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Published article: “What are the ‘Perceived Benefits’ & Psychological Adaptations of believing in a ‘Divine Existence’ in relation to a professional footballer from a Christian Perspective?

The present study was designed to examine a first person perspective of the perceived benefits of believing in a Divine Existence from a Christian perspective in professional football. Five Professional Footballers were interviewed from two different teams from The Football League One in England. The Results revealed four main themes that seemed to characterise the players’ experiences of Spirituality in Professional Football which were; Direct Relationship with God, Awareness of God’s Will, Football as a means to connect to God and The Eternal Bond with God. The present study supports and expands on previous research suggesting that there are Spiritual aspects of sport experienced, practiced and actively reflected upon by professional athletes causing positive psychological adaptations. The study examines the psychological adaptations and effects of belief in ‘divine existence’ concluding with further recommendations for future researchers of Spirituality in sport to gain a fuller understanding of sporting behaviour.

The following article is examines the Psychological Adaptations of belief in a Divine Existence to a Professional Footballer from a Christian Perspective. A recent study carried out by a sport psychologist from Bournemouth University conducted with input from 5 professional football players and high profile coaches at Watford, Newcastle United, AFC Bournemouth and representatives from The FA, The BBC, Christians in Sport, and The Centre for Sport and Spirituality were included supporting findings that belief in a Divine Existence yields powerful positive psychological adaptations and can mentally enhance performance.

Divine Existence
According to A. Cale (2007), there are people in football who believe strongly in higher powers both Religiously and Spiritually. Sing (2004) explains that “the essence of Spirituality in Athletic performance is that drive, that connection to that higher being or higher self or higher state of achievement”. Interesting, considering the derivation of Psychology from the Greek word Psyche meaning Soul, Spirit and Mind and Logos meaning study (Hyman & Handal 2006). Psychology therefore literally means The Study of the Soul Spirit and Mind. However, whether one does or does not believe in a higher power is irrelevant when observing the undeniable, psychological and behavioural effects on those who do believe. Further more “for too long Sport Psychology has been reluctant to consider Spirituality” (Nesti 2007).

According to S.Miles, 12 out of the 20 English Premier League clubs have players that believe in God from a Christian Perspective. At Portsmouth FC more than half the players go to prayer meetings before games according to Linvoy Primus, the clubs most well known Christian.

Findings from a recent study investigating Spirituality in professional football highlighted Prayer as the main aspect or means of connection to God from a Christian perspective. Coakley (2001) cited Czech (2004) highlighted six factors of why athletes utilised prayer in sport which are:

1) – Coping Mechanisms during Stressful situations
2) – Social Cohesion (Strengthening bonds between team mates)
3) – Social Control
4) – Maintaining Commitment to Football
5) – To put Football into perspective
6) – To live a morally sound life

In the recent study conducted with Christian players PX4 retorted “The content of my prayer to God is to help me do my best in practice time, and I committed all things to God without worry” (PX4: Interview 4).

Results highlight that a state of reduced anxiety, increased focus on performance technique, enhanced Self Belief and Self Efficacy were all recorded at higher frequencies in these players after prayer. Psychologically, prayer it seemed for them was highly beneficial towards performance providing mental and emotional benefits.

Prayer and the Mind
All five participants reported the use of prayer to infiltrate calmness during potential stressful situations in performance and life. This is represented by PX4 who conveyed;

“I say a prayer to Jesus to help me get though it and often when I do that I feel a bit calmer. Sometimes there is a huge amount of pressure from the manager or the fans through expectation so when I pray I know God will get me through it” (PX4: Interview 4).

This ‘Direct Relationship with God’ expressed by all five players highlighted a reduction in levels of perceived anxiety and as a result a more effective means of stress control. Results concluded that players do seek means of coping, calmness and clarity through prayer and direct communication with God. Interestingly, the purpose and content of prayer is never to gain direct advantage over the opposition. Rather to assist the players to achieve their personal best during performance. “I don’t ask him to help me win games, just to play the best I possibly can” (PX3: Interview 3). Tan (2007) illustrates two components of Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT) in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which are; attention in the immediate experience and openness and acceptance. Results conclude that players who ask God for a best performance as opposed to pure victory are more equipped to experience both components of mindfulness rather than just the first.

Psychologically, relating to Attentional Focus (selecting the right stimuli from the environment at the right time) attention in the present moment is crucial. Equally, openness to new techniques, training strategies or match tactics is also as important for rapidly diverse and dynamic field of coaching and playing.

