?'”

The answers vary, of course, but I have heard everything from “I read my horoscope EVERY day without fail” to “I just finished a 30 day fast and retreat with the exercises of Ignatius.” Not long ago, a woman stunned me with a question: “How do incorporate your spirituality and your sports?”

Good question. Athletes are often faulted for certain displays of religious belief or superstitions. The standard complaint filed on athletes is the pregame prayer: “Oh Dear Lord, let us defeat the hated South River Sabercats, and slew them with your Grace. Amen.” Across the stadium, the Sabercats are praying for their victory! One gets an image of God weighing out which team’s prayer had more merit…somehow.

That is not what I want to talk about. At the highest level of performance, there is a moment of transcendence, where the sum of the body’s potential and the training regimen are superceded by the beauty…the human potentiality…of the art of athletics. The athlete may never fully explain these moments in words…it is truly an “out of body” experience.

Brian Oldfield, the spinning shot putter who first broke 75 feet in the shot (a record not even approached for 14 years), discusses that moment in throwing when the centrifugal, linear, and vertical forces all come together and…just for a moment…the athlete has to pause to let them gather into the perfect throw. He calls this “the Nirvana Phase.” If you rush it, you miss it and you have a substandard throw. This, of course, is also a key to life: if you rush it, you miss it.

Oldfield’s point is crucial: there is a moment in every sport discipline where the forces have built up and athlete has to just let it all happen. For an interesting way to watch this in action, go rent “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray. As he repeats the same exact day over and over and over, he decides to make a perfect day to seduce Andie MacDowell. His attempt at making the “Perfect Day” leads him to failure…over and over again. Finally, he decides to learn the piano, takes a turn at ice sculpture, and help people. With this approach, he gets the girl…and moves on to February 3. When he forced things, he failed. When he decided to learn new things, improve himself, he got what he wanted.

You have to let things happen in life and in sports. Yet, as all athletes know, there is someone out there with a pen and a calendar…someone scheduling a match, a meet, or a competition. The athlete’s task is show up on this day ready to go. All too often, though, the athlete has finishes the day “off their best.” Perhaps we can learn a little lesson from those of us in the “business.”

Not long ago, I popped open the March issue of Emmanuel Magazine. In an enlightening article on Christian Ministry by Father Stephen Bevans, I noted a quote that sounded familiar. The person quoted was one George Niederauer. I sent off a little memo to Bishop George Niederauer whose office is literally “at my feet” one floor below to see if, indeed, the Bishop was responsible for this insight on prayer. The Bishop wrote back: “Guilty!,” then noted that the article spelled his name wrong.

The article noted the Bishop’s interesting image of the kind of prayers that most people seem to struggle with. In the “Tale of Two Benches,” Bishop Niederauer describes sitting on a bus bench. When one waits for a bus, one is filled with expectations. The “G” bus should be here at 8:11. It is 8:13 and my day is ruined. We want to get off this bench and get going somewhere else! The bus should be here…now. Wait…now! The park bench, however, is a time to sit and listen and watch. We wait for nothing. The local squirrels that showed up yesterday may or may not be here today. And, that is okay.

The approach most athletes take to competition is the “Bus Bench” image. “On Saturday, the 26th, I will defeat all who show up, break all my personal records, find perfection in all I do, and meet the person of my dreams.” This, my friends, is the “G” bus of sports preparation. It is a tough model to follow. As I look over my 35 years in organized competition, I can only think of a few…three?…times when the Bus showed up on schedule.

The most important moment of my athletic career reflects the keys to success…in the Bus Bench model. In my closet, there is a small trophy that bears a stamp “S.V. 67.” For the record, it stands for “St. Veronica’s, 1967,” the first trophy I ever received and I got it one year before my wife was born. Although I often joke about my funeral, for example having Frank Sinatra’s “One for My Baby, One more for the Road” as a closing song, I am serious when I ask that somebody remember this trophy. It is a lesson in, well, how things work.

I was the world’s worst baseball player. My batting average was three zeroes. I hated sports while my brothers were getting their pictures in the local sports section on a weekly basis. As the right fielder, I was safe, until I batted. Then, I would close my eyes, swing like mad three times and sit down.

