Religion and Spirituality in Sport (2024)


Religion, spirituality, and sport is a growing discipline in sport psychology. Various commonalities between sport and religion can be observed in the principles behind religious festivities, such as those realised on Sundays and holy days that include many rituals, rites, spectacles, and symbols (Cipriani, 2012). For example, religious metaphors can be found on social media that allude to the idea that church and college football serve the same function for celebrants (Lewis, 2013). Thus, manifestations from the sporting world can be considered to have religious or quasi-religious connotations.

The Olympics and sport in general include elements that “appear as a substitute for religion for some because of an inner transcendental experience” (Nissiotis, 1980, p. 179). Some athletes and spectators have declared that sport is their religion. However, sport is not a religion because it does not center on a supernatural being, creator, or sustainer of life (Collins, 2014). Therefore, for a deeper and more genuine understanding of the association between sport and religion, it is necessary to observe it in the wider context.

Experience, Sport, and Positive Psychology

A focus on pathology was dominant in psychology until the mid-20th century; however, a positive, humanistic existential psychology has emerged in the new millennium that concentrates on the positive subjective experience, the improvement of quality of life, and the flourishing of individuals (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Such interest is strongly connected to concern for the individual personal experience. It is quite clear, however, that this psychological approach has stemmed from psychologists’ prolonged interest in experiences that are visible in religion and mysticism (James, 1985). Specific feelings, like trembling and amazement, were visible in people going through religious experiences, and a combination of fear and attraction was identified in the human connection to the sacred and holy (Otto, 1958). Positive experiences, both in religions and outside of them, were studied using various approaches and terms.

Peak Experiences

Psychologist Abraham Maslow studied religions and self-actualization in people (Maslow, 1994) and utilized the term “peak experience” as a description of the specific existential states visible in mystical experiences but also in other subjective experiences characterized by a feeling of wonder. These uncommon moments involve a feeling of intense happiness, excitement, and ecstasy, without fears or tensions, and are felt also as a distance from one’s self and a unity with the world; they are not supernatural but natural, human, and accessible to anyone (Maslow, 1962). Such experiences were studied and researched for clinical use, classified, and reported by different groups of respondents (Allen, Haupt, & Jones, 1964; Hallaq, 1977; Margoshes & Litt, 1966; Polyson, 1985; Thorne, 1963). These experiences came not only from religion but also from play, love and sex, poetry, music, art, and even sport.

Peak experiences in sport are characterized as great, unique moments when the athlete has no control over their occurrence; the athlete is completely absorbed and immersed in the activity without having to consciously think while being in total control of the situation (Ravizza, 1977). For example, mountain biking and other intense leisure activities lead to feelings of joy and self-fulfillment, a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in life, and extended self (Dodson, 1996). With activities that take place in wilderness settings, the natural beauty and distance from the pressures, people, distractions, and concerns of the human-made world can trigger peak experiences of awe and wonder that emulate individual spiritual expression (McDonald, Wearing, & Ponting, 2009).


Sport activities like basketball, rock climbing, and dance, but also other activities like chess, music composition, and even work can create experiences similar to peak experiences. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1975a, 1975b) has studied experiences from various forms of leisure activities during which participants fully concentrate on the activity and use all their skills to succeed. This state of mind leads them to forget their own problems, feel control over the environment, and transcend ego boundaries, which he has termed “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1992). Flow is a holistic sensation characterized by total involvement in an activity, a creative approach toward reality, a merging awareness, loss of ego, and fusion with the world. An action is practiced until it becomes automatic, thereby making the experience autotelic and intrinsically rewarding. However, the most important feature is balance between challenges and skills—flow is an equilibrium between the anxiety and worry caused by too demanding of an activity and the boredom and unease from too undemanding of an activity. Such experiences are common in sport (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999).

Other Positive Experience Phenomena

Although peak experiences, characterized by intensive joy, and flow, characterized by an intrinsically rewarding experience, have attracted sport psychologists’ main attention, other phenomena are also connected to these human experiences. One of them is “peak performance,” which, in contrast to habitual behavior, is defined as superior, high-level functioning and the using of human potential productively based on concentrated effort (Privette, 1983). While peak experience and flow are perceived as positive and joyful experiences, peak performance can be triggered by a crisis event that may be life-threatening. Peak performance of athletes is associated with an intense focus on the activity, not the outcome (Jackson & Roberts, 1992). Peak experience, flow, peak performance, and other possible peak moments can overlap and extend to outdoor and adventurous activities (Boniface, 2000) and sport (McInman & Grove, 1991).

