By: Samantha Kelley

Connotations surrounding sport can differ greatly. While sport has traditionally been a welcomed activity, it has more recent added benefits of being a terrific distraction from newer technology trends in the younger generations. This trend has been followed by other mental health issues on the rise: suicide, anxiety and depression, and eating disorders. Being physically fit and staying active have proven health benefits, but rising fads of sport and a seemingly toxic athletic culture have many families rethinking if participation is worth it. Saint John Paul the II speaks volumes about the worth sport has to the human person. He explains, “Sports contribute to the love of life, and teach sacrifice, respect and responsibility, leading to the full development of every human person.” The full development of the human person includes both mental and spiritual growth. 

The list of ways that sport impacts mental health in a positive manner are numerous. One of the overarching benefits in sport, especially evident in young children, is autonomy. I am sure many of us have had the opportunity to witness a new skill mastered by a young child. The joy and confidence felt with their whole being is easily seen externally when hard work comes to fruition by the successful completion of a task. This is made clear time and time again. There is a strong desire for the human person to feel accomplished, successful, and autonomous. This is powered by the inmost desire of being made for perfection – perfect union with God our Father. Cooperating with our God-given abilities and working hard to refine our natural skill drives us toward the path of becoming who we were intended to be. This could not be a more perfect remedy for the trending decline of mental health issues.  FIERCE Athlete also believes in the incredible positive impact sport can have in our lives. Here are 10 ways sport positively impacts mental health and aids in developing spiritual disciplines.

How Sport Positively Impacts Mental Health

  1. Sport promotes virtue. Many agree on the lessons inevitably learned while competing in sport. This list could fill countless pages. How to be a leader, selflessness, discipline, courage, work ethic, goal setting, and time management, to list a few. Outside the faith realm, perspectives might point to these qualities to be appreciated and useful in the workforce, driving a productive societal viewpoint. Those of us with a sturdy faith foundation see these qualities in a more profound light. FIERCE Athlete believes sport promotes growth in VIRTUE. Saint John Paul II says, “Sport is the gymnasium of human virtue.” Living a virtuous life, while not easy, allows us to manage the stress and challenges of life in a more holistic way. The Latin word for virtue is virtus….which literally means strength! Not living a virtuous life leads to stress, anxiety, shame, and guilt. One simple example can be found in the necessary lesson of time management. Student athletes will learn quickly the importance of this skill and what happens when not executed. Stress easily runs us ragged and leads to overall unhealthy living styles such as poor eating and sleeping habits. Being intentional in creating virtuous habits help lay the framework for great mental health.
  2. Challenges identity. Besides developing virtue, sport also helps to shape and sometimes challenge our identity. The devastating losses and failings that are sure to come with competition require deep self reflection from athletes. It requires processing and separating worth from the performance and success (part of athletics). It is essential for an athlete to know her value beyond the wins and losses, her innate value as a Daughter of God. FIERCE helps many women heal from wounds caused by misunderstanding of this key component of a healthy athletic mindset. In a time where identity is being targeted so heavily, knowing the antidote to these wounds is imperative. 
  3. Increases capacity to embrace suffering. If all sport had to be summed up into one common denominator, that common denominator would be pain. There is a very old saying that has been used in sport for many years – “No pain, no gain.” This is another inevitable aspect of sport that can be used to transform us into more spiritual beings. Pain cannot be avoided in life, nor in sport. To be successful in sport, one has to face and embrace pain throughout the process. Not one athlete would have reached their athletic potential without maneuvering through adversity and pain. The physical aspect of building muscles relies on the body breaking down muscle fibers in order to repair them stronger than before. This attitude of pain opens the door for athletes to look at suffering through a different lens. This gives us an example of how pain (or suffering) can in fact lead to greater heights. As many of the saints point out, suffering is an avenue of great spiritual growth. We know that, if we can use our sport to offer our pain and suffering up as a prayer, we will transform not only ourselves, but also our teams, community, and our world.
  4. Instills a deep sense of inner confidence. Sport provides opportunity for critical life lessons needed to navigate life. How to face adversity, bouncing back after failure, and how to apply learned skills. The responsibility learned helps to discern outside influence and to ignore unhelpful advice. When athletes find success in sport, opportunity is given to practice the virtue of humility. Learning to rely on the Lord for strength and listening to his voice speaking truth in love is critical. This allows an athlete to be confident in who she is as a daughter of God while leaning on the Father’s mercy and love.Releases endorphins.  Lastly, science has given us many reliable studies on the effects of endorphins on our bodies and minds. The physical release of endorphins when working out helps to battle against depression. Promoting growth of virtue, having a deep understanding of our true identity, offering our suffering as a prayer, and the physical release of endorphins all help to positively impact mental health.
  5. Releases endorphins. Lastly, science has given us many reliable studies on the effects of endorphins on our bodies and minds. The physical release of endorphins when working out helps to battle against depression. Promoting growth of virtue, having a deep understanding of our true identity, offering our suffering as a prayer, and the physical release of endorphins all help to positively impact mental health.

How Sport Develops Spiritual Discipline

  1. Visualization breeds contemplation. As mentioned above, sport leads to much contemplation and reflection. Many coaches emphasize the importance of visualization. Athletes can tap into their creativity and deepen their spiritual life. These practices in sport enable athletes to use their brains to visualize the goal, what they desire to reach. This is also a  beautiful tool for prayer. Time spent visualizing and meditating on aspects of Scripture can be powerful. This practice can help us to grow spiritually. 
  2. Discipline of commitment. An athlete’s ability and commitment to routine and creating habits allows for carry over in other aspects of life. Discipline gained from sport is utilized well in creating habits of prayer. FIERCE Athlete preaches balance and intentional training of not just our body but of our mind and soul as well. Using qualities well learned from an athlete’s sport, such as work ethic, determination, and resilience aid remarkably well in the spiritual life. 
  3. Connection of body AND soul. The human person being mind and body also helps connect sport with spirituality. Prominent wounds that surround female athletics also help to prove this connection. Some of these common issues include promiscuity, eating disorders, and same sex attraction. The decisions we make, what we do to our bodies affects our soul; we were created body AND soul. Prayer helps us to be better athletes physically. The opposite is also true; if we are not physically taking care of our bodies, not sleeping well, or eating nutritious food —our spiritual life will suffer as well.
  4. Offering sport as a prayer. The most transforming and astonishing thing between this beautiful connection of body and soul is our ability to offer our sport as a prayer. We have this unique gift to use the body we were given to fulfill the desire in our hearts as athletes to compete. And we can take that competing and training and offer it up to God for the intentions in our hearts. It is a privilege as an organization to be able to share this incredible knowledge with female athletes. We at FIERCE are overjoyed to serve and mentor the athletes we come in contact with. We know they will take the lessons learned from their sport and from the truths we emphasize and change women’s athletics for the better.
  5. Jesus = The Ultimate Athlete. The last and most important connection between sport and faith is the understanding of the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus was also body and soul, a human person; a man who had to work, learn skills, and pay attention to the physical needs of his body. He surely had to remain fit to help His earthly father with his trade of carpentry. His athleticism was necessary in this learned trade, but the physicality of his Passion and Crucifixion was extraordinary. He sweated, bled, breathed heavily, and had His strength tested to its limits. His trust and reliance not only on His physical body but also of the spiritual strength He knew His Father in heaven would provide calls for all of us to ponder on this mystery. We as athletes can enter into the Crucifixion and in our small (or large) sufferings, offered up as prayer, console the heart of Christ. This gift can only work to widen our capacity to love and fulfill our call to be disciples.