Jesus, sports psychologist, helps Johnson win the Masters

Iowa’s Zach Johnson won the Masters golf tournament today. The DesMoines Register reported:

Johnson said with a cracking voice as he talked with CBS near the 18th green that the victory meant even more on Easter, as he credited Jesus and his late grandfather for helping him steel nerves.

zach_johnson.jpgNormally, when athletes give credit to God after a victory, the implication is that they won because God wanted them to win, that they put their trust or faith in God and were rewarded.

Johnson evidently didn’t pray to Jesus to help him win, he prayed to Jesus to help him stay calm. It’s an important distinction. We don’t know what the internal words of his prayer were, of course. But it probably wasn’t just a simple plea whenever he noticed his nervousness, ie, “Help me to stay calm, Jesus.” Rather, he likely had a prayer that he repeatedly recited, and it functioned as a way to mentally focus, helping him to stay ‘in the present’ rather than letting the mind trigger fears which create muscle tension which inhibits athletic performance.

In the movie, Saving Private Ryan, Private Jackson is a sharpshooter who quotes from the Hebrew Psalter each time he prepares to kill a German:

Be not that far from me, for trouble is near; haste Thee to help me.
Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight.
My goodness, and my fortress; my high tower, and my deliverer; my shield, and he in whom I trust; who subdueth my people under me.
O my God, I trust in thee: let me not be ashamed, let not mine enemies triumph over me.

He thinks God is helping him to vanquish his enemies, but it’s the calming effect of the prayer that quiets his mind, thereby calming his nerves and steadying his muscles and allowing his special athletic skill to be effective. Unfortunately, none of this is a match for a German tank which blows him out his sharpshooter perch towards the end of the movie. (I suppose one could argue that the German soldier operating that tank might have prayed more effectively than Private Jackson and therefore God answered the German’s prayer and not the American’s. But let’s not go there for now.)

So this type of prayer is a special class of false prayer that I blogged about in Feb. It’s false, because the person believes God is interceding in the physical universe. But it’s an effective false prayer because nerves are actually calmed.

The brain wouldn’t care if the words were from the Hebrew Psalter, the Sermon on the Mount, Mother Goose, or a McDonald’s commercial. The effect would be the same if the technique was practiced equally religiously. heh.

But I could be wrong.


  1. Cynthia M. Child said:

    Taking my work hat off.

    Griff sometimes I think you write things to ignite discussion but this time I’m taking the bait. I’m very annoyed with your theory of false prayer. You don’t know what kind of prayer Johnson said and neither do I. What I do know is that there are times that I ask God for strength or peace or to be calm and I don’t recite a prayer like a meditation and it works. Just because God is not real to you does not mean that apparently you know better — as if you know it’s really some old guy behind the curtain as in Oz. Having respect for other people’s religion or lack thereof means (to me) that we shouldn’t take away from someone else’s experience. You meditate and say it is calming to you but God didn’t intervene. Good for you. I say, God please keep me from focused during my tennis match tonight — don’t tell me my prayer is essentially false. It’s like you are saying I don’t believe in your religion therefore it does not exist.

    Grrrr. I’m praying right now for God to help me focus so that I can go back to work.

    April 9, 2007
  2. Griff Wigley said:

    Cynthia, thanks for taking the time to reply. I’ve got a busy day ahead of me and may not have time to reply until this evening or early Tues.

    April 9, 2007
  3. Griff Wigley said:

    I got this via email via my Contact form:

    Mr. Wigley: I held my tongue when you published those scurrilous and inaccurate “news stories” about the hospital and other such items, but now you have gone too far!

    For you to say that God neither cares about a golfer’s game, nor a sharpshooter’s aim, is tantamount to saying that God’s love may actually be universally applied, and that neither sports victories nor international violence are what God most desires. I’ve about had it with this line of religious reasoning! If you don’t stop defaming God with this kind of material, I may unsubscribe from “Locally Grown”!

    Yours in sincerely,
    Clay Oglesbee

    I asked the Reverend if I could blog his comments.

    If you want to blog it, you’re welcome to it. Thanks for the opportunity to set you straight.

    By the way, the sale of your home might be sped along if you would use the method of prayer noted below. The kit will make it simple for you. You must bury the Saint Joseph color resin statue upside-down in your yard. I am not certain what the depth should be, but there are instuctions included.