Known colloquially as “being in the zone,” zone experience can also be placed in the set of exceptional experiences. This state is distinguished by stronger bodily anchorage, but, just as with the other positive states, it is an experience of altered perceptions linked to a spiritual or religious manner, experienced together also in sport (Dillon & Tait, 2000).

Other terms in psychological literature also describe unusual experiences and spiritual modes, different from positive and joyful states, like “nadir experiences” (Margoshes & Litt, 1966; Thorne, 1963); “plateau experiences,” which include negative poles of self-transcendence growth (Gruel, 2015); “mystical experiences”; “transpersonal experiences”; and “near death experiences” (Yaden, Haidt, Hood, Vago, & Newberg, 2017); more than 500 variants of these states exist (Bednář, 2011).

What is the difference between the religious, mystical, and spiritual dimensions of these experiences and their human, natural, and nonreligious levels? For the purposes of this article, a very helpful description of these two existential modalities comes from Mircea Eliade (1959):


This refers to human experiences that are processed through the senses and rational arguments and that are considered ordinary, secular, and mundane. This is the world of common experiences and ways of life.


This refers to human contact with a different reality characterized by different understandings of space and time connected to the sacred, holy, and divine. Without such a mode of ontological existence, it does not make sense to think about religion because the sacred is the principal difference between the religious and nonreligious world.

However, many people do not have any contact with the holy dimension of sacredness. This world is not accessible by knowledge, rationality, or intellectual performance but only through a different cognitive position: belief and faith. That is why various evaluations and perceptions of holy and sacral realities are accepted by religious people, whereas they are unrecognized and refused by atheists. The role of this article is not to support either of these possible positions but to describe with scientific distance the role of the sacral sphere for some people, like athletes, fans, sport psychologists, or other groups involved in sport.

Obviously, the spiritual dimension of such experiential states as peak experience, flow, and zone experience leads us to differentiate between religion and spirituality. This differentiation, though, does not have an unequivocal solution. For the purposes of this article, a religion is understood as a complex intersection of ideas, behavior, and social phenomena (organizations, institutions) that help people with their contact to sacred and holy reality. Religions vary in their system of beliefs, practices, rituals, social hierarchy, and connectedness to the divine. Conversely, spirituality can be practiced in religious as well as nonreligious form, and social organizations, cultural products, and other religious elements are not as important. Whereas the element of sacred is a central point for religion, existence and authenticity are key for spirituality, characterized by the vertical dimension of human life, high ideals, and deep ideas (Jirásek, 2013).

Sport Activities Connected to Religion

Historical Examples

When discussing sport activities across history, it must be emphasized that human movement activities in ancient civilizations were not sport as we understand it in the 21st century. Often these activities were part of religious cult practices. From the time of Homer (1992), the organization of games and religious funerary rites (Burkert, 2004) were occasions for contest in different sport disciplines, like boxing, fighting, running, pike combat, discus throwing, bow shooting, and javelin throwing. Fighting was probably the oldest sport, as it is recorded in the confrontation of Gilgamesh with Enkidu from Mesopotamia (George, 2003). Dances often played a part in magic and religious acts in every society, connected to ideas about the cosmos (Rappenglück, 2014), and were evident in different religious traditions worldwide, including in the Mesoamerican civilization of the Maya (Looper, 2009; Wren, Spencer, & Hochstetler, 1998), the representation of Shiva as a cosmic dancer in Hinduism (Srinivasan, 2004), and the Sufi brotherhood trance-dance and ecstatic ritual in Islam (Maier, 1990). Additionally, the Mesoamerican ballgames (Whittington, 2002) and the mountain runs of the Incas can be considered activities that were part of religious cults.

Games utilizing animals, especially bulls, are well known from the island of Crete, where Minoan culture portrayed a galloping bull with an acrobatic figure turning a backward somersault (Evans, 1921). Such festivities were considered as symbols of power and fertility or were dedicated to the sun goddess (Shapland, 2013).

