Monday, July 16, 2012

God and Athletes

I've long found it surprising that athletes could credit God with their athletic success. I can understand saying that talent is God-given, but the idea that God could care who won a tennis match (Michael Chang) or a basketball game (Jeremy Lin) seems ludicrous, almost insulting. An interesting NY Times article on Ryan Hall, a marathoner who will represent the US in the London Olympics next month, notes the important psychological advantage that comes from believing God is on the athlete's side. It seems that even altitude training is not scientifically proven to benefit runners, but may be more placebo effect:
Scientists debate its effects. The variables that determine performance are complex, said Tim Noakes, an exercise physiologist at the University of Cape Town who served as an altitude expert for FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
“If you look at the literature, some people benefit and some get worse, and the general result is no effect,” Noakes said of altitude training. The placebo effect, though, can be significant, Noakes said. He urges those who believe in altitude training to continue and those who are skeptical to skip it. At the elite level of marathon running, he said, psychology probably plays a more crucial role than physiology.
“The more stable you are as a human, the better you are as an athlete, and religion is a very stabilizing force,” Noakes said. “You don’t have doubts. God is looking after you. That’s incredibly powerful. If Ryan finds special strength in his religion, it’s much more important for him than training at altitude.”
...He does not view his reliance on God as an abdication of responsibility but as a means of empowerment.  ...
 The article notes how oddly some view his close conversation with God, and quotes Tanya Luhrmann (who coincidentally teaches at Stanford, which is where Hall got his degree in sociology.)
Some elite runners seem taken aback by Hall’s faith-based training.
“So he really thinks God is saying, ‘Run 10 times 1,200 meters today,’ or ‘Take tomorrow off’?’ ” said Dathan Ritzenhein, who finished ninth in the marathon at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, one spot ahead of his countryman Hall. “Wow.”
Hall’s belief in a direct conversation with God was not a fringe occurrence, said T. M. Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropologist who spent a decade researching charismatic evangelicals and wrote a recent, critically acclaimed book, “When God Talks Back.” Polls have shown that about a quarter of Americans have reported a direct revelation from God or have experienced a voice or a vision through prayer.
“Just the way a well-parented child will carry with them the soothing voice of their mother and father, these folks are really trying to build God as that kind of personal relationship,” Luhrmann said in an interview. “It really does give an emotional buffer to people. It seems people are able to carry with them a sense of comforting reassurance and a sense of inspiration. So it’s not so alien as it seems.”
Between Luhrmann's empathetic understanding of evangelicals, and the psychological advantage that certainty can provide, we can understand why we get the professions of faith from elite athletes. It is often said that the difference among elite athletes is not their physical abilities, but their mental toughness, and having God in their corner helps create that mental toughness.

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