Does Faith in a Higher Power Provide a Competitive Edge?

David Daniels@TheRealDDanielsSenior Writer IMarch 6, 2014

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) reacts to hitting a three-point basket against the Toronto Raptors in the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Sunday, April 8, 2012. Raptors guard Jose Calderson is at right.  (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

How much faith in a higher power, not to mention a higher power itself, impacts competition is up for debate.

ESPN's Doris Burke wanted the secret to Kevin Durant's success after he scored 33 points in the Oklahoma City Thunder's 112-95 late-January victory over the Miami Heat.

"God," Durant told her. "That's all I can say. Jesus Christ."

Burke chuckled. Thanking God after winning games or awards has become cliche in the United States, where, according to a 2012 Gallup study, 80 percent claim a monotheistic religion. She countered by asking Durant how much he had to do with his MVP-caliber campaign.

"Nothing," he answered.

Durant isn’t the only professional athlete who chalks his achievement up to God. Jeremy Lin told Marcus Thompson of Bay Area News Group that God deserved complete credit for Linsanity.

Recognizing a higher power for prosperity may be cliche, but many athletes show gratitude for reason other than tradition—they actually believe that their faith impacts performance.

“Anybody that puts God first in their life is going to have an advantage,” said Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond.

Seattle Seahawks assistant coach Rocky Seto—alongside Russell Wilson and Russell Okungtold local pastor Mark Driscoll that "Jesus is better than the Super Bowl" prior to these past NFL playoffs. Weeks later at MetLife Stadium, the team hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.

Seto, who—like Durant, Lin and Desmond—professes Christianity, asserted that faith-motivated competitors, Christians specifically, "no question" have an edge over those who aren't. 

“We have the resources of the greatest power in the universe,” he said, “and that’s Jesus, whereas another person who doesn’t believe in God, who doesn’t know God, is basically operating on his own power and his own strength. Obviously there’s no comparison.”

The Seattle assistant clarified this alleged advantage isn't a reward for faith from a higher power, but that his God controls everything and is the root of all success.

“God’s not a cosmic genie or Santa Claus where you’d say, ‘I’m going to have faith so he’s going to give me what I want,’" he said. "God’s going to do what He’s going to do to get Him the most glory.”

Feb 2, 2014; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) kneels in prayer with his teammates after Super Bowl XLVIII against the Denver Broncos at MetLife Stadium.  Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

While Seto is in the American majority religion, Christianity at 77 percent (according to Gallup), he's in the minority when it comes to believing a higher power influences sporting events. Only 43 percent of people thought that Tim Tebow’s miraculous run with the 2011 Denver Broncos resulted from divine intervention, reported Poll Position.

But then again, the Seahawks coach doesn't equate divine intervention to faith. What he and other Christian athletes do correlate faith with is poise.

“Success or failure, if I give the glory to God, in the end, there’s really no way I can lose," said Desmond. "If you look at it that way, there’s no way not to be confident.”

“I feel like [believers] can feel a sense of peace because they know there’s something greater out there,” said Jacksonville Jaguars halfback Justin Forsett. “The game, it’s just that. It’s not who we are, but what we do. In that aspect, the sense of calmness you get from faith is definitely an advantage.”

“Every athlete goes through tough times," said former Duke basketball player Nolan Smith. "If you know who to turn to during tough times, it’ll get you through it a lot faster than those who don’t have a relationship with God.”

Sports psychologist Dr. Michael Gervais is part of the 57 percent who don't believe divine intervention influences athletics. However, he did recognize that faith can have a significant effect on performance.

"Spiritual belief and a rich theological foundation help people understand the ability to trust and believe in themselves and a higher power," said Gervais. "Because of that, when we add a level of belief and trust into our daily living, let alone our competitive mindset, we can experience a sense of freedom in whatever we do ... If an athlete is not anxious, they have the opportunity to be in this moment. And when we’re in this moment, that’s where performance excellence takes place."

Many athletes pray before, during and after competition. Seoul University researcher Jeong-Keun Park studied Korean athletes in 2000, according to BBC, and concluded that prayer helps lead to the composure that Gervais detailed. Even the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine published in 2012 that prayer could be useful in overcoming anxiety and depression.

While faith may benefit athletes who have it, the psychologist denied that it gives them an advantage over those who don't.

"There’s so many ways to get a great performance," said Gervais. "Somebody who hasn’t met Jesus, Buddha or God, they can figure some of their systems out on how to be confident, poised and calm."

Former Minnesota Vikings punter and professing atheist Chris Kluwe didn't need faith to have an eight-year NFL career. Of course, Seto still would argue a higher power allowed Kluwe's success.


*All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 
David Daniels is a breaking news writer at Bleacher Report and news editor at Wade-O Radio.