The ancient Olympic Games represent a long history of a religious celebration. The Olympic Games were celebrated for Zeus and were a demonstration of the religious experience of ancient Greeks (Mikalson, 2005). Sport competitions in Olympia were probably only on the margins of the cult realm in the first centuries of Olympia’s existence, in which the goddess Hera played the primary role. Footraces for girls with unfastened hair were part of the festivities that paid tribute to her (Pausanias, 2006). Other Panhellenic games had a religious framework: the Pythian Games were organized in Delphi in memory of Apollo’s victory over the dragon Python, the Isthmian Games in Corinth were interconnected with the Poseidon cult, and the Nemea Games were performed in honor of Zeus. Athletes took part in every event of these Greek cult festivities. However, the splendor of the Olympian ceremonial gathering of all Greek tributes, panegyris (the ancient Greek general religious assembly), developed and grew to become a synonym for sport competition no later than the 6th century bc (Sinn, 2000). Praying to Athena, for example, or for divine assistance in general, or for help in winning a race, was a legitimate part of activities at that time that we understand as sport in modern time (Kreider, 2003).

Modern Olympic Games

Although Coubertin wanted to revitalize an old Greek Olympic idea with its religious sentiment and spiritual symbols, modern Olympism does not maintain the mythologized ideal of the ancient Greeks but instead retains characteristics from the end of the 19th century. The aim and purpose of the new Olympic Games was not a religious ritual celebrating the gods (or God) but a sport competition that was an educational ideal of human development. Coubertin was convinced it was possible to identify Olympism with religion, as his term religio athletae evidences. Olympism is “the religion of energy” (Müller, 2000), and athletes became “a sort of priest” in the “religion of the muscles” (Coubertin, 2000). However, religion that does not include the relationship of human beings with transcendence is not religion. Consequently, different symbols of the Olympic festivities (oath, ceremony, Olympic fire) should be seen as quasi-religious sentiment, symbol, or metaphor. Additionally, such terminology is a sign of ideology, an artificial artifact, “Olympism as religion is an idolatry” (Moltmann, 1981, p. 85).

Psychology of Religion, Spirituality, and Sport

The existence of religious, frequently Christian, organizations in sport, such as Christians in Sport, Athletes in Action, or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and those from other religious traditions, like the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation and Center for Sport and Jewish Life, show the important role of religion for some people engaged in sport, especially athletes. Although these people utilize different religions to satisfy their religious needs in sport, the psychological literature deals mostly with Christianity. Even though literature sources are usually written in the context of Christian discourse, the fundamentals they contain can be more widely applied to other religions, both those with personal gods (Judaism, Islam) and nonpersonal (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism), including various tribe religions. The study of the diversity of religions and spiritual practices in sport is more noticeable now than in the past and can help sport coaches and professionals provide psychological care to athletes and better understand the religious athlete on the field.

Sport as an Instrument of Religion

Sport can be utilized by religion, for example, during a mission or pastoral care. Emerging ritualism in a sport context as a symbolic action can express these practices in places of worship; thus, sport can serve as a support for religion (Fernández & Cachán-Cruz, 2014). Sport can be considered a suitable instrument for religion; however, religion is not an internal and integral part of sport, and people bring their own religion into the sport environment. Religion in sport should not, however, be evaluated negatively. Sport can be a space for the presentation of religious values. When love is recognized as the greatest religious virtue, then such religious utilization of sport activities should be accepted as a positive aspect of sport by agnostics and atheists (Jirásek, 2018).

The most well-known interconnection of the instrumentalization of sport from a religious perspective is “Muscular Christianity,” which utilizes sport activities for evangelization and pastoral care, that is, connecting sport with moral theology. This mid-19th-century Christian socialist movement was founded in Britain on the notion of doing “good” for others by having an exercised physical body. This Victorian British movement had a direct influence on the founding of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and other modern organizations, such as Christians in Sport in England, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the United States (Watson, Weir, & Friend, 2005). It is also possible to see a type of succession in modern Olympism (Lucas, 1976). Muscular Christian ideals, as defined by Thomas Hughes, are still observable in the contemporary American sport context and displayed by sport celebrities (Meyer, 2012). Muscular Christian themes were widened to engage philanthropic efforts in understanding sport and physical activity. Physical philanthropy means participating in physically active ways to help others by using one’s physical body, also called sports philanthropy or charity sports events (Meyer & Umstattd Meyer, 2017). Muscular Christianity has been investigated in the literature, including the development of a new instrument for measuring Christian values among contemporary participants and consumers of recreation and sport (Meyer, Wynveen, & Gallucci, 2015).

