Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Sports Journaling of Serena Williams: A Spiritual Discipline?

What a great way to start the day....!
This fall, I am teaching two sections of Sports and Spirituality, an elective in the Religious Studies department at St. Ignatius College Prep. By the second time I hit "play," I am much more at ease with the class of 30 seniors. I ask them questions with a genuine, sincere interest as opposed to a quick means by which to cover the curriculum.

I looked at this crew of 17 and 18-year old boys and girls and asked, "Who here keeps a journal?" The tone in my voice was in no way threatening. No hands went up. "Really? no one? I'm surprised. I know that many of you like to write and it's an important discipline for writers." Slowly but surely several hands went up. They began share what they journal, how they journal and how often they do. I always enjoy learning about my students; this was no exception.

I said, "I'm asking because not only can journaling can be a spiritual exercise, but it can serve as an important athletic training tool as well." They sat up in their seats, curious to learn more.

One day prior I read "Serena Now" a lengthy piece in the August 25, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated on none other than the number one female tennis player in the world, Serena Williams. I've read a lot about Serena and I watched the documentary Venus and Serena not once but three times; she continues to fascinate me. The author of this piece, S. L. Price only added to the intrigue.
I hope she does it. I hope she wins her 6th US Open title
Price wrote about her coach, Patrick Mourtaglou:
"Mouratoglou had been watching her closely for years, but more so since he stumbled upon her notebook in a tournament car at Wimbledon in 2010 and found himself entrance: page after page of meticulous notes on strategy, practice habits, tennis at large. He has coached Marcos Baghdatis, Aravane Rezai, Jeremy Chardy, Grigor Dimitrov. "I've never seen a player who had a notebook where he or she would write during practice what she needs to think about, when she serves, what she needs to focus on," he says. "She doesn't want chance to be part of the result. This is a very professional approach that I've not seen many times. Players don't write."


I'm sure they don't. Writing is a demanding discipline. There isn't much that's instant or gratifying about it—at least when you're only writing for yourself. It requires reflection, time and concentration. And without honesty, it can ring hollow and untrue. 

Yet, what fascinates me about this story is that Williams' writing is a key reason, if not the reason, that Mouratoglou decided to work with her. And under his tutelage, Serena has "102 wins, five losses; the Olympic Gold, the 2012 US Open, Roland Garros for the first time in a decade, another US Open, a career high 11 titles in 2013. Her tennis was smarter, more patient," Evert said. Simply amazing.
I never would have guessed that Serena is that thoughtful about her game. I found her discipline important and inspiring. I know many golfers who keep golfers notebooks; they have shared with me how helpful it can be to take notes after a round to remember insight gained on different holes—shots made and shots missed. I believe countless other athletes in different sports could benefit from a sports discipline of such a cerebral nature too. Do coaches encourage their athletes to journal? Should they?

I began to wonder, if kept a sports journal, would it lead me to reflect upon my spirituality? As someone who has kept generic diaries for year, I know that every one of them holds a spiritual dimension; I can't help but write out prayers—some are near psalms—of praise, thanksgiving and hope. I probably wouldn't want my spiritual director to find this notebook, but if she were, I hope, like Serena's coach that she would understand what I want for the world, my students, and all of those people I hold dear. I hope she would see what I need to focus on as a Christian and that I take it seriously.


Another thing I love about Serena is that she plays
both singles and doubles. And WELL!
Rather than leave that to chance, I have decided to keep a journal during this cross country season. At the end of practice each day, I write down something I am grateful for that transpired with an athlete, at practice or with the team. Many people keep gratitude journals and this is no different. But my hope is to come to practice each day with the mindset that something is meant for me to appreciate and cherish. 

I didn't coach last year and returning this year has given me a fresh set of eyes. I am ever grateful that I can run, albeit much slower and free than I once did. But in this discipline, I have only seen that sport has led to spirituality and my spirituality is nourished in my sport.

What might you journal about? What will it reveal about you? your sport and your spirituality? 

Photo Credits
Serena 2014 US Open

Player and Coach
Prayer Journal

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