Sport and Spirituality: A Comparative Perspective


Responding to recent highly publicized sport scandals that so often tarnish the character of athletics, this writing defends the innate sanctity and redeems the potential of sport by exploring sport as a spiritual enterprise. Spirituality, generally conceptualized at three levels of connection (to self, others, and a higher being or purpose), is explored using 10 dominant themes of the world’s sacred scriptures. Examples of these 10 themes from the domain of sport and athletics are offered, as follows: supreme being and the mystery of sport; self and play in the zone; spiritual paths and practice; knowledge–wisdom and creativity–innovation in sport; the “good life” and the team; love and service as sportsmanship; devotion and worship through love of the game; fate and free will in “miracle and madness”; death and the “big picture”; and the spiritual sage and the sport hero.

Sport and Spirituality: A Comparative Perspective

My sport-and-spirituality venture began when I was a daring toddler chinning my way up the splendid chair-leg pedestals of my mother’s fine dining room furniture, eventually reaching the summit and setting up camp, temporarily, on the sacred heights of the table sanctuary. It was an enchanting escape, fashioning new and intriguing possibilities. Later such impulses would be disciplined by years of gymnastics training, following the singular path of a 4-in. balance beam or swinging unwittingly on two wooden spindle bars. Now, as a soccer mom, I watch as my children devoutly absorb themselves in the disciplined challenge and exhilarating excitement of sport and athletics. Life is good.

I never suspected inner rumblings among the community of believers until one night at dinner our family was discussing a recent barrage of player suspensions mounting on previous dismissals of athletes from a nearby university basketball program. My son drolly asked, “Who hasn’t assaulted someone?” His amused and also cynical rebuttal beckoned me to justify and defend the integrity of an activity to which I and many others have eagerly surrendered hours of dedicated practice; an activity leading to moments of unexpected and unrelenting joy, bewildering us with setbacks and conversion; an activity of obvious physical attributes but also imparting spiritual value to generations of players. I began to consider the message that was not being communicated from the sport pulpit to its eager and interested congregation. The spiritual essence of sport is rarely linked with the physical performance and competitive outcomes of sport in the context of popular sport promotion. Nevertheless, in its most fundamental and pure form, sport is spiritual. The spiritual is defined as that which raises the human condition to a higher level of personal awareness and interpersonal consciousness and heightened realization of a grand scheme of things.

To see the soul of sport, we must look beyond both the superficial, if spectacular, physical feats and the much-publicized aggression, anger, and greed in sport. Because sport is spiritual as well as physical, it can lead an athlete to personal transfiguration, revival of communal understanding, and redemption of life’s purpose and possibilities. The precisely executed tennis topspin, the gutsy 50-ft platform dive, the harmoniously choreographed triangle offense, the undeniable magic of the miracle game or perfect golf round can offer the deepest kind of meaning. Sport’s contribution to spiritual advancement cannot be underestimated. Just imagine where we would be had Adam and Eve tossed or teed off that shiny red orb from the Garden of Eden.

Each person’s spiritual venture involves three levels of connection: to the self (inner strength), to relationships (our undeniable union with others), and to a higher being or purpose. It is important to preserve the distinction between spiritual venture and organized religion; nevertheless, the quest for spiritual relevance is often grounded in the practices, teachings, and rituals of the world’s many religions. Religious scripture renders verbal descriptions and explanations to clarify complex spiritual themes. While the sacred scriptures of the world’s religions read differently, their messages and themes are often similar. They have been said to share 10 common themes: the idea of a supreme being, of the self, of the spiritual path, of knowledge and wisdom, of the “good life,” of love and service, of devotion and worship, of fate and free will, of death, and of the spiritual sage (Freke, 1998). This paper draws analogies between these themes and sport not to make sport a religion, but to present sport as an intriguing, insight-generating, exhilarating, and joyful means of awakening a lethargic soul, grasping an unresponsive heart, and enlightening feeble and fragile imagination to robust possibilities and convincing realities.

Supreme Being and the Mystery of Sport

Some would accuse popular culture of proclaiming sport as God. Spiritual text, however, tells us that God is one, yet God is all—a profound but confusing mystery. In depicting the supreme being with a human face, theologians of many faiths have tried to draw that being nearer to us and make it easier for us to conceptualize God (Freke, 1998). Capturing this powerful image in our hearts can be profound when we recognize and appreciate the wonder of God in our everyday lives. Recognition may come in something as simple and subtle as a rainbow’s faint appearance, or in something as intense and marvelous as a friend’s first struggling words after brain surgery. Recognition of God in our everyday lives may also arise at the unexplainable synchrony of a heavyweight boxer’s feather-light, floating grace and stinging punch; or at the gritty determination of the Korean breaststroker in the 2001 Paralympic Games sleekly slithering through the water like a squid, powerfully thrusting himself through each armless stroke with the force of his legs, bracing for each poolside head-butt turn of the race. Inexplicable skills and exquisite performances in sport expose the wonder of a higher power. As the Christian Bible’s book of Matthew offers, “With God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26, New International Version).

The Self and Play in the Zone

One demanding scriptural theme that challenges our essential nature is the perplexing premise that God is within us. As expressed in the Christian Bible, “He is not far from each one of us,” for “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 27– 28). In the realm of sport, God-within-us is perhaps epitomized in the experience of flow. Also experienced by accomplished artists and musicians, flow is described by many athletes as being “in the zone”: a state of harmonious union of body and mind wherein the two work together effortlessly, leaving the individual with an undeniable feeling that something special has occurred (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). The Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan was in the zone, for example, in Game 1 of the 1992 National Basketball Association Finals against Portland, when in the first half he sank six 3-point shots. At the time, reportedly, a broadcast crew member gestured at Jordan to as if to ask, “How did you do that?” In reply, Jordan shrugged the famous shrug acknowledging the wonder and mystery of his “out-of-body” experience, the only part of which he understood was that he couldn’t miss! In flow, there is the uncanny realization that what has been experienced is an undeniable sense of peace (“Classic NBA Quotes,” 2008).

The Spiritual Path and Practice

The spiritual path is humankind’s virtuous attempt to navigate toward a life of personal fulfillment and ultimate discovery, embodied in human compassion. Scriptural texts prescribe various codes, practices, and rituals as learning guides on the sacred journey represented by the spiritual path. Within Buddhism, “the Middle Way” is the prescription for enlightenment (Freke, 1998), as follows:

There are two extremes, O Bhikkhus, which he who has given up the world, ought to avoid. . . . By avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata has gained the knowledge of the Middle Path which leads to insight, which leads to wisdom, which conduces to calm, to knowledge . . . to Nirvana (Mahavagga, I, 6, 17–18). (p. 48)

Sport, in its fashion, captures the essence of the Middle Way. An athlete’s success is marked by steady, relevant progress on sturdy grounding—neither surrender to the marshy swampland of lethargy nor a dash to the insecure precipice of training obsession. On one hand, those who study flow report that the seemingly effortless performances of accomplished athletes are anchored in hours of practice, careful attention, and critique. On the other hand, those who study the body’s adaptation to sport training warn of a subtle tipping point at which both strength and spirit are diminished: overtraining.