    Once again, there are benefits to prayer which you just don’t seem to appreciate.

    Yours in sincerely,
    Pastor Oglesbee

    St Joseph Home Sale Kit. Complete with color resin statue, Prayer card and How To Sell Your Home Pamphlet. Give yourself the benefit of the Blessing from Saint Joseph when buying or selling your home.

    Update: 12:40 PM

    Robbie actually got one of those included when we ordered our For Sale By Owner signs. She buried him in the backyard 3 months ago. No damn help!

    Sir, let us be honest. You cannot be sure that Saint Joseph has been, as you say, “no damn help”. Consider he may already be moving things along faster than would otherwise have occurred. Again, as I said in my first e-mail, the depth at which he was buried, or the angle of the burial, may be influencing his effectiveness. Be sure the directions were carefully read and followed.

    Finally, sir, without wishing to wound your feelings, it may actually be your prejudice against prayer that is working against the sale. This is a complex situation, a great many factors to be considered, yet after all, is it more likely that a true saint is to be blamed, or let’s say, some Northfield resident who respects neither God nor man?

    Yours in sin cerely,

    April 9, 2007
  4. Lance Heisler said:

    I find it reassuring somehow that there is still a lot of mystery to life. Acknowledged, I think, in your statement Grif that “I could be wrong”. How much evidence would you need that prayer helped this man win the tournament? Or that God has and does intercede in the physical universe? Is there any more evidence for the proposition that this man outsmarted his brain with a specific selection of words than for the proposition that God did in fact intercede on his behalf in some way? Can any genuine inquiry be made into this arena if we start with the conclusion that God could not possibly be responsible for what has already been determined to be an “effective” result? My perception is that a lot more people pray to God than to McDonalds, which I think at this point is an equally well known entity. I wonder if there is any reason for that?

    April 9, 2007
  5. Griff Wigley said:

    Lance, I’m not sure but you may have misunderstood me. I’m not saying anyone prays to McDonalds, but just that any repetitive phrase said with the intent to have have a calming/focusing effect can be effective.

    I grew up Catholic so Hail Marys are embedded in my brain. I sometimes say them when I need to stop my brain from thinking/worrying and fall asleep. Works great. But my beliefs about the Virgin Mary are not much different than Albert Einstein’s mom. Both must have been wonderful mothers to have raised such great kids!

    Cynthia, you’re right, Zach Johnson could have said a quick prayer like “help me stay calm, Jesus” for it to be effective. My point is just that a trigger word or phrase designed to have a calming effect in times of stress is a common psychological/physiological strategy, esp in sports. Often it’s just mantra-like phrases like “breathe easy” to get more oxygen flowing or “let go” to relax muscles.

    I actually think Johnson’s prayer of “Jesus help me relax” (instead of “help me win”) is heading down the road towards a truer type of prayer that is not talked about enough IMHO. I say “heading” because I don’t think its helpful to think that Jesus, as an other-worldly Being, actually reached into Johnson’s physical universe and intervened with his breathing and muscles. A nervous bank robber trying to crack a safe could say the same prayer to Jesus and have it ‘work’, too.

    But here’s an example of where I’m going with all of this.

    False prayer: “Lord, please let me win the lottery.”

    True prayer: “Lord, help me deal constructively with my financial predicament, help me see how I got into this mess, help me be open to new ideas on how to better solve this.”

    The latter recognizes that there’s an intelligence beyond one’s thinking mind that’s available, that can be relied upon, that can be a guide for understanding the laws of the universe and how to better align ourselves with those laws. To me, it doesn’t matter whether one considers this intelligence to be God, Jesus, Higher Power, Inner Me, Fundamental Mind, the Force, or some aspect our brain that we don’t yet understand. Like gravity and buoyancy, it’s an invisible force that we can learn to rely on. [I don’t do so bad with the gravity part but I still can’t float for s**t!)

    Anyway, enough for now. And yep, I really do believe I could be wrong about all this.

    April 11, 2007
  6. Clay Oglesbee said:

    Griff and all, for what it’s worth, I think there are two basic approaches to prayer. One asks God to align the divine presence and power with our desires, and the second asks that our desires align with God’s (for example, Jesus prays, “Thy will, not mine, be done” at Gethsemane”, and the basic prayer he teaches his followers, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”)

    The first sort of prayer, the lesser form in my mind(essentially a fox-hole prayer) can have a calming effect on any of us, and at least it has the virtue of opening the conversation with God; the second sort of prayer seek’s God’s guidance and purpose whether to our comfort or to our discomfort, our increasing peace of mind or our increasing anxiety, our victory or our defeat.