Religiosity of Athletes

Although one can see sport as a specific sacred religious phenomenon, (Shilling & Mellor, 2014), sport itself is a nonreligious human activity, which can have some connection to religion through athletes and their religious faith and beliefs. These possible connections range from the human attitudes of faith and piety and their manifestation through sport and its ethical correlations (Brailsford, 1984) to the psychological attributes of personal identity and categories such as idolatry, sin, pride, and humility (Watson, 2011). Some research indicates that athletes have reported higher degrees of organizational (frequency of religious services attendance), non-organizational (private religious activities such as prayer or meditation), and intrinsic (degree of integration of religiousness into everyday life) religiousness than non-athletes (Storch, Kolsky, Silvestri, & Storch, 2001). Intrinsic religiosity is inversely associated with alcohol, marijuana, and other drug use by intercollegiate athletes (Storch, Storch, Kovacs, Okun, & Welsh, 2003).

There are also visible interrelations between sport identity and religious identity, as religiosity (beliefs, faith, practices, rituals) affects the formation of the role of athlete, including training and competing (Proios, 2017). Therefore, it is very important to study various religious associations with sport because religion should help athletes to cope with suffering and stressful situations that accompany sport. This is particularly vital in elite sports, where a dominant competitive sport culture—an excessive importance on winning, acceptance of physical injury risk as part of the game, striving for social status, treating opponents as enemies, and so on—could transform into a serious personal crisis for some religious people. The lack of deeper meaning in elite sport activities can be resolved by turning, for example, to Christianity, to evangelical organizations like Athletes in Action, and by adopting a view that playing and winning are synonymous with glorifying God, not the athletes themselves (Stevenson, 1997).

On the other hand, sport provides a post-Christian “pagan-mythology” of “fallible gods,” visible in the roles of sport heroes and sport stars who have been promoted and commodified as objects of veneration (Grimshaw, 2000). Sport heroes and celebrities often feature in debates surrounding identity, religion, faith, and morality (Parker & Watson, 2015).

Superstition and Religious Rituals in Sport

The sport environment is very predisposed to accept repetitive and ritualistic superstitious behavior as part of sport activities. Superstitious behavior falsely and irrationally links two unrelated events as the product of magic and paranormal superpowers and implies that athletes or fans can influence this power via specific food, clothing, fetishes, and so on. Superstitious behavior often takes the form of bizarre rituals involving certain dress, like wearing only a “lucky” pair of socks, jersey, or underwear or the same swimming goggles during a game; food, such as chewing one specific type of gum or eating poultry before every game; or other activities, like talking to the goalposts while on the ice, sitting in certain seats, not shaving, taking ice baths before a game, listening to a certain song before an event, or using magical charms or talismans. Different sports report some commonalties in superstitious rituals; however, each sport also has specific rituals that correspond with personalities and personal belief system (Bleak & Frederick, 1998).

Superstitions are full of symbolic values and differ from other repetitive actions, like pre-performance routines, which lack mystical and magical meaning attributed to them. Such rituals are used to decrease feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, shame, and embarrassment and to cope with pressure (Maranise, 2013). They can help those who wish to have a feeling of control in uncertain, unstable situations, although there is no logical influence or causal link between the behavior and the performance. Beneficial effects of superstitions may emerge via placebo effects (Dömötör, Ruíz-Barquín, & Szabo, 2016).

Superstitious rituals can be personalized for an individual athlete or may be team-generated and performed by the larger group. Not only athletes themselves but also fans perform superstitious behaviors, with more behaviors emerging the more highly identified fans are with the team and game outcome (Wilson, Grieve, Ostrowski, Mienaltowski, & Cyr, 2013).

Prayer in Sport

Although prayer is often quoted as an example of superstitious behavior in literature, religiosity does not contribute meaningfully to total level of superstitious ritual usage (Bleak & Frederick, 1998). Prayer and other religious and spiritual practices are a very important part of psychological coping strategies used by athletes. Religiosity is culturally and socially constructed, and prayer plays a key role in the sport life of athletes from various countries. For example, coping strategies used by Korean athletes include meditation (cited by 48.3% of athletes in one survey), prayer (22.2%), superstitions (19.4%), and relaxation (15.6%), among others nonspiritual strategies like psychological and mental training, self-talk, strategies, and social support (Park, 2000). In the United States, 10% of athletes use prayer as a thought-control strategy (Gould, Eklund, & Jackson, 1993).