In shaping their unique paths to success, some athletes have demonstrated one extreme or the other. For example, Allen Iverson, a guard with the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, apparently disgruntled with the intense requirements of the training pilgrimage, persistently and nearly to the point of being comical denies the value of practice. In doing so, he discounts not just his own but his teammates’ sacrifices as they have invested themselves in the pilgrimage. Conversely, Olympic runner Suzy Favor-Hamilton chronicled her resurrection from the perils of an unrelenting training schedule (throughout high school and college she never took one day off from running) accompanied by unscrupulous dieting, noting how excess led to plummeting performance, devastating injuries, and psychological burnout.

Surely, the provisional aspect of the journey is the delicate maneuvering and incredible grounding necessary to balance between life’s extremes. Scripturally, the curious balance required constitutes the fascinating effort–grace paradox, whose analogue in athletics is the tension between the bulging muscle of our personal efforts and the supple support of God’s grace. The spiritual journey’s ultimate mystical destination is our realization and understanding that we are where we need to be, always part of the One, and always remembering the One. The scriptures of Islam are among those that address such truth, as in for instance the Hadith of Tirmidhi, which states, “For everything there is an appropriate way of polishing; the heart’s polishing is the remembrance of God” (Freke, 1998, p. 45). For the athlete, sincere preparation for competition marks the sign of the cross, so to speak, reminding us of this silent, polishing communion with God.

Knowledge and Wisdom as Creativity and Innovation in Sport

Where athletics and sport have the potential to score a spiritual “10” is in the leap from prescribed dictates of a spiritual code, to the realm of experiential knowledge and wisdom. When to the insights bestowed by observant teachers and ingenious coaches athletes add personal knowledge gained from playing, they are freed from limited perception. As the Hindu scripture known as the “Ashtavakra Gita” advises, “Give up conceptualizing altogether. Have no beliefs or concepts of any kind. You are the ever-free Consciousness. How can any thinking help you in any way?” (Freke, 1998). As such, the athlete is a rendering of God’s creation. The knowledgeable athlete redefines the boundaries of his or her game. Freed from defined constructs, the competitor is keenly aware of the self, with its strength and spirit, and in the innovative performances fostered by such freedom, sport’s reality is redefined.

Edson Arantes Do Nascimento, the unassuming, average-sized man better known as Pelé, scored 1,280 goals in 1,360 games over a 20-year career (1956–1977) as he revolutionized the game of soccer. Of his incredible speed and balance, tremendous vision, excellent ball control, and powerful, accurate shooting with either foot and with his head, Pelé has said, “It seems that God brought me to Earth with a mission to play soccer” (Gonzalez, n.d.). Track and field star Dick Fosbury stunned spectators at the 1968 Summer Olympics as his unconventional jumping technique led him to a gold medal in the high jump. Fosbury’s “flop” quickly came to replace traditional dive-and-straddle high jump technique. At the 1972 Olympics, Olga Korbut reinvented gymnastics with feats of athleticism never before seen in the sport. Her back flip–catch off the top of the uneven parallel bars revolutionized gymnastics. Like Pelé and Fosbury, Korbut’s skill mastery fashioned new forms and meanings in the sport. This acknowledgement must be made, however, in the context of such scriptural reminders as Zen Buddhism’s cautionary note on recreated knowledge: It is only “a finger pointing at the moon but not the moon itself,” since human knowing can never match God’s greater wisdom (Freke, 1998).

The “Good Life” and the Team

Religions around the world expect a spiritual follower to live a “good life,” endorsing various codes of righteous behavior. Christians hold fast to the imperatives of the “Ten Commandments”; Buddhists adhere to the “Noble Eightfold Path.” Hindus strive to obey their “Laws of Life”; Taoists pursue the “Natural Way.” All of these faiths’ codes of behavior share in common a conviction that a good life is in the making when a person contributes to the perfection and harmony of a larger whole. But here our human vulnerabilities can be harshly exposed. Tolle (2005) translates and describes sin, the opposite of goodness, as “missing the mark, as an archer who misses the target. . . . [T]o sin means to miss the point of human existence. It means to live unskillfully, blindly and thus to suffer and cause suffering” (p. 9). Tolle adds as well that being good requires a shift in consciousness. For the athlete, such a shift of consciousness comprises the humble displacement of self for the benefit of the team.

Athletes who pursue self-aggrandizement (like their counterparts in domains other than sport) will, the scriptures of various faiths agree, be humbled. In sport, the cost of vice is the destruction of the team and the burden of the whole, which is exponentially greater than the burden of each individual. Even as the National Football League legislated against impudence in the sport, the gods may have shown their take on unnecessary celebration, evening the score—no, raising the New York Giants’ score­—in Super Bowl 2008, after Randy Moss’s audacious appropriation of power over the universe, motioning for the seas to part after a late-game score.

Becoming a good sport suggests personal and interpersonal transformation and is necessary to be a true athlete. The concept of moving beyond the individual self to the collective team may be the most challenging aspect of spirituality in power cultures like professional sports. Tolle’s shift in consciousness is a marked change, and interestingly, the word sport can mean (in a definition employed within the biological sciences) “an organism that shows a marked change from the normal type or parent stock, typically as a result of mutation.”

Unfortunately, as is true of sin and disharmony, denying the collective is tremendously destructive to the individual, the community, and the promise of all that is good in sport. The shift from ego focus to collective consciousness in the world of sport relies on humility, repentance, forgiveness, compassion, and more (the spirit not the letter, perfect liberty). The marring and tarnishing of beauty, grace, and accomplishment is a failure of the whole. Marion Jones, in her public confession of her steroid use, asked forgiveness. She earnestly apologized for besmirching the sport that she had trained so hard for and dedicated her life to; in painfully exposing her failure, she paradoxically revealed her inner strength and goodness. Humans cannot know the individual predicaments that other humans face in their lives, and to reestablish harmony requires empathy and an unwillingness to stand in judgment. Public forgiveness was necessary to reunite Jones with the community. As Islamic scriptural text maintains, “The best deed of a great man is to forgive and forget”; or as Judaism’s Talmud phrases it, “When we know we are all one . . . forgiveness is natural” (Freke, 1998).

Love and Service Seen As Sportsmanship

The most seemingly absurd association between spirituality and sport is the notion that the spiritual undertaking of love and service coexists with athletic achievement and success—victory over others. But it is the connection between compassion and sport that can be most inspiring. Sport provides an alternative impression of the clash between collective egos, the us versus them. As Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson wrote in his book Sacred Hoops, “There has to be another way, an approach that honors the humanity of both sides while recognizing that only one victor can emerge. . . . a wide-angle view of competition that encompasses both opponents as partners in the dance.” Ultimately, Jackson (1995) compares competition and sport to battle, stating that, “The challenge of warriorship is to step out of the cocoon, to step out into space, by being brave and at the same time gentle” (Jackson, 1995). This unconventional model of competition builds not on humiliation, power, and aggression but on honor, respect, and yielding. Such mutual respect and admiration is seen in the world of sport. Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns, for example, and Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks demonstrate fierce competitiveness while maintaining the integrity of a several-year friendship.

Devotion and Worship Seen As Love of the Game

While healthy competition and sportsmanship define the promise of the sport experience, when athletes play with special reverence for the tradition and legacy of “the game,” they achieve an even higher level of consciousness. Spiritual mystics have long affirmed and expressed the sacredness of life and celestial wonders through dedicated worship and praise. In a similar way, devoted athletes may demonstrate their respect and honor for the game through gestures observed as ritual. Ritual, according to Marty (1998), comprises conscious, voluntary, repetitious and stylized symbolic bodily actions, centered on cosmic structures and/or sacred presences; sport, Marty continues, thus embraces ritual, since “Sports involve sacrifice of energy and limb . . . [and] who sacrifices without ritual?”

