Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Catholic Kenesiology - How We Can Evangelize Through Sports Psychology

Last month I spoke at the annual conference of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, which took place at Montreal in Canada. While there I met Dr David Cutton, who teaches in the Department of Health and Kinesiology at Texas A&M University, Kingsville.

Kinesiology is the study of the mechanics of body movements, and it incorporates not only the purely physical aspects, but also the related psychological aspects, especially in relation to improving performance through motivation.

This is not a Catholic university, and the field is not taught from a particularly Catholic perspective, but David has been telling me how his study of Christian anthropology has given him deeper insights into what is taught there, and why certain aspects of it work so well. I wanted to know more about this. I have a growing conviction that greater recognition of the unity of body, the soul and the spirit in the human person, especially in relation to people’s general health and happiness, could be the driving force for the evangelization of the West. We have to see it more clearly first ourselves, I think, before we can articulate it to others. My hope is to see the development of a Body, Soul, Spirit movement founded in Christian principles that supplants the neo-pagan Mind, Body, Spirit movement that began the 1970s that has driven much of what passes for spirituality in the West today. I wrote about this recently here. So much “wellness” and yoga-inspired meditation, for example, comes out of this. People are searching for God - even if they don’t know it - in order to escape the dullness, and the fear, anxiety, even dread, that goes with an atheist materialist worldview. We can give them what they truly desire if we can communicate the Good News to them in a way that can understand.

When I asked David for some examples from his experience, he directed me to a paper he had written for the winter 2019 edition of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly entitled Interior Dialogue, or Self-Talk: Psychological and Theological Foundations. He describes how sports psychologists recognize that we dialogue with ourselves. The dialogue takes place because there are thoughts that occur to us first, and then there is part of us that observes those thoughts and responds to them. “Self-talk” is the name given to this interior dialogue. In a book to which he refers in the paper, Charles Fernyhough’s The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves (New York: Teachers College Press, 2016), the author even describes how so many people attribute the source of this natural process of inner dialogue to divine inspiration.

In the context of sports psychology, this dialogue is then directed so as to help the motivation of the sportsman and enhance performance, perhaps, or to aid in the motivation to complete rehabilitation. In very simple terms, this method teaches the person to distinguish good thoughts from bad thoughts, and then to reinforce the good while discarding the bad. In this context, good is a thought that will help a weightlifter, for example, to lift more weight - perhaps a strong internal affirmation that it is possible for him to do it. A bad thought might be a doubt that it is possible. It is broadly accepted that these techniques have measurable effects on the performances of sportsmen and women.

Cutton then goes on to point out that some traditional methods of Christian contemplative prayer are techniques whereby we do just this, and it can help us to strive for virtue.

As I read the paper, I could immediately see possibilities for engagement with the secular world through this. It occurs to me that we could offer the sportsman techniques in Christian contemplative prayer (perhaps without even letting them know initially that they are Christian, if this is likely to arouse prejudice) as a technique for developing within us that faculty of good self-talk.

If we get this far, we are already making great progress, for this is introducing what will be very likely to be perceived as just another meditation technique, but one that is crucially different from the usual techniques that come from Eastern non-Christian religions and philosophies. This is not a process of no-thought, or even one of indifference to thought; rather, it is one that recognizes a distinction between good and bad thoughts. This is opening the door in their hearts to the recognition of objective truth and leading them away from the relativism that New Age movements encourage. Even if there is no discussion beyond this as to what the good is, or no explicit introduction of the Christian message, it is still good; it is sowing mustard seeds that might germinate and grow into trees of faith in time.

A mustard tree
Furthermore, the recognition of this internal dialogue is consistent with the person who is not just aware, but aware that he is aware. The faculty of this self-observation is the spirit of man, as it is understood in Christian anthropology. So when we explain to the person why it works, we can start to talk of a Christian and scriptural anthropology of body, soul, and spirit.

Where it goes from there will depend on the situation. But I could envisage, for example, a situation in which the sports psychologist or coach could go on to introduce discerningly and by degrees a steadily deeper description of the authentic spiritual life. We might gradually introduce the idea, for example, that this is not exclusively a conversation within ourselves; some of those thoughts, especially the good ones, are the result of openness to inspiration from beyond. As they are spiritual in nature, the source, it might be argued, is a spiritual being that is good and divine. If the research referred to is correct, the seeds of such ideas are likely to be occurring to them intuitively already.

Going further, one can imagine that we could get to the point where we say that the most powerful encounter with that source of inspiration and which will encourage the most beneficial “self-talk” is the worship of that being, God, whereby the whole person - body, soul, and spirit - is engaged in the greatest conformity to an attitude of receptivity... “And would you like to come to Vespers with me this evening?”

What will make non-Christians take notice is a positive experience of this prayer. The reason that people immerse themselves in yoga is that they feel better for doing it, and they are curious as why. While wanting to do well at sport is not the noblest goal in life, it need not be a bad one, and it might be the first step that leads to the best end in life, God.

I see no reason why such techniques might not just aid in their physical performance but simultaneously lead to a greater and more general sense of well-being. It is this that will stimulate their yearning for something nobler also.

This is the pattern of my own story of conversion. As described in my book The Vision for You, I was offered a series of generic “spiritual” exercises in order to help me to be an artist. I had no interest in God whatsoever. Even as I noticed that these exercises were helping me in my goals, and began to see that some sort of Loving Power was in my life, I first thought of this newly found God as a means, not an end. This changed in time, however, as I started to desire more the happiness that it gave me. Ultimately, this led to my conversion and reception into the Catholic Church. However, while my reason for doing so might have changed over the 30 years since I started this journey, I have never stopped wanting to be an artist.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: