The Spiritual Side of Sports

Competition can be a path to personal and spiritual growth — if you strive together

Each Saturday my daughter straps on her shin guards and little-kid cleats — the ones with the pink shoelaces — and heads out to the rec center field to play soccer.

The teams don’t keep score (that will come later, when she’s a bit older) and if one team is better than the other, the opposing coach adds players until the ability is about equal on both sides of the ball.

The parents on the sidelines cheer for both teams. Everybody plays.
 
It’s a game, but make no mistake, these seven-year-old girls are competing. Falling over each other to get to the ball, high-fiving after goals, stumbling, running through the mud. They are also engaging in the highest form of sport — the place where fun and compassion and awareness and connection matter more than winning.
 
Whether it’s a game like soccer or basketball or a physical activity like yoga or mountain climbing, sports can be a path to spiritual growth and way into a practice of mindfulness, compassion and connection. Sports challenge how we think about ourselves.

The power of competition

“Great truths can emerge from the game,” says Jeanne Hess, a championship-winning volleyball coach at Kalamazoo College in Michigan and author of Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games.

One of those truths is revealed when we look at the etymology of the word competition. It means to “strive together” or “to come together,” says Hess. Rather than an us-versus-them approach, the root of the word puts emphasis on connecting with others — even your opponents — to create an experience that transcends winning or losing.
 
Of course Hess wants to win. She’s one of the winningest volleyball coaches in NCAA Division III history, but she also wants her players to experience the thrill of competition in its highest form while helping them grow into their greatest potential as people. This approach makes the game — including its adversity and struggle — more meaningful, she says.

How sports become spiritual

Sports can also teach us to be present and focused in the moment, says Ed Hastings, professor of theology at Villanova University and a former college basketball player. But we must learn to let go and let loose of the ego’s reign over the game.
 
It’s easy to lose focus and shift our attention to winning and individual performances, Hastings says. But when we become mindful of the experience of competing, then we can work in connection with others to raise the level of the game for players and spectators alike.
 
“Competition is healthy when our experience is not determined by winning or losing, but the striving,” Hastings says. “I think it’s best when we can allow our opponent to bring out our best.”
 
With this kind of awareness, Hastings says we can then tune into the other spiritual lessons that thread throughout sport, such as compassion for yourself and others; forgiveness when you blow a shot or a teammate drops the ball; and surrender to the “lucky” shots and elements beyond our control. When we play with these qualities at our core, we grow spiritually.
 
“It is a way to engage the body and the mind and now bring your spirit to the sport,” Hess adds. “Engage your whole self. That’s where the joy is.”

Playing the game, taking on the challenge

“When we are engaged in play, we experience the focused mind.” says Fr. Patrick Kelly, a former school athlete and a Jesuit priest and religious studies professor at Seattle University who writes and speaks about the spirituality of sport. “When we play, there is an egolessness. We are not thinking about ourselves, we are in union with our surroundings and time flies.”
 
Some athletes describe this as being “in flow” or “in the zone,” and it is a highly spiritual state, Kelly says. It is the moment when you are engaged in what you love, when you are not thinking about winning or losing, when you are immersed in the experience.
 
When you can let go of the outcome and play from this place of total engagement, then you are moving toward your joy. And when you remember the joy and exhilaration that comes from simply participating, you return to your spiritual heart, Kelly says.

Three ways to make sports a spiritual practice

1. Be present and aware. Whether you are a spectator watching your kid’s game, a hiker taking on a mountain trail, or simply someone who shoots hoops to release stress, move into the moment and engage with it fully. If you are checking your text messages or ruminating about dinner plans, you are missing out. Let the physical challenge consume you and pull you into the present moment.
 
2. Cultivate compassion.  Do not boo the other team, lament a bad call by the referee, or criticize the kid who didn’t make the play. Don’t put yourself down for that pose you couldn’t hold, or the fear you felt. Instead, greet each experience with compassion for yourself, for your teammates, for your opponents. Acknowledge that everyone is competing, “striving together,” and you’ll cultivate a respect and appreciation for the experience. Compassion springs from there.
 
3. Let go. Stop the focus on wins and losses, or on external reward or accomplishment. Instead, surrender to the experience of that moment, without concern for outcomes. Strive, pursue, persist, play with abandon. Surrendering to the game or challenge — no matter what shows up — will help you move into the present moment and make room for joy.
 
Sports don’t have to be divisive. When you see them as a way to elevate yourself, your spiritual practice, and those around you, you will win no matter the final score!
 
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