In Sacred Hoops, Jackson describes how he adopted Vince Lombardi’s ritual of “crossing the line.” Lombardi, legendary football coach who led the Green Bay Packers to five league championships in his nine years of coaching, asked his players to walk over the line, symbolically confirming their consent and commitment to practice every day. By creating a sacred space with Lakota symbols of balance, harmony, power, prosperity, and good fortune, Jackson similarly established a holy sanctuary within which athletes mindfully attend to the task at hand. Such rituals and symbols establish an atmosphere of mindful attention to purpose. Freke (1998) notes that Judaism’s “Book of the Secrets of Enoch” states, “It is good to go morning, midday, and evening into the Lord’s dwelling, for the glory of your creator. Because every breathing thing glorifies him and every creature visible and invisible returns him praise” (p. 111).

Fate and Free Will and the “Miracle and Madness”

While rituals may help us organize and fashion that which is so vulnerable and unpredictable in our lives, ultimately the spiritual uncertainty of free will and fate emerge. The investment of whatever amount of energy, commitment, and rite does not guarantee success. As Freke (1998) noted, “Human life is the interaction of fate and freedom of choice” (p. 120). Spiritually, we are advised to make choices pursuant to the good life; we are reminded that we cannot control the world and that God is in the driver’s seat. We can only control our responses to what befalls us. Judaism acknowledges the spiritual paradox and mystical truth that fate and human will mysteriously coincide, that life leads us along the road that we have actually chosen. Jewish spiritual text, as cited in Freke, holds that “Everything is foreknown, but man is free” (p. 36). The doctrine of karma, too, explains fate as the outcome of our previous choices. But lightning strikes, and stunning rainbows emerge from dreary skies.

There is no better illustration of this paradox than the miracles and madness of sport—unexplained victories and devastating, unpredictable losses. The United States ice hockey team’s 4–3 victory over the Soviet Union during the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics has been called the “miracle on ice.” The Russian team was in peak form and comprised both mature veterans and ambitious young talent; it had just annihilated the National Hockey League all-star team 6–0 in the deciding game of a challenge series. It was unfathomable that a team of U.S. college players had a chance against such fierce competition. Certainly U.S. players’ strenuous conditioning and meticulous strategic and tactical preparation had an impact, but it has struck many experts that nothing short of a miracle allowed them to emerge victorious (Fitzpatrick, 2008). Observing such turns of event in sport, we realize we are not necessarily in control—an understanding that returns us to the sheer joy of child’s play and surrender to the moment.

Death and the Big Picture (Field of Dreams)

Sacred scripture intimates that by examining our beliefs about and attitudes toward death, we become truly free to live our authentic lives. Similarly for the athlete, the desperation of a defeat, devastation of injury, or struggle of a losing season can bring perspective, making the opportunity to play more pleasurable. Mortality certainly helps define humankind’s place in the big picture; acknowledging it as our own, we become enraptured of the pleasures of participating in life. The Shinto religion offers a scripture (Tenrikyo Ofudesaki 3.41) that says, “All human bodies are things lent by god. With what thought are you using yours?” (Freke, 1998, p. 142). Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, at 38 playing a sport that most athletes survive in for only a handful of years, has achieved many football mileposts, for example most wins by a starting quarterback, most consecutive games played by a quarterback, and most touchdown passes thrown. But his physical achievements pale next to his fervor to stay in the game despite numerous setbacks. He nearly died in a car accident; was diagnosed with avascular necrosis, a degenerative hip condition; lost his father and also his brother-in-law in accidents; watched his wife battle breast cancer; and saw his hometown ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Favre admits to behaving recklessly on field and off at points in his past, but we have seen him mature without losing any of his youthful love for of football. Shipnuck (2007) explains that Favre’s favorite career memories are not what might be expected:

‘The funny thing is, it’s not only about the touchdowns and the big victories. If I were to make a list, I would include the interceptions, the sacks, the really painful losses. Those times when I’ve been down, when I’ve been kicked around, I hold on to those. In a way those are the best times I’ve ever had, because that’s when I’ve found out who I am. And what I want to be.’

In confronting our own challenging moments, athletes and the rest of us realize a personal potential that surpasses human understanding and the typical experiences of life. We discover our innate potential and embody the full measure of life’s opportunities.

The Spiritual Sage and the Sport Hero

Occasionally there emerge from among us mortals who, like the society of saints, challenge and inspire us with their lives of transcendence. We are awakened by their selfless compassion and stand in awe of the harmony they create with all others as they accept life on its terms. They are spiritual sages or spiritual heroes, projecting what a human was truly created to be. The dutiful sport hero models the same wholeness in living. According to Buddhist scripture, enlightenment is gained when we see that suffering in life is diminished by moving from the ignorance of separation to the knowledge of wholeness, which is our true enlightened nature. As Freke (1998), explains, the enlightened have “traveled from the ignorance of separation to the further shore of enlightenment . . . concerned with relieving the suffering of others” (p. 166).

Sacred scripture variously affirms that the spiritual sage is characterized by humility and compassion (Jewish, Christian); by detached selflessness (Hindu); and/or by integrity, respectfulness, and unwillingness to stand in judgment of another (East Asian thought generally). The ethical sport hero exemplifies the same qualities. Baseball hall of fall honoree Roberto Clemente came to the Pittsburgh Pirates from humble beginnings as the youngest of seven in a family in Puerto Rico. When he died in the 1972 crash of a plane enroute to deliver relief supplies to survivors of the great earthquake in Nicaragua, his remarkable accomplishments in his sport (lifetime batting average of .371 with 240 homeruns and 1,305 RBI) were preempted by his dedication to others. According to Price (2001), Peter Williams describes Clemente’s martyr-like status as resulting from two characteristics, (a) that Clemente died without warning and (b) his ethical heroism was primarily active:

In other words he died, as he had lived, doing charitable work for the disadvantaged. In this, he was very much a hero in tune with the social activism of his time; and the response to his death, showing an awareness of this, ended by strengthening a heroic image that was already established.” (p. 102)

In offering a perspective on such a state of self-actualization, the Buddhist Diamond Sutra explains that enlightened beings cannot even think of themselves as enlightened, for this would involve the idea of a self, whereas “enlightenment is an impersonal happening, not a personal achievement” (Freke, 1989, p. 170).

As we head into the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, this discussion reminds us of the fundamental nature of sport: its surge of innocent vitality, its ingenuous dance with others, its trusting application of ourselves to the challenge. Among others, Johann Olav Koss, a four-time Olympic speed skating medalist and three-time world record holder, has argued there is a basic human need for play, sport, athletics. Witnessing children confined to an Ethiopian refugee camp playing soccer in the dirt with a rolled-up shirt as ball, he resolved to work on such children’s behalf “until everyone believes in Olympic Aid’s motto: ‘Every child has the right to play’” (Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee, 2008). The Jesuit scholar Hugo Rahner (cited in Lawrence, 2005) in his writings emphasizes the spiritual force of play and sport. “To play,” he explains, “is to yield oneself to a kind of magic . . . to enter a world where different laws apply, to be relieved of all the weights that bear it down, to be free, kingly, unfettered and divine.” In tossing the apple, we play, create, cooperate, challenge, dream, and grow.