    John Wesley used to pray, and United Methodists still say, “Lord, put me to what Thou wilt….Rank me with whom Thou wilt….Let me be exalted for Thee or humbled for Thee…”

    Just thinking out loud with you,
    Clay Oglesbee

    April 11, 2007
  7. Griff Wigley said:

    Clay wrote:

    Just thinking out loud with you

    I appreciate that approach, Clay. My wife Robbie tells me I’m too arrogant sometimes when talking about this issue, so I’ll try to follow your lead.

    I think there are two basic approaches to prayer. One asks God to align the divine presence and power with our desires… The first sort of prayer, the lesser form in my mind (essentially a fox-hole prayer) can have a calming effect on any of us, and at least it has the virtue of opening the conversation with God.

    It seems to me that the popularity of this type of praying and its harmful side-effects outweigh its potential benefits. If I’m praying to win the lottery to help resolve my financial problems, I don’t understand how that could have a calming effect or open up a truer, more beneficial conversation with God.

    April 12, 2007
  8. Clay Oglesbee said:

    Griff, I won’t address the issue of harmful gambling directly, but out of my own experience: I probably spent ten or 15 years of my life supposedly praying to God by “telling” God what I wanted in my life–prestige, a Ph.D., a teaching position at a seminary, leather patches on my cordoruy jacket, etc.

    That was the “jackpot” I was after, and there were times when I was almost willing to “bet all I had”(including my marriage)in order to “win it”. However, I was only willing to do it if I thought God was saying Yes to it, and for many years I never stopped begging God to say Yes, or pretending that God had said Yes. I guess we all rationalize or self-deceive ourselves about one thing or another.
    In my heart of hearts, I knew I wasn’t hearing Yes from God or from anyone around me.
    That, by the way, is the problem with immature prayer; the pray-er is unwilling to take a divine No for an answer.

    Finally, it occured to me, after I spent so much time in that sort of prayer, that God doesn’t purposefully frustrate us, so if there wasn’t something wrong with God’s love, then there must be something wrong with my prayer. In other words, even my immature, self-concerned and addictive prayers did ultimately lead me to some deeper insight about myself and some richer understanding of God’s purposes. I was guided to a deeper appreciation of God’s love and guidance for me by means of my panicky, little, ambitious–but honest– prayers/covnersations with God. So the worst of prayers may still bring us into richer faith, and redemptive things can come out of the worst of the events in our lives.

    I am not urging bankruptcy on anyone through absurd prayers and gambling debts; I’m saying God listens to shallow prayers,too, and our challenge in prayer is to listen openly to what God has to say.

    God’s Yes to prayer, whatever God wants more, usually aligns with what most expresses love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. God’s No to prayer usually opposes selfish desires and attitudes like jealousy, anger, quarrels, and excesses of nearly every kind (gluttony, drunkenness, sexual licentiousness, etc…)

    Yours sincerely,

    April 12, 2007
  9. Clay Oglesbee said:

    Griff, my prayers have been answered–in Italian! We sort of found the entrance to an unusual swimming beach, but did not attend as we were not properly dressed for their occasion. –Clay

    May 2, 2007
  10. Griff Wigley said:

    Welcome back, Clay. Glad you’re back blogging.

    FYI to others, Clay’s reference to the “unusual swimming beach” above is a reference to the nude beach just outside of Corgniglia in the Cinque Terre region of Italy that my wife and I visited over a year ago. Yes, we swam nude. Yes, we took photos. No, you can’t see any more than this one.

    Now, back to prayer. [FOCUS!] I owe you a response to your April 12 comment, Clay. But while I craft it, did anyone attend the Northfield Prayer Breakfast yesterday and have an opinion about it? I see Ray Cox blogged about it. Since at least two other local civic leader bloggers, Senator Tom Neuville and Police Chief Gary Smith were there, maybe they’ll blog about it, too.

    May 4, 2007
  11. Griff Wigley said:

    I’m still thinking about responding to this prayer discussion, even as I prepare for tonight’s finale for Girls Nite Out. First a nude beach and now the Full Monty. Dear Lord!

    May 11, 2007