And, of course, like all great stories, we were heading for the championship game. I went to the local high school the night before the game and decided to learn to hit. Throw the ball up, close my eyes and swing. Ball up, close eyes and swing. As I tried to learn to hit, one of the local high school heroes, Dale Kursten, saw me trying and failing and walked over and gave me a few lessons. Keep your eye on the ball, swing level and make contact. A few easy hits later, he said goodbye.

And, of course, like all great stories, it came to the last inning. With two outs and a man on third, our captain turned and asked “Who’s up?” Me. “Oh great. We are going to lose.” Well, with that pep talk, I walked to the plate. Dale’s words echoed: “eye on the ball, swing level, make contact.” And, I did. The ball slid between the fielders and I made it to first base. The guy on third scored and we tied the game up. Later, we would win. A few weeks later, I was given a trophy.

At my sister’s twenty year high school reunion, she mentioned this story to Dale. It didn’t register. Oh, he had heard about my athletic career, but was stunned to find out that he had anything to do with it. Yet, I point to those few minutes of his guidance as the turning point.

There are gems in that story that I still take out my shovel and mine. For example, each time I think about this story, I remind myself of the role that a mentor played in improving my game. Moreover, the mentor helped without a lot of fanfare…Dale doesn’t market himself on the internet as “Coach of 400 Olympians and Dan John!” I am also reminded about the use of the “mantra,” the flow of calming words that allowed me to ignore my captain and stay focused on the ball. Truly, gems.

In the championship game, I came through. But, don’t ignore the two keys of mentor and mantra! The only advice I can give someone facing a date on a calendar is to make sure they have their external community of fans, buddies, friends, mentors and coaches at the event and their internal community of a few short focus words all ready to go.

For most athletes most of the time, the Park Bench model is much more appropriate. When you compete, or simply train, take time to enjoy the view, breath the air, and don’t worry about the squirrels! Whatever comes along during your competition or training should be viewed through the lens of wonder and thanks. My great joy in competing in Highland Games has a lot to do with the friendships made, the variety of events, and the party atmosphere. Highland Games athletes simply don’t make fools of themselves complaining about a bad performance. The events make a fool of you!

To get a “Park Bench” mentality, the athlete has to realize that, at best, very few competitions are going to be perfect. In addition, when the stars arrange for you to have those perfect competitions, you had better not try to mess it up with a lot of extra energy…you just have to let it go. The Park Bench also helps you with the 20% of competitions where things go all wrong. If you can keep your wits, feed a squirrel or two, you may just salvage this competition! By the way, nothing frightens your competition more than a serene smile on your face…they will think you are up to something!

Train hard, but enjoy competition. Compete hard, but enjoy your training. One key final point must be kept in mind at all times…NEVER judge a workout or competition as “good” or “bad” solely on that single day. I often tell my new throwers: “Sorry, you just are not good enough to be disappointed.” Judging one’s worth as an athlete over the results of single day is just idiocy…and will lead to long term failure. Epictetus, the Roman Stoic philosopher tells us: “We must ever bear in mind –that apart from the will there is nothing good or bad, and that we must not try to anticipate or to direct events, but merely to accept them with intelligence.”

To close, I have a favorite story:

A farmer had a horse and a son. One day, the horse died. All the neighbors said, “Oh, how bad.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.” The next day, the neighbors got together and bought the farmer a new horse. They all said, “That’s a good thing.” Farmer said, “We’ll see.” The following day, the horse threw the son while trying to break the horse. The son broke his arm. The neighbors all said, “Oh, how bad.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.” The next day, the army came into the town, drafted all the young men, save the son with a broken arm. They all died in the first battle. The neighbors said to the farmer, “Oh, how good it was for your son to have a broken arm.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.”

So, from someone in the “business” of religion, take a few pieces of insight to heart as an athlete. First, let things happen and don’t judge them as good or bad. Enjoy the opportunity to train and compete. Second, find yourself a community of people who support your goals…and be sure you “support your goals,” too.

Do my ideas work in sports? We’ll see.

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