Reference List

Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. (n.d.). Olympic stories: Johann Koss. Retrieved May 2, 2008, from education/stories/n214077679.shtml

Favor-Hamilton, S., & Antonio, J. (2004). Fast track: Training and nutrition from America’s top female distance runner. New York: Holtzbrinck.

Fitzpatrick, J. (n.d.). Hockey—Miracle on ice: American hockey’s defining moment: How the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team created its “miracle on ice.” Retrieved May 2, 2008, from

Freke, T. (1998). The illustrated book of sacred scriptures. New Alresford, Hampshire, England: Godsfield Press.

Gonzalez, O. (n.d.). Latino legends in sports: Edson Arantes “Pele” Nascimento. Retrieved May 2, 2008, from

Jackson, P., & Delehanty, H. (1995). Sacred hoops: Spiritual lessons of a hardwood warrior. New York: Hyperion.

Jackson, S. A. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in sports: The keys to optimal experiences and performances. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Lawrence, I. (2005, April 8). The emergence of “sport and spirituality” in popular culture. The Sport Journal, 2(8). Retrieved May 2, 2008, from

Marty, M. E. (1998, August). Last word: Ritual in sports, sports as ritual. The Park Ridge Center Bulletin, 5. Retrieved May 2, 2008, from

National Basketball Association (n.d.). NBA encyclopedia playoff edition: Classic NBA quotes: Michael Jordan. Retrieved May 2, 2008, from

Price, J. L. (Ed.). (2001). From season to season: Sports as American religion. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

Shipnuck, A. (2007, December 3). 2007 Sportsman of the Year. Sports Illustrated. Retrieved May 2, 2008, from

Tolle, Eckhart. (2005). A new earth: Awakening to your life’s purpose. New York: Penguin.

The Emergence of ‘Sport and Spirituality’ in popular culture


Sports and spirituality may be an oxymoron. What could be less spiritual than ‘big business’ sports? This paper serves to review the apparent growth in ‘spirituality’ as a concept within wider society and its relevance to the world of sport. It will examine how sport in modern society is arguably the new spirituality.


Sports are clearly more important than ever to both the individual and society in economic, cultural and financial terms. Take for example, the growth of the Olympic Movement. Increases in broadcast revenue over the past two decades have provided the Olympic Movement and sport with an unprecedented financial base. From 1984 until 2008, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has concluded broadcast agreements worth more than US$ 10 billion (IOC, July, 2004). In the United States alone, General Electric and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) paid the IOC $3.5 billion for the broadcasting rights for all winter and summer Olympics between 2000 and 2008 (Phillips, 1999). The appeal of sport as a televisual spectacle is not in dispute (Lash and Urry, 1994). The mass appeal of sport is something that is clearly not lost upon the commercial organisations spending $2.4 million for a 30 second advertising slot on what is traditionally the highest rated programme of the year, the 2005 superbowl (Nader, 2005). Displays of what in traditional religious vernacular could be termed liturgy and ritual and mass idolatry are part of the fabric of the game and the fourteen day build-up.

This article will attempt to analyse the use of sports in the 21 st Century as a vehicle for spiritual upliftment in the place of contemporary religion.

The Collapse of Orthodox Religion

The dramatic growth in the popularity of sports is in sharp contrast to the near collapse of formal or orthodox religions in many countries (Robertson, 2004). Inglehart and Baker (2000) observe that “not only has weekly church attendance plunged, but Latin American countries are now sending missionaries to ‘save the souls’ of their former colonizers” (p.20)

Further testimony to the decline of ‘formal’ religion is provided by the UK experience. The results of the Social Trends Survey (2002) demonstrated that approximately 24% of the UK population attended a sports event as a spectator, while half of all adults aged 18 who belonged to a religion have never attended a religious service. Religion, particularly Christianity is in numerical decline throughout the Western world. William Docherty, a professor at the University of Minnesota, notes that children’s participation in religious activities has decreased by 40% from 1981 to 1997 (cited in Hofferth, 2001).

Spirituality’ through Sport?

Whilst dissatisfaction and alienation from traditional religious practices is increasing, there is a continuing, if not growing interest in the concept of “spirituality” (Lipsyte, 1973; Novak, 1993). The term “spirituality” is evidently an emotive and contentious one. “Some people, especially baby-boomers, reject the idea of religion, but believe they are ‘spiritual’” (Roberts, 2004, p.9). This perception may require networks to allow the individual to develop their own concept of spirituality. In sports spirituality is cultivated through allegiance or commitment to a team, either as a fan or as a spectator. Themes within sport may also typically include freedom and escape from normal life, discovery of meaning in life, commitment to a set of ethics and possibly a rediscovery of play in its purest sense.

People statistically may not want church (if evidence of declining attendance is accepted), but they do appear to question a purely materialistic view of life. They want to believe in something more, even if they do not know-or want to know – what that something is (Hamilton, 1995). The growth in the popularity of sports may be in part explained by society’s emphasis on “individualism” in the 21 st Century (Blake and John, 2003). Arguably, the more individualistic the society, the more intensely people may need some means of regaining a sense of group identity.

The research of psychologist Abraham Maslow (1968) may help to partially explain the way in which spectator sports act as a means of fulfilling individuals’ spiritual needs to belong. Maslow placed the “sense of belonging” halfway up his hierarchy of needs, with self-actualisation at the top. The need to belong is commonly regarded as a crucial part of an individual’s support of a sports team. However, only the athletes themselves reach the top and experience self-actualisation, spectators experience it vicariously. Theoretically, when people fail at discovering meaning in their lives they may use sports to fill this vacuum. Through sport individuals potentially find meaning in life.

Sport and Spirituality – harmful to the spirit?

Sport is clearly one of the most successful ways of taking up time in an activity which, from a Marxist perspective, may have no “utilitarian value” (Jakubowski, 1990, p.86). For many it may be a total irrelevance. Take the joke concerning golf ruining a beautiful walk in the countryside. Carroll (1998) argues that this view neglects the notion of “anima mundi” or soul. Sport for the ancient Greeks and Romans represented an avenue to find the connection to soul. The battle, whether it is on the golf course or in the boxing ring offers this opportunity to re-connect to the soul.

The enthusiasm to participate in sport, either vicariously as a spectator or directly as a participant may be intrinsic. Testimony to this manifests itself in a child’s playful actions (Trotsky, 1994). The desire and enthusiasm to engage in distraction and play may be intrinsic to the human psyche, but Trotsky argues that in order that “spiritual requirements may flourish it is necessary that physical requirements be fully satisfied”. (Trotsky,1994, p.28). As the Jesuit scholar Hugo Rahner has put it; “To play is to yield oneself to a kind of magic … to enter a world where different laws apply, to be relieved of all the weights that bear it down, to be free, kingly, unfettered and divine” (cited in Prebish,1993, p.211).

The above is potentially reinforced through sport with its inherent ideals of “fair play” and “codes of conduct” enshrined in the rules and regulations. This is disputed, however by George Orwell in his essay, “The Sporting Spirit” written in 1945 where he comments upon the nature of modern sport, concluding that it has nothing to do with fair play. “It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence; in other words war minus the shooting” (Orwell,1945, pp.62-3).