Praying is a religious, not a magic or superstitious, behavior. Through prayer, athletes try to transcend the profane everydayness into a more sacral, holy sphere to contact God (or a higher power, spiritual entity). For athletes, prayer is used especially before as well as during and after a competition, and the frequency of prayer increases as the importance of the performance increases (Czech & Bullet, 2007). Sport and religion should be seen also as the confluence of praying and playing, a revivification of play and expressions of piety (Price, 2009).

Prayer is the most common religious practice utilized in sport as a technique for coping with uncertain and stressful situations, nervousness, and anxiety, and as a motivational device, especially at higher levels of competition, which is why coaches allow athletes time for prayer if necessary. Four themes emerge when examining athletes’ experience of praying in sport (Czech, Wrisberg, Fisher, Thompson, & Hayes, 2004):

performance-related prayers to cope with stress, nervousness, and tension and to ask for safety and to perform to one’s best ability—prayers utilized before, during, and after competitions;

prayer routine—specific group and individual rituals performed using the same pattern each time for a game;

thankfulness—thanks and appreciation for talent, ability, performance; and

God’s will—acceptance of outcome as what God wants.

Prayer is not only a personal and private silent activity but also a collective and collegiate ritual; it can be decidedly public, for example, over a loudspeaker, through team participation at religious services prior to games, or prayer circles at sporting events (Czech, Wrisberg, Fisher, Thompson, & Hayes, 2004; Kreider, 2003). From a philosophical point of view, however, prayer should be also seen as unsporting behavior, as Kreider (2003) argues; if athletes ask for God’s assistance, that can be taken as assistance from a nonparticipating party. Such activity should be evaluated as an advantage for some participants over others, in other words as unethical, cheating behavior and thus should be discouraged. Prayers that concern winning are in a different moral category than, for example, prayers for playing one’s best. This kind of praying, as well as asking for the avoidance of injury, can be considered ethically sporting behavior (Kreider, 2003), so athletes, coaches, and psychologists should differentiate among variants of praying in sporting contexts instead of recommending general prayer. However, because the majority of athletes do not pray for a win but for safety, ability, and to give glory to God (Czech & Bullet, 2007), coaches may encourage religious athletes to practice their religious rituals as a part of fair and ethical psychological and spiritual care in sport.

Non-Christian Religious and Spiritual Practices in Sport

Other religious and spiritual practices related to superstitions and prayer are utilized in sport and sport psychology. Many of them come from Eastern types of spirituality, like Zen Buddhism or yoga. For example, meditation techniques and other forms of relaxation, contemplation, deep breathing, and breath control as well as reading Buddhist scriptures are frequently used as coping strategies in Eastern countries (Park, 2000). This shows that athletes from monotheistic religious traditions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) usually use prayer directed to God, while followers of Eastern spiritualities and philosophies, like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, would rather use meditative techniques or martial arts to quiet the mind (Watson & Nesti, 2005).

Few studies have been carried out that include surveys focusing on specific religions and sport psychology. In the case of Hinduism, the possible influence of “Indian Clubs” on Muscular Christianity and Indian wrestling has been studied in terms of their historical, not psychological, context (Alter, 1994, 2004). Regarding Judaism, one study investigated Jewish attitudes toward sport and physical activity and found that Orthodox Jews are significantly less interested in sport than Jews identifying as members of Conservative or Reform groups (Thirer, 1988).

The topic of Islam and its influence on sport has been addressed more frequently by previous studies, particularly those dealing with metabolic, physiological, and psychological responses of athletes adhering to Ramadan practices of abstaining from eating, drinking, sleeping, and sexual activity during the holy month from dawn until dusk. Situations in which Muslim players observe Ramadan while being surrounded by those with opposing cultural practices are especially valid and important. Individual differences and personal coping strategies related to energy restriction, sleep deprivation, and dehydration during training are the usual conclusions of such studies (Chaouachi, Leiper, Chtourou, Aziz, & Chamari, 2012; Zerguini, Ahmed, & Dvorak, 2012).

Studies on Buddhism have focused on its meditative nature. Some studies have found parallels between Western therapy and meditative states and the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, and that these should be cultivated in psychotherapy and skills-training with sports-focused patients (Thompson & Andersen, 2012). Similarly, Zen Buddhism and the development of contemplation and deep reflective thought can influence sport psychology not only in performance enhancement but also in addressing more profound questions like the meaning of life. This connection is applicable to Eastern physical activities like martial arts, swordsmanship, and archery as well as to modern Western sports like golf and tennis (Jenkins, 2008; Stangl, 2009).