All five participants report the use of Prayer to infiltrate calmness during potential stressful situations during performance and life. In relation to previous research, Park (2000) demonstrated that 22% of Korean athletes, (148 athletes from age 14-58 over 41 different sports) utilised prayer as a coping mechanism for stress. PX4 indicates this directly by responding; “I say a prayer Jesus to help me get through it and often when I do that I feel a bit calmer” (PX4: Interview 4).
It would seem that this category of a Direct relationship with God creates reduced anxiety and as a result a more effective means of stress control. Freeman (2003) highlighted that athletes’ do seek means of coping, calmness and clarity through prayer and direct communication with God.

Social Cohesion
Interestingly, not only individual but team benefits were reported in the Psychological notion of Social Cohesion referred to most commonly as the ‘togetherness of a team’.

PX4 refers to Prayer as a means of strengthening bonds between team mates; “Stay close together and pull them together yeah” (PX4: Interview 4). It seemed that players of Christian faith also acknowledge that regardless of religious denomination others can still be Spiritual connecting with a Divine Existence on a personal level through Prayer or Meditation, which yields the same Psychological benefits as those who are religious. In addition, players don’t need to be ‘religious’ to effect the team environment in a positive light. Research by Schroeder and Scribner (2006) examined a highly selective Christian Evangelical athletics department and compared the behaviour of the Christian and non Christian athletes. Findings showed that although Religious and Spiritual beliefs differed between athletes (Christian and non Christian) team cohesion was enhanced due to the guiding influence of Christian Prayer highlighting moral values and not necessarily the Christian teachings themselves.

Success Attribution
Further more PX2 also highlights his team mates’ attribution of achieved success as luck on occasions when he attributes success to God; “sometimes they say I was lucky with that, when really it was God for me” (PX2: Interview 2). Thus results conclude that participants expressed a clear difficulty when asking God to help their team mates if their team mates did not believe in God. Previous highlighted research highlighted an increase in Team Cohesion through prayer in Christian collegiate softball teams (Murray et al 2005). When considering this previous research and the author’s results it would seem that the dichotomy in effectiveness of prayer and team cohesion relies on the number of active participants during Prayer.

Advantageous Belief
Further results highlight that with the exception of one participant, quality of performance rather than advantageous outcome was a clear preference request in accordance with guidance from God; “I don’t ask him to help me win games, just play the best I possibly can” (PX3: Interview 3). Tan (2007) illustrated that two components of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) are; attention in the immediate experience and openness and acceptance. Critically relating to previous research, advantageous belief (praying for pure victory) was evident but only in PX1. Results conclude that players who ask God for a best performance as opposed to a pure success outcome are more equipped to experience both components of mindfulness rather than just the first.

God’s Importance in Life
Alternative research findings show that all participants outline God to be the most important aspect of their lives. This is summed up by PX4; “He is me, God is really what I’m about as a person and not just a player” (PX4: Interview 4). As previously mentioned Emmons (2003) purveys that Spirituality is important when offering meaning and purpose to human activities in life.
This has also been found in the authors results; “if He didn’t I wouldn’t be here” (PX3:Interview 3).
Clearly PX3 holds the belief that God directs his life, and is instrumental in adding meaning to his occupation as a professional footballer.

The most constant and reoccurring research findings across all five participants were the labelled properties of ‘Gods Guidance in Daily Life’ and ‘Personal Nature of Subjective Relationship with God’. Consistent reference to God’s guidance in general life as well as his guidance in sporting performance was recorded in all five participants. PX3 highlights this when stating; “I feel like I am close with him every day of my life” (PX3: Interview 3). Results conclude that participants consider their relationship with God to be active in all aspects of their lives. In relation to the authors research question therefore, perceived benefits of belief in a higher power does exist but not merely for the purposes of improved sporting performance.

Finally, each participant responded with difficulty when asked to describe their relationship with God. Results highlight that each relationship with God shares similarities of guidance, security, closeness and assistance in life and in sporting performance, yet also present dichotomies adding to the subjective nature of belief. “They need to feel it themselves and it’s personal between you and God” (PX1: Interview 1). This seems to support earlier research, identifying that meaning is understood incompletely and inferred only in part (Frankl 1979 cited Harold 2005). These results outline the need for further research in this field. Results indicate that there do seem to be psychological adaptations associated with belief in a Divine Existence but it is deeper than a mere mental process or state that occurs psychologically. Ultimately, belief in a higher power is not something that is practiced for benefit for sporting performance but life in general for ‘being’ rather than ‘gaining’ through believing. Players conveyed finding meaning and purpose in their existence through their belief in God. These beliefs and values acted to give Psychological strength which assisted to inform and guide their actions not just in sporting performance but life in general.

Author: Tom Bates

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