Does the pursuit of sport harm the spirit? The prevalence of cheating and drug abuse does seem to challenge this aspiration of a connection to a “higher calling”. Does spirit become severed in elite sport? This question raises the issue of “sportsmanship” or the practice of ethical behaviour in modern sports. Sportsmanship is characterised by notions of civility and is “a matter of being good (character) and doing right (action) in sports” (Grough, 1997, p.21). Fair play and sportsmanship are challenged by what many regard as increased emphasis on a philosophy of “win at all costs” (Pilz, 1995). The impact of the coach is crucial in mediating the importance of sportsmanship and with it the notion of a games inherent spirituality. How individuals reconcile “the shifting definitions of sportsmanship with the objective of winning” (Buford May, 2001, p.387) is a complex task.


The intrinsic appeal of sport for many people is the uncertainty of outcome. Historically, however, this has never prevented mankind from attempting to tip the balance of uncertainty through various forms of cheating; indeed, the emphasis upon victory in sport defies and corrupts the ethics of fair play. If sport does indeed offer a vehicle with which to fill the spiritual void left by the demise of traditional forms of religion, it may do well to adopt the Buddhist philosophy which states that “Life is a journey”. When sports and spirituality are passengers, is the destination cynicism? Every journey requires an ending.


  1. Blake, J., John, A. (2003) The world according to Margaret Thatcher. Michael O’Mara Books.
  2. Buford May, R. A.(2001).The Sticky Situation of Sportsmanship: Contexts and Contradictions in Sportsmanship among High School Basketball Players. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Vol 25, No.4, pp.372-389. Sage Publications
  3. Carroll, J. (1998) Ego and Soul: the Modern West in Search of Meaning. Harper Collins
  4. Grough, R. (1997) Character is everything: Promoting excellence in sports. New York: Harcourt Brace College.
  5. Hamilton, M. (1995) The Sociology of Religion. Routledge.
  6. Hargreaves, J. (1982) Sport, Power and Ideology. Routledge Kegan and Paul.
  7. Hofferth, S.L “Changes in American Children’s Time, 1981-1997.” University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, Center Survey, January, 1999. National probability samples of American families with children ages 3-12, using time diary data from 1981 and 1997. Findings on how time use is associated with children’s well-being are reported in Hofferth, S. L. (2001). How American Children Spend Their Time. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63, 295-308.
  8. Inglehart, R. F., Baker, W.E. (2000) Modernization, Cultural Change, and the Persistence of Traditional Values. American Sociological Review Volume 65, Number 1. February 2000. pp. 19-52
  9. International Olympic Committee (IOC) Television Rights. July, 2004. Retrieved from
  10. Jackubowski, F. (1990) Ideology and Superstructure in Historical Materialism. Pluto Press
  11. Lash, S., Urry, J. (1994) Economics of signs and space.Sage
  12. Lipsyte, R. (1975)SportsWorld: An American Dreamland.NY: Quadrangle/New York Times
  13. Maslow, A. H. (1968) Toward a Psychology of Being, D. Van Nostrand Company
  14. Novak, M. (1993) The Joy of Sports End Zones, Bases, Baskets, Balls and the Consecration of the American Spirit. Madison Books
  15. Nader, R. (2005) Superbowl advertising. Progressive Retrieved from
  16. Orwell, G. (2000) Collected Essays, Journalism and letters of George Orwell, volume 4, 1945-1950, Penguin Publishers, pp.62-3
  17. Phillips, R. (1999) Big Business Demands a Corporate Olympics. Retrieved from
  18. Pilz, G.A. (1995) Performance sport: Education in fair play? International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 30,391-418
  19. Prebish, C. S. (1993) Religion and Sport: The Meeting of Sacred and Profane. Greenwood Press
  20. Roberts, K. A. (2004) Religion in Sociological Perspective. Thomson
  21. Robertson, T. (2004) Religion Losing To Youth Sports On Weekends. Boston Globe. February 16th 2004
  22. Social Trends Survey. No.32.(2002) The Stationary Office Editors: Jil Matheson Penny Babb London: The Stationery Office ( Retrieved from theme_social/Social_Trends32/Social_Trends32.pdf –
  23. Trotsky, L. (1994) Problems of Everyday Life. Pathfinder Press.

Spiritual Experiences: Understanding Their Subjective Nature in Peak Performance

Authors: Lynda Flower

Corresponding Author:
Lynda Flower, MA
The University of Queensland
Brisbane, Australia
+ 61 481 735 994

Lynda Flower is an Honorary Research Fellow (Studies in Religion), Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

Over the past thirty years, sport and spirituality has grown into a major international research discipline. Of particular interest has been the reported spiritual experiences of athletes during peak performance. With many athletes interpreting peak episodes such as the ‘runners high’ as having not only physiological but also spiritual aspects it is becoming increasingly important that these altered states of consciousness are clearly understood.

While current best practice peak performance coaching acknowledges the importance of physical and mental enhancements such as injury prevention, nutrition, communication, goal setting, and athlete development the spiritual component is often overlooked. In order to provide greater understanding and a context for coaching, this paper will review the origins and historical development of spiritual transcendent states in the West from medieval times, the early 1900s, the postmodern and New Age era, and present day occurrences in sport.

Continue reading

Strength of Religious Faith of Athletes and Nonathletes at Two NCAA Division III Institutions


Strength of religious faith of athletes and nonathletes attending (a) a religiously practicing institution (RPI) and (b) a non–religiously practicing (NRPI) institution in NCAA’s Division III was studied using the Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire. A 2 × 2 × 2 ANOVA sought differences in strength of faith of RPI students (n = 201) versus NRPI students (n = 174). Results show RPI students displayed stronger faith than NRPI students, F(1, 367) = 25.44, p < .01. A significant interaction showed RPI nonathletes more faithful than RPI athletes, F(1, 367) = 6.73, p < .05; NRPI athletes did not differ significantly from NRPI nonathletes. Women’s faith was stronger than men’s, F(1, 367) = 12.99, p < .01.

Strength of Religious Faith of Athletes and Nonathletes at Two NCAA Division III Institutions

An increase in research examining the purpose of religion in the lives of intercollegiate athletes has occurred in recent years (Balague, 1999; Storch & Storch, 2002a; Storch & Storch, 2002b; Storch, Storch, & Adams, 2002; Storch, Storch, Kovacs, Okun, & Welsh, 2003). Religion can be an important aspect in athletes’ lives and may serve a protective function against psychological distress and maladaptive behaviors such as substance use or aggression (Storch, Roberti, Bravata, & Storch, 2004). Viewers of sporting events can frequently observe athletes pointing to the sky, engaging in team prayer on the court or field, and glorifying God following athletic competitions.

Numerous studies report athletes to be more religious than nonathletes (Fischer, 1997; Storch, Kolsky, Silvestri, & Storch, 2001; Storch et al., 2004). According to Storch, Kolsky, Silvestri, and Storch (2001), four reasons may explain why religion interacts with athletic performance. First, athletes may identify with religious beliefs for direction and humility. Second, athletes may turn to religion to gain a sense of optimism and security, benefiting from such beliefs following a disappointing athletic performance. Third, religion can be used for emotional and psychological support in stressful circumstances like the uncertainty of athletic competition, which can cause athletes an overwhelming amount of anxiety. Religious beliefs can offer the internal strength to persevere through the stress. Fourth, religion “provides a cognitive framework conducive to the relief of anxiety associated with competition” (Storch et al., 2001, p. 347). This framework allows relief from fear and anxiety on the basis of the athlete’s understanding (i.e., belief) that a supreme being is in complete control of the situation. For example, athletes may rely on religious faith to place a poor athletic performance in perspective.

