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Sports Athleticism and Faith

September 10, 2012

Every since my post a few weeks ago at Wheat & Tares asking about faith, I have thought of faith more as a habit of actions than as an assent to particular truth claim statements. I still find some problems with this model, especially with what little I know about human psychology, neurology, and elsewhere — faith as a commitment to build habits makes sense because it is a well-known phenomenon…but that’s the thing, it’s a well-known phenomenon because it can and does apply in so many aspects of life.

I think there is definitely something to the fact that if you buy into something, and commit with certain actions, then you will gain an affinity toward that thing. This is what all the forms of choice-supportive biases are about — especially post-purchase rationalization.

And I would even go so far as to say that every person falls prey to these biases in some way or another. It’s a human thing, not a religious thing or a theistic thing.

…so, the real question is how we choose what we will buy into, and how we justify what we buy into.
If we are raised in the church, we are taught from our earliest age that we should buy into Mormonism because 1) it’s true and 2) it’s good for us. If the Book of Mormon is an actual history of the Americas, and if Joseph Smith actually had visitations and visions and prophecies, then believing in Mormonism is a matter of believing in facts.

But the facts presented are really just a way to get us to try to do certain things…and when we do certain things (so we are taught), it will lead to happiness that we would not otherwise have, and that, in fact, the rest of the world doesn’t have (???).

The church is challenged on both fronts. It’s challenged on its factual claims, but it is also challenged on its moral and emotional wellness claims.

But I’m not sure if that’s what I want to go into today, just yet…you can see hundreds of articles at hundreds of sites that present these challenges…Instead, I wanted to talk about an article I read this morning at A Latter-day Voice relating the commitment to athletic training at an elite level to testimony-building.

Paul’s post focuses around a succinct paraphrase of a point a young man gave in a talk in his ward a few months ago:

I participate in an elite soccer league. I train as many as four hours a day to compete. Only by that regular and sustained regimen of training am I able to compete at the level I need to in that league.

We need to dedicate ourselves similarly to gaining a testimony.

From here, Paul says:

I tried to think about when I devoted four or more hours a day to the development of my testimony. My mission was probably the only time I came close to that level of intense spiritual training.

Prior to my mission I attended seminary and church most of the time (though I did not graduate from seminary). I was on-again-off-again with scripture reading. By the time I got to BYU I was more serious about scripture study and took good advantage of my Book of Mormon class my freshman year, but still I was not training like my young friend was for soccer.

Since I lost so much weight this year, I weigh myself almost every day. And I still count calories to maintain my present weight. When I find that I’m gaining again, I know I need to make adjustments to my diet and exercise program. By keeping track, I’ve been able to maintain my new weight for two months and counting.

Spiritually I need to do the same thing. I’m decades away from that pre-mission boy who was not very serious about nurturing his testimony. Fortunately for me, my mission was a significant contributor to a strong testimony of the gospel, and the intervening decades of church service have allowed me to continue to build that testimony through study and experience. But I still need to weigh myself spiritually, to check my commitment to scripture study and prayer, and to continue to live my life in a way that supports my spiritual training program.

I’m too lazy to do the research, but I have heard it said that the church finds the biggest predictor of whether a young man will persist in the church is whether he has completed a mission. And you know what: even without doing any research for hard data, that passes my smell test — missions, as Paul reflects, represent what may be the first (and only) time a young man has a serious, prolonged, heavy-duty commitment to Mormonism.

(I mean, I also know of many folks for whom the mission was a traumatic experience that either broke their testimony or created the cracks that would later spread. We don’t hear a lot about the negative aspects of many missions because of a variety of reasons, that Runtu discusses not only on his blog but also in his book, Heaven Up Here.)

Still, there was something bothering me about the analogy…and about many of the “Just try it” analogies: they actually don’t say anything about truth.

I would definitely not say I’m an elite athlete in any stretch whatsoever. But I have fenced for a few years now, and as I reach certain plateaus in my ability — especially facing people who have trained since childhood with world-famous coaches — I become painfully aware of the weaknesses and patches in my training.

I totally buy that to keep up ability at the top level, one has to commit a lot of time to the right kind of practicing…one has to practice the basics…even though that practice may seem repetitive and boring and frustrating. Even though it may seem fun to try to do more advanced techniques and make things look really snazzy.

Foil Fencing

“So, uh, which coaching lesson teaches you how to do this?”
“Naw, you just pick it up from watching TV. My coach hates this.”

I mean, the same is really true from any endeavor too…practicing musical scales is boring. Even practicing pieces seems boring, when your tutor suggests that you practice at half speed, over and over. And they will say, “If you practice it at full speed incorrectly, then you’ll just learn it incorrectly…but if you practice it at reduced speed correctly, then you’ll be able to bring it up to speed without a problem.”

As impatient folks, we often don’t appreciate the value of that advice.

So, I get it…I get the necessity to practice. The necessity to do “unfun” things to allow for fun things later on. I do.

But again, what does it have to do with truth?

In fencing, I am an epeeist. For those who don’t know, there are three weapons in modern sport fencing — the above picture is foil, and then the third one is sabre. I have branched out from epee into sabre, and its an entirely different game. (And for whatever it’s worth, most coaches would shake their head at the fact that I didn’t start with foil before doing epee.)

