The League

Dr. Matthew Prowler
Resident Psychiatrist

Dr. Matthew Prowler

Resident Psychiatrist at The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania

Faith Enhancement?

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The scene is a common one -- players, teammates and opponents alike, huddled together in a prayer-circle before and after the big game. Or the athlete in the post-game interview thanking God first for the victory. But has this practice gone too far? While we may wonder if there is an excessive invocation of religious faith in modern sport, the infusion of God into our games is nothing new. The ancient Greek Olympians, dating back to the 8th century BC, gave offerings to their deities before a race. And consider Nike, the winged goddess of victory (both in battle and peaceable competition) and unknowing namesake to a future retail juggernaut. There is precedent here.

The separation of church and state is a familiar, if imperfectly adhered to, doctrine in our nation's history. No such doctrine exists in sport. Perhaps for good reason. The outcomes of our games do not decide the legal framework of our society or determine matters of life and death (despite what Philadelphia fans may think). Further, while sport often functions as a public spectacle, it also represents an intense, individual pursuit. The source from which one athlete derives his strength most certainly is a private matter, unless he violates the rules of the game. Non-believers might scoff at these public examples of faith -- I can hear Woody Allen question why Jesus would concern himself with the outcome of a professional football game, one in the regular season no less.

But these cynics may be missing the point. Maybe God-belief, or more specifically the focus on a higher power or a spiritual connection, is beneficial physiologically and psychologically, as well as spiritually. Governing bodies across the globe are attempting to combat illegal drug use. But what if faith, in fact, is a natural performance-enhancer?

Researchers have begun studying this very concept. One noted University of Pennsylvania study used single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), an advanced method of neuroimaging, to study the brains of Tibetan Buddhist meditators. The researchers looked at blood flow throughout the brain before and then immediately after a period of meditation. They found increased blood flow in the prefrontal and frontal cortex. These regions are centrally involved in focusing attention and concentration, as well as enabling strategic thinking. A more recent MRI study from Denmark also compared the brains of meditators to non-meditators. In the meditator group, they found higher density of cells in regions of the brainstem that help control breathing and heart rate.

But does praying create the same results? We are trying to find the objective effects that 'believing' has on the body. This may be task specific -- the focus utilized during the quiet and practiced art of meditation may be distinct from the attention needed to avoid a sack from a 275 pound defensive end. Clearly, faith remains a subjective experience. But what if there is a brain response when a person focuses on the power of a guiding and controlling force? The possibility of neurological proof of a 'transcendent state' could have wide-spread implications, far outside of sports. It's worth considering.

Scientific proof or not, athletes and others will continue to believe. And when questioned about the practice, players might once again invoke the Greek Nike, but in a modern form - "Just do it."

By Dr. Matthew Prowler  |  February 4, 2009; 9:31 AM ET  | Category:  Arizona Cardinals , Dr. Matthew Prowler , NFL , Pittsburgh Steelers Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: On the 7th Day God? | Next: There is No God In Team

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Fine there doctor but I still do not want to hear players proselytizing to every microphone like they are in a pulpit after ever game. My God might not be your God and as we learned a long time ago, religion and politics are best kept private.

Posted by: bearback08 | February 4, 2009 12:44 PM

All too many coaches pressure players to participate in Christian observances. Even at state-supported colleges, some coaches insist on prayer in the locker room, spiritual retreats, etc. It's wrong.

Posted by: CarolAnne1 | February 5, 2009 4:24 PM

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