Although research investigating the impact of religion within sports has recently increased, an abundance of such literature does not yet exist. Studies that are currently available of religion’s impact on the lives of students, in particular, have focused on athletes and nonathletes at National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I institutions (Fischer, 1997; Storch et al., 2001; Storch et al., 2004). There is a significant shortage of literature assessing religiosity in athletes in other collegiate settings, for example at institutions in the NCAA Division II, NCAA Division III, National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), or National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA). An athlete’s experience in any of these unique university environments may have a significant effect on his or her athletic, academic, and social development. In examining students at NCAA Division III institutions, the present study addressed this shortage. In addition, it is the first published investigation comparing the level of religious faith of athletes and nonathletes attending a religiously practicing institution (RPI). Given religion’s importance to the lives of many athletes (Balague, 1999), a need existed to investigate the impact of religion on students attending an NCAA Division III RPI and an NCAA Division III non–religiously practicing institution (NRPI).

The study’s purpose was to assess and compare the strength of religious faith characterizing athletes and nonathletes at an institution of each type. Acknowledging the impact of religious faith may help coaches understand athletes and may help clinicians and sports consultants develop appropriate interventions for athletes who are religious. For example, psychological interventions designed for sports, for example relaxation and visualization techniques, may make some religious athletes uncomfortable, if such psychological methods create a feeling of dissonance with the athletes’ religious creeds. Furthermore, knowledge of the role of religion in an athlete’s life can enhance the athlete-sports consultant relationship, as well as facilitate communication between the athlete and coach (Storch & Farber, 2002; Storch et al., 2001).

The following research questions guided this study:

  • Were there significant differences in strength of religious faith between students attending an NCAA Division III RPI and students attending an NCAA Division III NRPI?
  • Were there significant differences in strength of religious faith between athletes and nonathletes attending an NCAA Division III RPI?
  • Were there significant differences in strength of religious faith between athletes and nonathletes attending an NCAA Division III NRPI?
  • Were there significant gender differences in strength of religious faith of athletes and nonathletes attending the NCAA Division III RPI and the NCAA Division III NRPI?



The population for this study was undergraduate students enrolled at two institutions in the Midwest that have intercollegiate athletic programs competing at the NCAA Division III level. One institution was deemed an RPI, for purposes of the study, because of its membership in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) and the mandatory chapel/worship services and religion courses students must attend. The other institution was deemed an NRPI, because it was not a member of CCCU and had not established religious requirements for its students. The RPI and NRPI codes used in the present investigation were developed by the primary researcher.

Of the study participants, 53.60% attended the RPI (n = 201), while 46.40% attended the NRPI (n = 174). Compiled demographics for the RPI and NRPI participants showed their average age to be 20.19 years (SD = 2.60). The youngest participant age was 18 years, the oldest 41 years; 53.60% of the participants were female (n = 201), and 46.40% were male (n = 174). Participants reported their ethnicity as follows: white/Caucasian (89.30%), African American (6.10%), Asian American (0.08%), Hispanic American (0.05%), Native American (0.03%), and other (2.90%). Freshman and sophomore students contributed 62.40% of the participant pool (see Table 1). The distribution of the participants in terms of their academic status or year at the institution was an accurate reflection of institution-wide distribution by academic status at each institution. Concerning current athletic participation, 53.30% of the participants did not currently participate in intercollegiate sports (n = 200), while 46.70% of the students did currently compete in intercollegiate sports (n = 175). The four sports in which the athletes in the sample most commonly participated were football, multiple sports, track and field, and basketball (see Table 2). Most participants indicated their religious affiliation was either Protestant (n = 111) or nondenominational (n = 110) (see Table 3).

Table 1

Frequencies and Percentages by Year at the Institution (i.e., Academic Status), Athletes and Nonathletes

Year Frequency (n) Percentage
Freshman 102 27.2
Sophomore 132 35.2
Junior 79 21.1
Senior 62 16.5

Table 2

Frequencies and Percentages by Sport(s) Played, Athletes Only

Sport Frequency (n) Percentage
Football 44 25.1
Multiple sports 37 21.1
Track and field 22 12.6
Basketball 20 11.4
Volleyball 17 10.0
Golf 11 6.2
Baseball 6 3.4
Soccer 5 2.9
Softball 2 1.1
Cross country 2 1.1
Tennis 2 1.1
Cheerleading 2 1.1
No response 3 1.7

Table 3

Frequencies and Percentages by Individual Religious Affiliation, Athletes and Nonathletes

Religious Affiliation Frequency (n) Percentage
Protestant 111 29.60
Catholic 42 11.20
Nondenominational 110 29.30
No affiliation 30 8.00
Other 81 21.90
No response 1 .03


The present study used the Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire (SCSRFQ), developed by Plante and Boccaccini (1997). Additionally, a demographic assessment created by the primary researcher was used to collect information on age, gender, ethnicity, institution attended, year at institution (i.e., academic status), current participation in intercollegiate athletics, sport(s) played, and religious affiliation.

The SCSRFQ is a 10-item inventory assessing strength of religious faith regardless of religion or denomination, using statements such as “My religious faith is important to me” and “I look to my faith as a source of comfort.” Items are scored with a 4-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = agree, 4 = strongly agree), and higher scores indicate greater strength of religious faith. A cumulative score for the strength of religious faith is determined by summing the individual scores for each item. Cumulative scores may range from 10 (low strength of religious faith) to 40 (high strength of religious faith). Analyses have determined that the SCSRFQ has well-established psychometric properties. Its internal reliability is high (Cronbach’s alpha = .95) as is its split-half reliability (r = .92) (Plante & Boccaccini, 1997). In addition, an investigation by Plante, Yancey, Sherman, Guertin, and Pardini (1999) found the SCSRFQ to be significantly correlated with various measures of religiosity, including the Duke Religion Index (Koenig, Parkerson, & Meador, 1997), which assesses religious involvement; the Age Universal Religious Orientation Scale (Gorsuch & Venable, 1983), which examines both intrinsic and extrinsic religiousness; and the Intrinsic Religious Motivation Scale (Hoge, 1972), which measures religious motivation.


Participants were recruited in selected psychology classes and from selected intercollegiate athletic teams at the two institutions. Both introductory psychology classes and more advanced psychology classes were included, creating a more balanced representation (by both age and academic major) of the participating institutions. The subsample of athletes was obtained by surveying selected male and female intercollegiate athletic teams at each institution; data from athletes whose teams had not been selected but who participated in the study through a selected psychology class were also included in the data analysis for athletes. All participants completed a packet comprising a demographic assessment and the SCSRFQ.


