I go to church regularly. I like my church (First Trinitarian Congo in Scituate, MA – you’re welcome to visit always and often) and I’m proud to be part of the UCC. Furthermore, if you’ve read this blog in the past you may note that I’ve got a bit of a family history of religion (see Father, Son, Sport Psychology). So it’s safe to say that I’m religious.
Considering this, you can imagine that Jonah Lehrer’s Does Thinking About God Improve Our Self Control caught my eye. Beyond my genetic predisposition to religion, self control is kind of a big deal when thinking about successful athletes. Furthermore, research makes it more and more clear that self-control can be depleted just like physical endurance. Teaching athletes to gain self-control and also to be able to refresh their self-control is my business. Lehrer reflects on the recent research of Rounding and his colleagues – Religion Replenishes Self-Control. In essence a series of studies demonstrated that thoughts of faith and religion primed research participants to increased self-control. It’s a nice piece of research and poses some good food for thought. At risk of angering the gods (perhaps even my God), I have to wonder if these findings are a religion thing or something else.
Religious faith drives deep into our souls, has tremendous meaning, and shapes our daily actions. It permeates society. Even the non-religious are impacted and shaped by important faith values (this is displayed in the research of Rounding et al.). Powerful stuff.
A sports team, running group, or exercise club is not a religious group (such comparisons strike me as being a bit profane). Yet, clubs that create a depth of values and connectedness I suspect help individual athletes be truly bigger than themselves. This is a challenging concept however in this day and age of self-centered striving and achievement. The great values of play, sport, and team too often are minimized to jargon that all agree with, but don’t manage to strike deep down in the soul. When and if they do, wouldn’t a bit of extra self-control follow?
Imagine what efforts on the playing field look like when the team logo and certain words used around the locker room and the field have meaning that is greater that the actions themselves. We sacrifice for teammates not because it is the right thing to do, but rather because it is who we are. Great efforts are given during great struggles not because it leads to victory, but rather because it is who we are. We are optimistic and poised in the face of great odds not because it is urged by coaches and parents, but rather because it is who we are. I suspect this is some of the reason religious ideas seem to cue self-control. They are supportive, comforting, non-judgmental, and pervasive in one’s life.
Perhaps it is a tall task to ask a coach, athletic program, or team to deliver such a powerful culture, but it does happen – look close, the greatest successes on the playing field seem to have a bit of it. The endeavor of sport is made much bigger than a team or individual, yielding implicit strength and support during the competitive struggle. I’ve often been found saying about great teams, “they’ve drunk the Kool-Aid.” There is little “trying” and “thinking” to do the right thing. Instead it is just part of the fabric of competitive life. Beyond the thoughts and actions, there is an implicit belief in what they are doing allows them to focus rather getting caught up in the mumbo jumbo of sport.
I am not sure that Rounding’s research is just about religion. It does highlight that religious doctrine is really tremendous (perhaps the best thing out there) at impacting human beings and creating self control. Religion is cool; try it. Whether you do or do not, there are some great lessons to be learned for creating powerful communities of excellence. Believing is something a bit bigger than one’s self – it certainly helps in daily striving on and off the field.