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Belief in higher power boosts sport performance

Published:Saturday | April 7, 2012 | 12:00 AM

IT'S STANDARD procedure in sports for teams to pray before a game. It's an age-old practice for teams to seek divine assistance when they go into 'battle'. Two of the teams leading up to Champs this year held a church service, believing that this would improve their chances of taking the top prize. For the record, neither team won! Does God really answer such prayers? Does praying before a game really improve your chances of winning? Maybe, but not in the kind of direct way some of us may think.

Matthew Syed in his seminal work Bounce said that "the idea that the creator is on your side, guiding your footsteps, taking a personal interest in your troubles, deriving pleasure from your victories, providing solace in you defeats, orchestrating the world such that, in the words of Saint Paul's epistle to the Romans, 'all things work together for good to those who love God'", all this clearly must have a dramatic impact on the efficacy of a sportsman, or indeed anyone else.

Muhammed Ali was famous for saying, "How can I lose when I have Allah on my side?" Ali was, of course, Muslim, and the Christian community would scoff at this and claim that he was praying to a false god. That, however, is irrelevant. Ali BELIEVED that his game was now in the hands of some deity, and that very belief improved his game.

Johnathan Edwards is still regarded as one of the top triple jumpers in history. He was also known during his active years as one of the most devout Christians in sports. He summed it up this way. "Without doubt ... I can see that my faith was pivotal to my success. Believing in something beyond the self can have a hugely beneficial psychological impact, even if the belief is fallacious. It provided a profound sense of reassurance because I took the view that God was on my side. It enabled me to block out doubt in the moments before I was due to jump."

false beliefs

Both Ali and Edwards had two different belief systems which say contradictory things, so only one (at most) can be true. Or to put it another way, either Ali or Edwards (or both) has benefited powerfully from false beliefs. In effect, one or both of them thought they were helped by a supreme force when it was nothing more than mind over matter. Those who claim that God helped them to win a sporting contest after they pray are being illogical, but 'belief kill and belief cure'.

Those who believe that God helps teams to win if they pray are hard pressed to explain why do teams lose even after they pray.

Anyone who reads Norman Vincent Peale's powerful book The Power of Positive Thinking will understand that. Peale pointed out from as long as 1952 that the power of religious belief helps to reduce anxiety, improve one's sense of belonging, boosts self-confidence and alleviates angst. All of these put together, as Peale himself pointed out, does improve life and dramatically transform performance in whatever sphere, sports not least among them.

mind over matter

To understand the power of the mind, I relate the story of Henry Beecher. He was a young doctor from Harvard who was responsible for treating American soldiers trapped in a cave in northern Italy during World War II. Such was the scale of atrocities that Beecher soon ran out of anaesthetic. Confronted with a soldier with gaping wounds and needing to operate quickly, he instructed his nurse to administer a saltwater injection instead of morphine. The soldier was able to tolerate the agonies of surgery, as well as if he had been injected with the real thing. Beecher would replicate this with other soldiers who withstood the trauma of surgery with nothing more than saltwater in their veins. The soldiers 'believed' it was anaesthetic and that made the mind accept, and even ignore, the pain. Their comfort was not in a supreme being, but in the blind faith in the ability and credibility of their doctor.

Those who run on to a sports field and make a sign of the cross, or who pray for divine guidance in winning are not doing anything wrong. They are only engaging in a powerful psychological act that makes them feel better about themselves and their game, and, therefore, the results they get come more from the fact that they are praying, than from the fact that the prayers are 'answered'.

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