Joy of Sport

Joy is the prize

Body and spirit – 2

Vladimir Felzmann - 28 July 2012

In the days to come there will be moments of high drama, despair and exhilaration as the world’s finest athletes compete for gold in the Olympic Games. Here, in the second of three articles, a key organiser of the Church’s response to the Games focuses on the spiritual dimension of that struggle
Anyone who loves sport knows it is an art form and can teach us much about life. Most sports call for skill, discipline, imagination, creativity and are clearly vehicles of self-expression. Just think of those magical moments in cycling, basketball, football, rugby, tennis and the rest where humanity shines at its most beautiful and best. There will be many moments like these on display at our 2012 Games this summer. 

Those for whom sport is a dirty word often forget that it goes way beyond competitions and encapsulates some of our humanity’s most relaxing activities, from dance and aerobics to walking and swimming, from cycling or mountain-climbing to rowing and sailing. It is not necessary to have the physique of a Greek god or goddess to do sport. Just wait and see the prowess, commitment, dedication, daring and character on display in the Paralympic Games.

Sport enables us to discover much about ourselves from reflecting on our performances and the processes we go through when training. The love of sport discloses the spirituality of sport. As they train, and push themselves beyond their comfort zone on through that pain barrier, athletes realise they are in control of the Physical, Intellectual, Emotional and Spiritual dimensions – or by the mnemonic PIES as I call them – of their lives. They know they are, in the words of the English poet W.E. Henley’s poem “Invictus”, “captains of their soul”. 

Without self-control, sport, or life in general, ends in disaster. The joy in every victory as a personal best is achieved is impossible to put into words. To discover what it’s like we need to follow the words of Jesus: “Come and see (John 1:39).” Virtue – defined by St Augustine of Hippo as a good habit consonant with our nature – is something acquired by repetition. This is true of sport and of life. In sport, good habits or skills have to become automatic muscle memory. So that when there is no time to think, for example in controlling a ball or dodging danger, our bodies respond instinctively.

For success in sport, each of the PIES needs to acquire and develop its own specific cardinal virtue. For the Physical, there is temperance; for the Intellectual, prudence; for the Emotional, fortitude; and for the Spiritual, justice. Tasting success or learning from failure generates joy for everyone who accepts that God is an appreciative spectator of their life.

Sport imitates life’s vital processes. Many sports teach the importance of making fast decisions in complicated situations. Loss of temper is mostly costly. Concentration and attention are rewarded. Underestimating the opposition is often disastrous. Hard work and sustained commitment are rewarded. Pushing on through pain, serving a team, facing defeat with dignity and never giving up are essential for success. Sport teaches us to press on to the elusive final victory that we may achieve only once we have passed through death (Philippians 3:13-14).
Until our death and birth into naked eternity, when we shall see the face of God, we do not know whether we have won or lost life’s game. Meanwhile, sportsmen and women do well to bear in mind the challenge of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If”, spelled out above the players’ entrance to the Centre Court at Wimbledon: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same”. 

Sport may be transformative of the individual and the community. It funnels aggression away from conflict into competition and the quiet joy of growing in self-confidence as performances improve. Sport points towards satisfying answers to questions of identity, values and roles: Who am I? What am I worth? Why am I here? Belonging, being bonded together in a team and around a club, furnishes a sense of identity, a sense of community through experiencing and discussing spectator exhilaration. A common love generates a community. 

Sport reminds us of the value of faith, of believing not just as the perception of reality and a system of values but of a commitment to a set of rules that point us to life at its best. Experience demonstrates that my performance can be influenced by my intellect: by what I say and hear. Saying things, singing, even shouting – and certainly being encouraged by others – enables us to raise our game to unexpected heights When I feel low, I sing and hold my head high and, if I am alone, I even shout words of encouragement. As my feeling improves, so does my performance. 

Through the optic of love, sport is a sign of God’s loving presence in the world. It is Trinitarian, building up communities and based on relationships of giving and receiving. It is Christocentric, carrying within its best aspects the lifestyle of Jesus Christ, who was prepared to lose all to gain even more.  

Playing, whether alone or with others, quietly or with enthusiasm, is the way children explore their world and create imaginary ones. Research shows that through play children learn how to plan and solve problems. Play encourages them to develop language and communication skills and to use imagination and creativity. 

When it is experienced as play, sport refreshes the hidden memories of our early years as the physical, affectionate expression of love recalls the parental love we experienced in our early months of life. Physical play helps children to develop agility, balance, coordination and fine motor skills. 

Children choose to play. They cannot be made to play. A sportsperson’s quality of commitment is under their control and thus offers joy when a personal best is achieved. 

Sport has often reminded me that, as Shakespeare put it in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Luck or providence, call it what you will in team sports, taps me on the shoulder to remind me that life is far more mysterious than I can imagine. 

Experienced coaches who have faith remind their charges that they are more than what they do. They are children of God. Otherwise, once they retire they can all too easily see themselves as without purpose and so become depressed. Through sport we may see humanity at its most sublime. Think about the mutual respect and appreciation of a Federer and a Nadal; the beauty of the skill of a Beckham or Jonny Wilkinson kick; the courage of a nonagenarian Sikh crossing a marathon’s finishing line; and all the Paralympians.

Sport seems to satisfy our yearning for spiritual communion between people from every part of our global city, Earth. For those who love it, sport is joy. It is also cause for hope, as we shall see next week.
From THE TABLET,The International Catholic news weekly


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