Part of my challenges with sabre is that I just haven’t spent the time in sabre as I have in epee…another part of the challenge is that sabre is so much quicker than epee…there is no time to think on strip.

…but it is not true that sabre is just people running at each other mindlessly, either. Rather, all the thinking and technique and mental preparation simply has to be done before the referee says “Fence!” (or, if you’re an elite fencer, “Allez!”) It’s about seeing and feeling patterns, and having enough hours of practice with the correct response for the right pattern to respond correctly when it’s real time.

So, in sabre, I have two problems. One problem is since I haven’t done enough drills beforehand, I don’t even know what the proper patterns are…but the second problem is that even if I knew what the patterns should be, I don’t have them in my muscles, and there simply isn’t enough time to “intuit” them while you’re going.

After some setbacks and losses at the recent tournament I was at, I decided that if I’m going to get more serious about this weapon, then I’ll not only have to train more, but also more purposefully. Coaching lessons. “Basic” drills. And other boring stuff.

What fuels me? Well, the taste of victory that alludes me.

…but then, why wouldn’t I fence foil as well? Foil is another place I definitely can improve at…and as I said earlier, many coaches recommend starting with foil, as a foundation in foil carries over in both epee and sabre.

I understand that I should practice foil if I want to become a well-rounded fencer…but I dislike foil (which is probably directly proportional to how bad I am at it.) I dislike it so much that I don’t want to spend the time sucking at it in months and years of practice, so I can possibly get better at it.

Agh, agh…so many problems…

But here’s the thing: I don’t have to fence foil if I don’t want to. Heck, if I didn’t even like fencing, I wouldn’t have to fence. I don’t play soccer, and I don’t have to. And the same is true for every sport.

There is no such thing as a true sport.

And this is mostly because it’s a category error. Sports aren’t about “truth”.

In fact, this isn’t even a problem. We recognize (or should recognize) that each sport is created…its rules, though they may be forged through tradition, are still arbitrary. And a rule change can come at any time (as foilists learned in 2005 and in 2009) — sometimes with good intentions, but it can still change things up.

At best, you play one because you like it. But if you don’t like it, you can do something different. In fact, if you derive no enjoyment whatsoever from an activity, then there actually is little reason why you should invest the time into getting excellent at it if there will be no reward payback when you are at an elite-tier. There are so many other things in your life that you could be doing that you would enjoy, and although, yes, there would be rough times in whatever activity…there will be plateaus and bad periods…you’ll always have something to look forward to…that will matter to you.

But then I thought…but fitness is a good thing, right?

Yes, I will buy that fitness is a good thing. Not too controversial a statement there. But again, your method of getting fit and staying fit doesn’t matter as much. Even if being active and athletic are good (and I’ll buy that they are), your method of being active, being athletic, or whatever else isn’t as important…it is the means to the end (so pick a means that you enjoy, no?)

So…let’s suppose that there is something within Mormonism that is good for people to cultivate, and that people would not naturally cultivate it in their day-to-day activities (in the same way that I would not cultivate being a phenomenal sabreist in my day-to-day activities). Call it being spiritual, call it being graceful, call it whatever you want.

But then…wouldn’t Mormonism just be a vehicle for pursuing spirituality, gracefulness, or whatever you want? And couldn’t there be other vehicles for pursuing the same ends, which might be more effective for different people?

When I read about diets and exercise regimes and whatnot, I see that some diets work for some folks…some diets are absolutely abysmal for some folks, but other diets will work fine. And then the literature is also more complicated about the conventional advice most people have heard about just making sure that calories in is less than calories out. (Just as the literature goes back and forth on carbs, fat, cholesterol [good or bad], etc.,) And I’m not trying to make the claim, “Boo science!” or whatever…just that people don’t all fit in one mold, and accordingly, one size will generally not fit all.

Yet most religions still insist upon exclusive truth and “one true church” claims.

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  1. Ruth permalink

    Nobody can live happy with a habit, at least the Holy Spirit rests in the soul. You can behave as an actor/actress satisfied with things of your works of this world. This world hates the Spirit of Christ, so nobody can become happy with habits except by living with the Spirit who sent Jesus to His Cross.

  2. Is this supposed to be like a zen Koan…?

  3. Cylon permalink

    Haha, good call, Andrew, that must be it. I know the words are English, but a can’t put them together to make any sense.

    As for your post, I got your point regarding the question of Truth before you even made it. The first thing I thought after reading Paul’s comment about how much work it takes to maintain a testimony was “but what about the question of whether we should maintain a testimony in the first place?” As you say, whether or not the church helps us in our lives is is some ways independent of its truth claims, as witnessed by the oft-repeated mantra that the church is a “good place to raise kids” regardless of whether Joseph translated gold plates or not.

  4. Cylon<

    I agree with you (hehe, of course, maybe that's because you agreed with me first).

    But in some ways, there's a conflation of different ideas of truth and truth claims. For example, the idea, "Mormonism is a good place to raise kids" *is* a truth claim…and it is one that may or may not be true, depending on the circumstances. So, when people say, "My testimony is not in the history of the church," that rarely means that they are saying that they don't believe the church is *true*…rather, they are pointing out how the truth claims in which they have testimony are the ones relating to quality of life, or their hope in the eternities.

    (P.s., I think adding the eternities muddies the waters a whole lot, but I'll have to write another post to address that.)

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