Athletes incorporate, balance religion with sports


Graphic by Jackie Lou

Written by Elinor Aspegren

“I’m Sikh, and one of the biggest things that other people see is that we don’t cut our hair,” sophomore field hockey player Simirthi Singh said. “On the field, I have to get ready, because if I have my hair out, it’s going to get tangled somewhere and it’s going to be an awful mess.”

Religious expressions have always been seen as a part of professional sports. Some athletes thank God for big wins, or make a sign of the cross after scoring a goal or, more recently, take some time for “Tebowing” before a game. According to a study done by Grey Matter Research and Consulting, 49 percent of Americans react positively to such displays. While for Singh, her religious faith most affects her life externally, for most, it affects them internally.

How Sports Play into Faith

Director of Youth Ministries and Communication at Palo Alto Vineyard Church Matt Gustafson that sports give you perseverance that you can use in religion. “Sports can help in teaching you that there’s another side to any difficult situation,” he said.

Freshman Yael Livneh’s sport does more than play into faith. She practices Krav Maga, a Jewish combat self-defense system that combines techniques sourced from aikido, judoboxing and wrestling, along with realistic fight training. “We learn how to defend yourself in real life situations—like if somebody came behind you and grabbed you in a chokehold, you’d learn how to get out of that,” she said.

Livneh’s sport not only allows a physical connection to her faith, but also an emotional connection; with this sport, she feels a sense of belonging with the Jewish faith. I feel a more spiritual connection to the sport with this kind of self-defense. If I did karate I wouldn’t feel as connected to it,” she said.

For Livneh, Krav Maga gives her a fresh perspective on her religion. “Doing this sport, I feel like I’ve been able to connect to my faith and my religion in a different way. Generally it’s been through community service or celebrating holidays with my family, or going to Israel.” she said. “Now, it’s in a way that benefits me—I get gratification for it. I meet new people through it. It’s impacted my faith in a very positive light—I feel like it’s made me a little more connected to Israel and to being Jewish.”

Faith on the Field

Gustafson, who is also a coach of a middle school baseball team, says that it is really important to conduct yourself well as an athlete—as a Christian, it’s important to be respectful on the field. .Gustafson added that it’s important for athletes that have more power—such as captains—to use their power to uplift people who are lower on team standings.  “I look at Jesus as someone who had tons of influence in Church, and he used a lot of his influence to uplift people who were poor,” he said. “So when I coach, I make it a point to affirm the leaders, when I see them treating other classmates well, when I see them encouraging them, when I see them not yelling at others when they make a mistake, those kinds of things are really important to me.”

According to Gustafson, people of faith (not just Christians) can carry their faith onto the field by stopping and giving thanks or praying before a game. “This is a pretty common ritual, to pray that I will do my best, to pray that no injuries will happen to me or anybody else, to pray that God will help me to keep good character and not lose my temper, and to pray that I would have fun,” he said.

Senior lacrosse captain Briana Irani’s faith gives her some advice on the field. As a Zoroastrian, one of the oldest faiths developed 3500 years ago, she emphasizes the mantra: good thoughts, good words, good deeds. This phrase plays into how she conducts herself on the field. “My religion has a lot to do with deciding what’s wrong and right, and good morals. On and off the field, it helps me make choices,” she said.

Irani’s faith also provides her with some helpful perspective on her commitment. As the captain of her team, she has to have a good relationship with the coach, referee and players from the other team, all while making sure that her players are okay. “Practicing a religion is a lot like practicing a sport. You’re committed to it—you do what you need to do for that religion,” she said. In addition, her faith allows herself to rationalize a loss or a win. “[My faith] helps to put into perspective that it’s just a game—it’s nothing bigger than that, and it’s not worth getting upset about,” Irani said.

The Balance: Faith and Life

For Singh, her faith life keeps separate from her sports life, but the ideas she learns through her religion are ones that she uses to help her manage her busy life outside of sports. “I tend to do things a lot simpler, and instead of taking a complicated way of doing things, I take a simpler route,” she said.

According to Gustafson, there’s something transcendent and larger than day to day business that one may find within God. For example, the idea behind sabbath is to allow for a time of rest. “It seems like for a young person, that Sabbath might be really counterintuitive, because you think, ‘oh, if I have seven days of time, I want to make the most out of [these days],’” he said. “[But] I have found that when I’m able to [participate in Sabbath], I feel like I have a better perspective on life.”