Prior to addressing the research questions, descriptive statistics were calculated for the three independent variables of interest, which were gender, current athletic participation, and institution attended (see Table 4). Following these analyses, a 2 × 2 × 2 ANOVA (Gender × Current Athletic Participation × Institution Attended) was utilized to explore significant differences between various participants’ strength of religious faith (see Table 5). The 2 × 2 × 2 ANOVA addressed each research question, the first of which asked whether significant differences in strength of religious faith distinguished students attending an NCAA Division III RPI from those attending an NCAA Division III NRPI. The results showed a significant main effect for institution attended, F(1, 367) = 25.44, p < .01. Students attending the RPI and those attending the NRPI differed in terms of the strength of their religious faith. Specifically, participants attending the RPI (M = 32.99, SD = 6.65) reported stronger religious faith than participants attending the NRPI (M = 29.09, SD = 7.02).

The second research question inquired whether significant differences in strength of religious faith differentiated athletes attending the NCAA Division III RPI from nonathletes at the same institution. The results showed a significant interaction for Athlete × Institution Attended, F(1, 367) = 6.73, p < .05. Athletes at the RPI differed significantly from nonathletes there, in terms of the strength of their religious faith. Specifically, the RPI nonathletes (M = 34.43, SD = 5.25) reported stronger religious faith than the RPI athletes (M = 30.76, SD = 7.89).

The third research question asked whether the strength of religious faith of athletes attending the NCAA Division III NRPI differed significantly from the strength of religious faith of nonathletes attending that NRPI. As already noted, the data analysis showed a significant Athlete × Institution Attended interaction, F(1, 367) = 6.73, p < .05. However, the strength of religious faith reported in this study by athletes attending the NRPI did not differ significantly from that of the nonathletes at that NRPI. Specifically, the NRPI athletes (M = 29.09, SD = 6.63) reported the strength of their religious faith to be at a level similar to that of the NRPI nonathletes (M = 29.08, SD = 7.52).

The fourth research question concerned whether significant gender differences in strength of religious faith existed among students attending the NCAA Division III RPI and NRPI. The results indicated a significant main effect for gender, F(1, 367) = 12.99, p < .01. Female and male participants differed significantly in terms of the strength of their religious faith. Specifically, females (M = 32.77, SD = 6.41) reported stronger religious faith than males (M = 29.33, SD = 7.39). Despite this finding, however, no significant interactions were found for Gender × Athlete, F(1, 367) = 2.94, p > .05, or Gender × Institution Attended, F(1, 367) = 0.16, p > .05.

Table 4

Descriptive Statistics for Gender, Institution Attended, and Current Athletic Participation

Gender Athlete Institution M SD n
Male No RPI 34.23 4.52 30
NRPI 27.32 8.01 25
Total 31.09 7.18 55
Yes RPI 28.57 8.27 49
NRPI 28.49 6.75 70
Total 28.52 7.38 119
Total RPI 30.72 7.56 79
NRPI 28.18 7.08 95
Total 29.33 7.39 174
Female No RPI 34.49 5.49 92
NRPI 29.91 7.20 53
Total 32.82 6.53 145
Yes RPI 34.33 5.74 30
NRPI 30.73 6.10 26
Total 32.66 6.13 56
Total RPI 34.45 5.53 122
NRPI 30.18 6.83 79
Total 32.77 6.41 201
Total No RPI 34.43 5.25 122
NRPI 29.08 7.52 78
Total 32.34 6.74 200
Yes RPI 30.76 7.89 79
NRPI 29.08 6.63 96
Total 29.85 7.25 175

Table 5

2 × 2 × 2 ANOVA for Gender, Institution Attended, and Current Athletic Participation

Variables Sum of squares df MS F
Gender 562.16 1 562.16 12.99**
Athlete 70.08 1 70.08 1.62
InAt 1,101.13 1 1,101.13 25.44**
Gender X athlete 127.06 1 127.06 2.94
Gender X InAt 6.79 1 6.79 0.16
Athlete X InAt 291.36 1 291.36 6.73*
Gender X athlete X InAt 162.82 1 162.82 3.76
Error 15,884.35 367
Total 383,288.25 375
Corrected total 18,778.46 374

Note. InAt = institution attended.

*p < .05. **p < .01.


In terms of the first research question, analyses showed that students attending the RPI reported stronger religious faith than students attending the NRPI. Religious institutions tend to appeal to students, whether athletes or nonathletes, who adhere to the religious beliefs and ideals the institutions promote. For example, a high school senior who values his or her Christian beliefs may apply to a college expected to provide a venue for strengthening those beliefs. In this study, then, the strength of the religious faith of students attending the RPI may be greater than that of students at the NRPI because Christian universities tend to attract and recruit highly religious individuals. In addition, according to the findings of Arnett and Jensen (as cited in Barry & Nelson, 2005), “emerging adulthood may be best characterized as a time during which young people: (a) question the beliefs in which they are raised, (b) place greater emphasis on individual spirituality and affiliation with a religious institution, and (c) pick and choose the aspects of religion that suit them best” (p. 246). At an NRPI, students may be exposed to secular viewpoints and perspectives during their academic experience. Professors at non–religiously practicing institutions often do not promote a certain religion, and they may deliberately keep their classrooms free of discussion on religion and spirituality. In contrast, students attending the RPI involved in this study were required by the institution to attend weekly religious services and to enroll in religion courses, which constitute part of the institution’s core curriculum. In addition, professors at Christian institutions tend to intertwine religion and academics by seeking the “integration of Christian faith with the living and learning experiences” (Schroeder & Scribner, 2006, p. 40). These reasons help explain the finding that students attending the RPI reported stronger religious faith than students attending the NRPI.

Concerning the second research question, analyses showed that the nonathletes attending the RPI reported stronger religious faith than the athletes at that RPI. Prior to the present research, most studies comparing the religiosity of athletes and nonathletes had been conducted at NCAA Division I public institutions and had suggested that athletes were more religious than nonathletes (Fischer, 1997; Storch et al., 2001; Storch et al., 2004). The results of the present study appear to contradict the published literature, although the contradiction may be substantially explained by society’s glorification of winning in athletics. That is, even at religiously practicing institutions, coaches feel pressure to win. Coaches at Christian institutions may tend to incorporate prayer in athletic practices and competitions, to make decisions based on Christian ideals, and to strive to be Christian role models (Schroeder & Scribner, 2006). In a context of athletics, they may work to teach such Christian values as self-discipline, hard work, perseverance, humility, and graciousness. But athletic success, even at Christian institutions, stems directly from the number of victories accumulated by a team. A victorious athletic program can be used as a “platform to market the college and encourage people in the community to have a connection with the institution, through sports” (Schroeder & Scribner, 2006, p. 49). Resulting pressure to win may lead even coaches at religious institutions to recruit athletes based on athletic ability rather than commitment to Christian beliefs. The adequacy of this explanation offers a topic for subsequent investigation focusing on recruiting practices of coaches at religiously practicing institutions versus those of coaches at non–religiously practicing institutions.

The present statistical analyses generated no significant results related to the third research question, in that athletes at the NRPI involved in this study reported the strength of their religious faith to be at a level similar to that reported by nonathletes at the NRPI. This result does not support previously published findings for athletes and nonathletes at NCAA Division I institutions (Fischer, 1997; Storch et al., 2001; Storch et al., 2004). It may, then, indicate a role for institutional environment. The NCAA Division III NRPI involved in the present study was located in the Midwest, a region in which residents typically adhere to conservative ideals and values. The cited investigations at NCAA Division I institutions were conducted in other regions of the United States, where moral standards may differ from those in the Midwest. Furthermore, it may be true that, in general, an NRPI in NCAA’s Division III may offer an institutional environment that more closely resembles the institutional environment of an NCAA Division I institution than that of an RPI in Division III.