Sport psychology customs that differ from the Western mainstream are also visible in Nigerian practices. Specific cultural approaches include not only aspects of prayer (Christianity and Islam are both found there), chanting, verbalization of incantations, and drumming effects, but also distinctive belief in “juju” and “spirits in sports” (traditional Nigerian religion includes “God of Iron,” “God of Thunder,” “Goddess of Witches,” and so on). “Juju” is the traditional belief in supernatural spiritual power associated with herbalists and herbs (Ikulayo & Semidara, 2011).

Spirituality and Religions in Sport Psychology Consulting

Religious practices within sport should be strictly voluntary. However, the integration of religion and spirituality into sport training should be perceived as part of a framework of positive psychology, personal growth, flourishing, and well-being enhancement. Athlete-centered models of sport psychology can justify the importance of spirituality and religion to personal growth through sport and exercise activities (Watson & Nesti, 2005). Those working with religious athletes in a sport psychology environment should adhere to ethical principles that respect athletes’ beliefs and values, understand how religion impacts others, and show integrity, honesty, competence, and concern for the well-being of others (Sarkar, Hill, & Parker, 2014). Contradictions between religious faith and dominant sport culture values, like the importance of winning, social status, and field behavior, can lead to a disconnect between sport and religious life not only for athletes, but also in specific situations when a coach is in a relationship with Christ (Bennett, Sagas, Fleming, & Von Roenn, 2005). In cases of serious difficulties in athletes’ or coaches’ religious life, professional consultants like a team chaplain or minister should provide holistic treatment in cooperation with sport psychology consultants (Watson & Czech, 2005). While psychologists predominantly focus on performance enhancement, sport chaplains primarily concentrate on spiritual care, so their cooperation can contribute to addressing the pastoral, spiritual, and religious needs of players (Gamble, Hill, & Parker, 2013).

Tolerance of all athletes, coaches, sport psychologists, and chaplains is important in such consultancy. Religious patients can work with nonreligious psychologists, and people with different faith traditions and biases can ignore religious and spiritual differences to work together to achieve shared goals. In such cases, using appropriate language for integration of spirituality into the consulting relationship and personal identity is a requirement (Egli, Fisher, & Gentner, 2014).

Nonreligious Spirituality in Sport

Contrary to religion, spirituality is an inner part of sport, movement, and physical activities. Internal sport values should be seen as spiritual values, for example, overcoming one’s limitations by maximum performance, courage, honesty, friendly bonds with opponents, and principles of fair play. Spirituality in sport should be visible in the natural dimension of the personal authenticity of players and referees, interpersonal relationships, the search for deeper meanings in such activities, and transcendence in the level of celebration. Religion transcends human (including spiritual) ways of being; it means profane, into the sphere of deity and sacral otherness.

The spiritual dimension of sport should be evaluated as a unique human experience per se, without any association with religion but providing a spiritual depth to our everyday lives (Hutch, 2012). Sport, according to Hutch, should be experienced between ordinary and extraordinary modes of lived experience; thus, human movement activities are potentially more influential than ordinary routines. Lived experiences reported as “extraordinary” and spiritual have also been documented during the performance of ballet (Flower, 2016). This kind of reported nonreligious spirituality confirms a change of time and space, that is, a change of consciousness toward an extraordinary state that is different from the normal state. Notably, sport offers a natural way of maintaining the body and personality suitable for this altered state of the human way of being.

Sport has qualities that can be described as a cultic act. Movement during physical activities in organized conditions of competition are predisposed to the dramatic power of ritual and religious metaphor. They are full of symbolism and imagery, which should be a source of catharsis, similar to art. However, sport transcendence is the experience of escaping from everydayness toward festive celebration; however, it cannot reach the sacral world of deity. For this reason, the term spirituality is more appropriate than religion. Only implicit religion or civil religion, and alternatively secular religion (Stein, 1977), should be defensible.

