Intercollegiate athletics are often assumed to be a vehicle for character formation without thoughtful consideration of empirical research or underlying pedagogies.1 In college athletic departments, resources surrounding spiritual formation in sports are similarly sparse. Although Christianity offers a specific telos and a set of practices that guide believers, Christians in sport are quick to realize that athletic contexts form participants in ways that do not always align with Christian norms.2
The notion of training in the present to pursue future goals is not a foreign concept to coaches, athletes, and trainers. However, athletes and leaders in higher educational settings often do not know how to approach training and preparing their souls. Thus, the topic of Christian spiritual formation in the sports world warrants closer attention. Recently, I have written about the opportunities for spiritual development in and through sport.3 Here, I briefly discuss two opportunities found in collegiate athletic departments, which I contend are ripe with opportunities for spiritual formation.
Opportunity #1: The Training Mindset
As in any sphere of life, becoming great in sport requires discipline and intentional practice. For better or for worse, athletes often adopt a competitive mindset in which discipline, commitment, and training are central virtues. The Christian faith also involves those same virtues. The opportunity available to faith-based athletic departments is to promote holistic excellence, not just athletic excellence, which includes striving to grow in Christlikeness.
Becoming more like Christ does not happen in singular moments, rather the culmination of a life. This sort of training and preparation makes sense in sports. Dallas Willard provides an insightful example of this connection: “A baseball player who expects to excel in the game without adequate exercise of his body is no more ridiculous than the Christian who hopes to be able to act in the manner of Christ when put to the test without the appropriate exercise in godly living.”4 A basketball player that trains five hours each week cannot realistically expect to perform at the same level as Michael Jordan. If a soccer player never practices far-range shots, she should not expect to score a goal from distance like Carli Lloyd in the 2015 World Cup Final. If we want to behave like Jesus, it is not enough for us to try to behave like Jesus in certain moments. We must live and train the ways Jesus lived and trained in order to be able to act in a Christlike manner in certain instances. Athletes, coaches, and trainers inherently understand this training mindset and do not require much convincing when it comes to the association between discipline and excellence.
Opportunity #2: Structures Already in Place
In addition to the training mindset, college athletics is uniquely situated to aid people to train their souls because of the many structures already in place. An athletic department is already divided into groups (i.e., teams) and even groups within groups. Clear leadership is defined for each group. Teams are already scheduled to spend many hours per week together. Basic accommodations such as facilities, meals, and transportation are provided. In some ways, an athletic department is a missionary’s dream because of the preexisting structures, systems, and lines of communication. Rather than striving to do more and add more programming, I would challenge athletic leaders and administrators to use the large amounts of time they already have more strategically.
One way that athletic departments might aid the spiritual formation of athletes and staff is by taking opportunities to integrate spiritual disciplines into the rhythms and routines of college sports. Spiritual disciplines are repeated practices of the mind, body, and heart that rely on God the Father, cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and are directed by Christ. We can think of these intentional practices to develop our spirituality as “soul-training.”5 Christians have abundant opportunities to train their souls in and through sports.
More traditionally, soul-training practices outside of sports include disciplines of restraint or denial, such as silence or fasting; disciplines of engagement, such as study or confession; inward disciplines, such as meditation or prayer; outward disciplines, such as service or Sabbath; or corporate activities, such as worship services or retreats.6 In contrast, some consider sport in and of itself to be a spiritual discipline. Sports as soul-training seeks to cultivate virtues that are by-products of participation in sports, such as courage, self-control, teamwork, etc. (e.g., patience7). Sports and practices within sports can function as spiritual disciplines given a certain mindset.8 The focus of this blog proposes that that in addition to practicing historical Christian disciplines, and in addition to the character development that can sometimes occur as a by-product of participating in sport, there are unique opportunities within sport to engage in spiritual formation. Soul-training in sports entails opportunities to practice seeking the presence of God during the most mundane and the most intense elements of sports.