As for the fourth research question, the present analyses showed that females reported stronger religious faith than males, a result supporting the majority of the previous research. Specifically, studies have found females to obtain higher intrinsic spirituality scores (Knox, Langehough, Walters, & Rowley, 1998), to pray more frequently, and to attend church more often than males (Francis, 1997b). In addition, a study of athletes and nonathletes by Storch et al. (2001) found that female athletes and female nonathletes (as well as male athletes) reported a higher degree of religiousness than male nonathletes did. Another study suggested that females may derive greater spiritual benefits than males from a Christian college experience (Ma, 2003). Perhaps such results can be explained by socialization factors. According to previous research, in general females have been taught to be relatively submissive, passive, obedient, nurturing, and gentle, as compared to males (Miller & Hoffmann, 1995; Thompson, 1991). Expressive personality characteristics like these are associated with higher levels of religiosity (Miller & Hoffmann, 1995) and have been categorized as a feminine gender orientation (Thompson, 1991). In other words, females (and males) who exhibit these personality characteristics tend to be more religious than females (and males) who do not exhibit them (Francis, 1997a). Perhaps, then, researchers should begin examining differences in religiosity not by gender but by specific gender role orientation (i.e., masculine gender orientation, feminine gender orientation) within each gender.


In this study, students attending the RPI reported stronger religious faith than students attending the NRPI. Institutional environment and relative overall appeal of RPIs and NRPIs may play a significant role in explaining this finding. In addition, nonathletes attending the RPI reported stronger religious faith than athletes attending the RPI. Societal pressure—even on the coaching staffs of religiously practicing institutions—to recruit athletes based on athletic ability rather than character may help explain this result.

Athletes attending the NRPI in this study did not differ significantly from nonathletes at the institution, in respect to strength of religious faith. This result does not support previous studies, which had revealed a significant difference in religiosity between athletes and nonathletes. This finding may be attributable to the institutional environment at the NRPI. Finally, in this study, females reported stronger religious faith than males, a result that may potentially be attributable to gender role orientation and socialization factors in our culture.

Findings from the present study provide direction for future research. First, levels of spirituality should be assessed, along with religious faith. Although many people equate religion and spirituality, the two are distinct concepts that can be addressed separately as well as collectively. Second, future studies should incorporate unstructured opportunities (i.e., interviews) allowing participants to express their religious beliefs. The SCSRFQ is a self-report scale not accommodating qualitative accounts of the role of religion as perceived by participants. Thus, both quantitative and qualitative methods should be utilized. Third, future investigators ought to study institutions at the NCAA Division II, National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, and National Junior College Athletic Association levels. While the majority of existing research was conducted among NCAA Division I athletes, insight into the importance of religion at a variety of athletic levels is needed. Fourth, future studies should examine levels of religious faith by type of sports. They might ask, for instance, whether athletes in individual sports are more religious than athletes in team sports or whether athletes in contact sports display stronger religious faith than athletes in noncontact sports. Fifth, future investigations should evaluate levels of religious faith by individual religious affiliation, exploring, for example, whether Catholics report higher levels of religious faith than Protestants. Finally, further research must be conducted on the role of religions other than Christianity—Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism—in sports and in the lives of athletes.


Balague, G. (1999). Understanding identity, value, and meaning when working with elite athletes. The Sport Psychologist, 13, 89–98.

Barry, C. M., & Nelson, L. J. (2005). The role of religion in the transition to adulthood for
young emerging adults. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 34(3), 245–255.

Fischer, G. J. (1997). Abstention from sex and other pre-game rituals used by college
male varsity athletes. Journal of Sport Behavior, 20(2), 176–184.

Francis, L. J. (1997a). The psychology of gender differences in religion: A review of
empirical research. Religion, 27, 81–96.

Francis, L. J. (1997b). Personality, prayer, and church attendance among undergraduate
students. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 7(2), 127–132.

Gorsuch, R. I., & Venable, G. G. (1983). Development of an “age universal” I-E revised
scale. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 22, 181–187.

Hoge, D. R. (1972). A validated intrinsic religious motivation scale. Journal for the
Scientific Study of Religion, 11, 369–376.

Knox, D., Langehough, S. O., Walters, C., & Rowley, M. (1998). Religiosity and
spirituality among college students. College Student Journal, 32(3), 430–432.

Koenig, H. G., Parkerson, G. R., & Meador, K. G. (1997). Religion index for psychiatric research. American Journal of Psychiatry, 154, 885–886.

Ma, S. Y. (2003). The Christian college experience and the development of spirituality
among students. Christian Higher Education, 2, 221–239.

Miller, A. S., & Hoffmann, J. P. (1995). Risk and religion: An explanation of gender
differences in religiosity. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 34(1), 63–75.

Plante, T. G., & Boccaccini, M. T. (1997). The Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith
Questionnaire. Pastoral Psychology, 45(5), 375–387.

Plante, T. G., Yancey, S., Sherman, A., Guertin, M., & Pardini, D. (1999). Further validation for the Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire. Pastoral Psychology, 48(1), 11–21.

Schroeder, P. J., & Scribner, J. P. (2006). “To honor and glorify God”: The role of religion
in one intercollegiate athletics culture. Sport, Education, and Society, 11(1), 39–54.

Storch, E. A., & Farber, B. A. (2002). Psychotherapy with the religious athlete. Annals of
the American Psychotherapy Association, 3(6), 15–17.

Storch, E. A., Kolsky, A. R., Silvestri, S. M., & Storch, J. B. (2001). Religiosity of elite
college athletes. The Sport Psychologist, 13, 346–351.

Storch, E. A., Roberti, J. W., Bravata, E. A., & Storch, J. B. (2004). Strength of religious faith: A comparison of intercollegiate athletes and non-athletes. Pastoral Psychology, 52(6), 485 489.

Storch, E. A., & Storch, J. B. (2002a). Correlations for organizational, nonorganizational, and intrinsic religiosity with social support among intercollegiate athletes. Psychological Reports, 91, 333–334.

Storch, E. A., & Storch, J. B. (2002b). Intrinsic religiosity and aggression in a sample of intercollegiate athletes. Psychological Reports, 91, 1041–1042.

Storch, E. A., Storch, J. B., & Adams, B. G. (2002). Intrinsic religiosity and social anxiety of intercollegiate athletes. Psychological Reports, 91, 186.

Storch, E. A., Storch, J. B., Kovacs, A. H., Okun, A., & Welsh, E. (2003). Intrinsic religiosity and substance use in intercollegiate athletes. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 25, 248–252.

Thompson, E. H. (1991). Beneath the status characteristic: Gender variations in
religiousness. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 30(4), 381–394.

Author Note

Nathan T. Bell, School of Physical Education, Sport, and Exercise
Science, Ball State University; Scott R. Johnson, School of Physical
Education, Sport, and Exercise Science, Ball State University; and
Jeffrey C. Petersen, School of Physical Education, Sport, and Exercise
Science, Ball State University.

Nathan T. Bell is now with the American Sport Education Program at
Human Kinetics publishing.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Nathan
T. Bell, Associate Acquisitions Editor, ASEP–Human Kinetics, 1607 N.
Market St.,Champaign, IL 61820.