Psychology is a big deal in modern sport. From Steve Peters' now famous 'chimp paradox' to the in-house sports psychologists employed by many professional clubs, the workings of the mind are being treated with increasing importance. Now it is almost as common to have a therapist as it is a personal trainer.
What are we to make of this from a Christian point of view? Is it OK for Christians to take part in sports psychology? Does the Bible give us a form of sport psychology or at least does it give us principles that could be applied to this area?
Clearly these are bigger questions than can be fully answered in a blog, but here are a few brief reflections to help start a discussion.
All truth is God’s truth and so Christians should not be afraid of sport psychology. Christians have a chequered history of being highly sceptical about areas they don’t initially understand. The Bible teaches that God made us and knows how we are wired up internally and how we function best. So any insights from sport psychology that are true and accurate are God-given, even if they are not directly obtained from the Bible. This is God’s world and sport psychology is an area (like any other) that He is Lord over (Colossians 1:15-17).
2. All areas of expertise like sport psychology will be mixed with truth and distortions because we live in a world corrupted by sin (Genesis 3:6-7). Consequently Christians - whether professionals or not - need to engage thoughtfully and analytically in this area (as in any other) to see what is true, what is false, what is helpful and what is unhelpful.
Not all who claim to do sport ‘psychology’ are qualified psychologists - so do check someone’s qualifications (and don’t be too impressed just because they have letters after their name!). Equally just because someone says they are a Christian sport psychologist does not mean that they are operating from a Christian worldview. I know psychologists for whom their Christianity is intentionally left out of the counselling environment and some for whom it is intentionally brought in. It is important to know who you are dealing with and what assumptions they are using - don’t be afraid to ask!
The Bible has lots to say about how we work best, so just understanding and applying your Bible will give you vital psychological insights. This is not to say we don’t need the input of professionals, sometimes we do, but it is to say that we always need the Bible’s input.
Think of the impact of these foundational biblical insights (as examples):
a. Our fundamental psychological problem (in sport or any other arena of life) is not just that we are weak, distressed, anxious or depressed, but that we are wilfully rejecting God and seeking to live without him. This is what the Bible calls sin and it is the baseline problem that all human beings have. So if I want to ‘improve’ psychologically as an athlete or player, a key part will be recognising that my problems are not just ‘out there’ but also often caused by me and my sin.
b. One of our great dangers is that we seek to derive our identity from created things rather than the Creator (Romans 1:21-23). The Bible calls this idolatry. When we do this we become enslaved to these things and will experience resulting psychological problems. So if I am excessively anxious before or during competition, could it be that I am attaching too much of my identity to my performance? Am I perhaps idolising the ‘perfect game’ or what my teammates think of me?
c. There may be many sport psychology models out there offering to help us (and many will help) but permanent change can only come from God’s work in our heart as the Spirit applies Jesus’ life, death and resurrection to us personally. So as we pursue sport psychology interventions, are we also praying for God to be at work or are we thinking that because I am being helped by sport psychology I no longer need God’s help?
d. As human beings we naturally default to man-centred ‘works-based’ systems of change and improvement, but God has made us such that we need God-centred ‘grace-based’ interventions in our life to see deep and lasting impact. You will not get such interventions from secular sport psychology models no matter how good they are, so you need to be rooted in a local family of believers - the local church - where you will get this. The Christian community is always a vital context for support and change.
Let me close by a brief anecdote. When I became a Christian I was playing semi-professional rugby. Some of the team were worried that becoming a Christian would make me a worse player (some even said as much).
As it happens I had a tough first year blighted by injury, but a bit over a year after my coming to faith the captain pulled me to one side and said: “I was worried about the impact of your Christianity on your game, but I was wrong. You train more consistently, when fit you have been playing at a higher level, and you seem more assured on the pitch. Can you explain why that is?”
“I have not really thought about it,” I said. “And it may be an over-simplification, but I guess God knows what is best for us.”
Pete Nicholas, Inspire Church London
Pete was appointed to the Board of Trustees in 2017 and is a rugby player by background who now plays touch rugby. Pete is ordained in the Church of England and Minister in Charge of Inspire Saint James Clerkenwell in London.
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