Below are just a few examples of practicing spiritual disciplines in sports:
- Fasting. Although fasting typically involved abstaining from food, people can also fast from various behaviors. Consider the football player who decides to fast from his phone during every bus trip. He spends half the bus ride in prayer without technological distraction, and the other half spending meaningful time with different teammates. Consider the track captain who commits to fast from complaining around her teammates. She resolves to never audibly utter any sort of complaint about the weather, workout, soreness, or dining hall options, thus leading and serving her team while cultivating a spirit of positivity
- Encouragement. Athletes, coaches, and trainers can cultivate the habituated practice of encouraging and connecting with teammates through high fives. Studies have shown that players on winning teams are more likely to touch each other than players on losing teams.9 Steve Nash, former Phoenix Suns point guard, averaged 239 high fives per game, about five per minute of game action, or one every 12 seconds. Consider the starting point guard who blows out his knee half-way through the season. The team is devastated because he was their glue and leader. Instead of disengaging and checking out, he determines to give at least one-hundred high fives per practice.
- Gratitude. Practicing gratitude is a historically Christian ideal (Ps 136; Phil 4:6; 1 Thess 5:16-18). Gratitude is the cognitive-affective response to recognizing oneself as beneficiary of another’s benevolence, and a life orientation towards noticing, appreciating, and savoring the positive.10 It is associated with other virtues and positive mental health outcomes as well.11 Consider the soccer coach who requires each player to write three things for which she is grateful every morning of preseason. Preseason comes and goes, and players are still turning in small sheets of paper with expressions of gratitude. Right before the conference tournament, the coach reads several of the gratitude notes from preseason to his team to remind them of their love for one another.
- Accountability. Accountability involves being responsive to appropriate others and responsible for specific behaviors.12 Consider the coach who gives each injured player the task of watching an uninjured teammate each practice and providing that teammate tips for improvement. The injured athlete (in addition to feeling more involved) practices holding another accountable and giving feedback, and the uninjured athlete practices being held accountable and receiving feedback.
In the same way that greatness in sports does not happen by accident, neither does Christlikeness. As the recent Netflix documentary detailing the rise and fall of Johnny “Football” Manziel demonstrates, if left to chance, the collegiate athletic experience has the potential to develop vices in student-athletes. Athletic departments at Christian colleges and universities sit in a unique space where spiritual disciplines can be integrated into the collegiate student-athlete experience, thus promoting spiritual growth in addition to physical and academic. Christian higher education settings must seize the opportunities to empower coaches, administrators, and athletes to also train their souls by relying on the Holy Spirit as they engage in habitual and intentional spiritual disciplines.
- Sean Strehlow, “Coaching for Christ: How Faith Informs Coaching and Christian Education,” Christian Scholar’s Review (blog), January 17, 2023, https://christianscholars.com/coaching-for-christ-how-faith-informs-coaching-and-christian-education/.
- Jane Lee Sinden, “The Elite Sport and Christianity Debate: Shifting Focus from Normative Values to the Conscious Disregard for Health,” Journal of Religion and Health 52, no. 1 (March 2013): 335–49, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10943-012-9595-8.
- Elizabeth Bounds, “Soul-Training: The Why, What, and How of Spiritual Formation in Sports,” Journal of the Christian Society for Kinesiology, Leisure and Sport Studies. 7, no. 2 (2022), https://doi.org/10.7290/jcskls07jkyr.
- Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. (Harper and Row, 1988), 4-5.
- Bounds, “Soul-Training.”
- Richard J. Foster and Emilie Griffin, eds., Spiritual Classics: Selected Readings on the Twelve Spiritual Disciplines. (HarperCollins, 2000).
- Sarah A. Schnitker et al., “Dual Pathways from Religiousness to the Virtue of Patience versus Anxiety among Elite Athletes.,” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 12, no. 3 (August 2020): 294–303, https://doi.org/10.1037/rel0000289.
- Matthew Roberts, “Willardian Spiritual Formation, Novel Spiritual Disciplines, and Basketball: A Case Study,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 13, no. 2 (November 1, 2020): 222–45, https://doi.org/10.1177/1939790920951918.
- Michael W. Kraus, Cassey Huang, and Dacher Keltner, “Tactile Communication, Cooperation, and Performance: An Ethological Study of the NBA,” Emotion 10, no. 5 (2010): 745–49, https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019382.
- Michael E McCullough, “Savoring Life, Past and Present: Explaining What Hope and Gratitude Share in Common,” 2021.
- Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet et al., “Gratitude Predicts Hope and Happiness: A Two-Study Assessment of Traits and States,” The Journal of Positive Psychology 14, no. 3 (May 4, 2019): 271–82, https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2018.1424924.
- Charlotte V.O. Witvliet et al., “Accountability: Construct Definition and Measurement of a Virtue Vital to Flourishing,” The Journal of Positive Psychology, August 17, 2022, 1–14, https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2022.2109203.