The Sporting Life

Developing competitors, coaches, and sports communities

The Athlete’s Temple

Low on Enlightenment, High on Purposeful Practice

I am not a fan of analogies that allude to sport being religion.  Sure it seems like an easy jump, but marrying the sacred and the profane does not sit well with me.  Both domains lose a bit of something in the process.

Considering this, you can imagine how I took pause when Will Massey, a co-author on research examining the development of mental toughness in elite mixed martial artists (MMA), suggested an MMA gym was like a temple.  I get the spiritual roots of many martial arts, but the modern day padded rooms, centered by a cage, and filled with board short wearing combatants feels a long way from the well manicured grounds of the Eastern temples.  Sure one research participant said “temple,” but should we cling to this idea?

Upon reflection, it may be one of the most educational pieces of the research.  World class MMA gyms are temple-like in the psychological contract they create.  It would be reckless to suggest that Dana White has papal wisdom, Tri-Star gym is a replacement for a main line church, or the path to enlightenment is through the fight cage… but yes, high performance is benefited by building a temple.

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The temple is an excellent mental metaphor for athletes in training.  It symbolically sets the stage for discipline and focus.  Consciously considering one’s practice time sacred moments allows for separation from the hustle and bustle of the day to day world.  Walking through the doors of the gym literally and mentally puts non-sport thoughts behind and cues positive performances.

Beyond the valuable symbolism, the temple mindset speaks to a well-formed sporting community.  The rules of religious practice are not written on the walls of a church, yet congregants carry themselves within cultural expectations.  A most successful sports training gym is filled with rules for safety and standards for competitive efforts, but they are rarely explicitly discussed on a daily basis.  Deep rooted norms fortify efforts and guard against wayward focus.

Temples create communities of shared values and non-judgmental acceptance.  When striving, struggling, thriving, and flourishing social support is essential.  Preparation for competition in combat sports is washed in damaged bodies and tears shed.  In popular culture’s eye, signs of frailty may be viewed as weakness.  In a temple of performance, these things are shared struggles that lead to strength.  These communities encourage emotional engagement in practice and accept that frayed emotions are part of the journey.  Acceptance from others allows one to fully strive towards their potential.

The mixed martial arts gyms that litter back alleys and office parks do not hold the aesthetic beauty of a Buddhist temple.  The struggling and striving within the walls does not lead to spiritual enlightenment.  However, making one’s sport practice home an important place reaps many benefits.  An athlete that embraces the symbolism, structure, and support that a metaphorical training temple provides finds purpose-driven focus, rejuvenating energy, and steady steps towards one’s potential.

Dr. Adam Naylor leads Telos SPC and is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Sport Psychology at Boston University’s School of Education.

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