New Sport Disciplines and Professions

Theology of Sport

Theology of sport looks for meaning in sport activities and their connection to God and is developed mostly in a Christian framework. That is, religious belief and faith are necessary conditions for active participation in this branch. This specific discipline usually refers to the Scripture, and specifically to Apostle Paul and his biblical use of athletic metaphors, such as running the race (1 Cor. 9:24), fighting the good fight (1 Tim. 6:12), and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). Sport is also evaluated from this standpoint because it is not viewed as useful on its own but as a symbol, metaphor, or parallel for understanding religious life. Sport, as a microcosm of life, is more than a game and less than a God (Treat, 2015). Some theological authorities are connected to the evaluation of sport and physical activities from a historical perspective and Catholic framework: the Early Church with the ideal of a Christian athlete, the concept of the game by Thomas Aquinas, and modern popes teaching about sport. From the Protestant and evangelical perspectives, sport should be perceived as an autotelic activity that has everything to do with human identity in relationship to God and God’s creation as an unnecessary yet meaningful reality; this is also a delimitation of sport games (Harvey, 2012).

Apart from these historical perspectives, there are other possibilities regarding how to develop the theology of sport, for example, as an analysis of the theological virtue of hope in a sport environment (Twietmeyer, 2018) or a comparison of Christian values with martial arts in an endeavor to develop a sense of self-improvement and attain mastery through an ascetic practice (Cynarski, 2016). Christian mixed martial arts started in several evangelical churches as a method of building strong Christian values among practitioners (Waller, 2017). Another topic often discussed in the philosophy of sport is game and play. Theological analyses of this topic should be based on the Christian literature, for example, employing Chesterton’s paradoxical theology (Kretchmar & Watson, 2018).

Sport theology proposes a balanced evaluation of sport based on acknowledgment of its positive values as the development of bodies, a contribution to mental and physical health, and the moral development of the athletes through fair play, that is, learning to be honest and not to win at any cost. At the same time, the theology of sport criticizes its negative aspects, for example, doping or sport as a means of earning money (Jirásek, 2018).

Sport Chaplaincy

The purpose of a chaplain’s work is spiritual care, regardless of whether the recipients are believers. A chaplain should be able and willing to provide spiritual care to everybody. Sport chaplains focus on people in sport, for example, athletes, coaches, trainers, managers, and members of their families. Sport chaplaincy plays a key role in a system of “holistic support” within elite sporting organizations to produce technically proficient athletes and good role models (Roe & Parker, 2016). This work should be done in close relationship with sport psychologists and other members of a player’s multidisciplinary support team, with an idea of helping him or her improve well-being and performance (Davis & Serventi, 2017). A significant overlap in sport chaplains’ and sport psychologists’ roles exists (Gamble, Hill, & Parker, 2013). However, there is a difference between sports chaplains and evangelists or sports ministers, who have the goal of evangelism or discipleship through sport (Kenney, 2016).

The profession of sport chaplain has been evolving since the latter half of the 20th century, and there are still some problems. For example, there are no clearly defined qualifications and roles for sport chaplains, neither accreditation nor overarching professional organizations equivalent to those in other professions (Waller, Dzikus, & Hardin, 2008). However, many sport organizations, clubs, and professional sport programs use the services of volunteer or paid sport chaplains. Thus, sport chaplaincy can be best described as an emerging profession, and there is a practical need to further define the responsibilities of sport chaplains and establish criteria and qualifications for full professionalization (Dzikus, Waller, & Hardin, 2011).


Among the universities and other research centers and initiatives to study this emerging interest in the interconnection of religion, spirituality, and sport are the Centre for Sport, Spirituality & Religion at the University of Gloucestershire, United Kingdom; the Institute for Sport, Spirituality and Character Development at Neumann University, United States; and the Center for Sport and Jewish Life, an independent initiative in the United States. Although there are different opinions on the subject, the topic provides a way to experience and think about sport more deeply—definitely a positive in today’s society.

Sport and human movement activities are a counterpart to today’s social processes, faith that consumption is a source of happiness and comfort, and the belief that over-sensitiveness leads to a good life. The consequences of the unwillingness to overcome oneself and expose oneself to discomfort are evident, especially in children and younger generations: the preference for a virtual existence over reality, sedentary behaviour, obesity as a global pandemic, the prevalence of p*rnography, and impotence in social communication. Sport connects human beings with reality, personal wholeness, and interpersonal relations; helps to transcend everydayness and routine; and encourages us to overcome ourselves and develop a richer life. People are looking for the deeper, spiritual values found in human movement activities. In this context, the increasing interest in religious and spiritual aspects of sport are positive.

Religion and Spirituality in Sport (2024)
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