Sports Icons and Belief: How Adolescents Define Their Faith

Even though the Denver Broncos did not make it past the first phase of the playoffs they made a name for themselves this past football season, not so much because they actually made it to the playoffs, a feat one would have been hard pressed to believe at the start of the season, but for their scrappy quarterback. At the beginning of this season, Tim Tebow was a 24-year-old second stringer. He was He was best known for his shaky passing and a slippery running game but he has since become a bit of an icon.  His last name is no longer just his appellation but as noted in the front-page New York Times article of January 14th  he has become a TV draw and his last name has become a verb. What has he done that makes him so famous? Ask any teenager who has even a minimal passing interest in football. They will show you what has become the Tebow pose. What we should recognize as the statue of Rodin’s The Thinker, is now referred to as “Tebowing.” Tim Tebow has become a sports phenom who is referred to as a “miracle man” by sportscasters.  This acknowledgement is not because of his special quarterbacking skills but because of his display of his faith. He Tebow’s at games , assuming the pose of The Thinker but in fact uttering a brief prayer whenever he is about to enter the game or after a successful play. It may have not been enough to help his team win a championship but it certainly drew attention to his religious convictions. He along with the now internationally known Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks is the kind of modest person that draws mothers to hold up signs at professional sports games in the hope that they will consider marrying their daughter.They both typify what we would refer to as a “mensch.”

            In 2001, a study of almost 1300 eighth graders found that religious involvement had the largest impact on their sense of self-esteem. Apparently being a participant in religious activity helps adolescents feel better about themselves. While race and gender contribute to self-esteem, the positive teachings of religion and sharing the support of a family in a nurturing religious context seem to have the greatest impact. This finding has been shown to be relatively consistent across religions, cultures, and countries. Belonging to a religious family and community helps adolescents feel grounded and secure.

 A plethora of more recent studies has found that teens that have a sense of religion and spirituality have a greater sense of life satisfaction than adolescents whose families are not religiously affiliated. Religion also helps reduce stress in the life of a teenager. The benefits of religious belief and affiliation are readily apparent throughout the research literature. There is however, one major caveat.  When adolescents are exposed to what researchers refer to as “negative religious coping” which is defined as seeing religious figures as punitive and excessively demanding, they are more likely to have high levels of stress and symptoms of depression than those raised in an environment where beliefs are presented in the context of support and spiritual connection. Moreover, in a study reported in the Journal Mental Health, Religion & Culture in 2011 it was found that intense family religiousness might exacerbate a troubled teen’s slide into becoming “at risk”. Additionally, when adolescents feel a comfortable bond with their religion, they are less likely to experiment with drugs and if they do experiment, they lessen their use compared to teens without a religious connection.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is something that we see in Mishlei (1:8) and in the Iggeres HaRamban – vall titosh toras emecha. In the Journal of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality researchers report that maternal spiritual support has the strongest impact on an adolescent’s choice of friends who are also spiritual. The bond with similarly oriented friends enhances their developing a spiritual connection to religion. Strong intervention programs like scared straight and adolescent boot camps to keep teenagers in line are, according to the most definitive research available, not as effective in helping teenagers as nurturing and supportive ones. A warm maternal approach is the best.

It is not likely that G-d and his Angels sit around and root for their sports team. G- d surely does not have a favorite quarterback or point guard. Nevertheless, there is an important message in this year’s “Tebowing” phenomenon and the focus on Lin and his race and religion. Both Lin and Tebow are not afraid to express religious beliefs. They are both modest in winning and accepting of loss. Neither presented himself as some wild, out of control sports hero who could demand and receive whatever he wanted. They also did not present themselves as a role model. There are, though, aspects of their lives that we all can learn from. Acceptance, modesty and a strong spiritual connection without pressure and with warmth help to keep people grounded and spiritually focused. Our teens, in fact all of us, would benefit from less pressure and more acceptance and love.


Dr. Michael Salamon, is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, His newest book is called Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims. He can be followed at @DrMJSalamon.

About the Author
Dr Michael Salamon, is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and a 2018 APA Presidential Citation Awardee. He is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in New York and the author of numerous articles, several psychological tests and books including "The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures" (Urim Publications) and "Every Pot Has a Cover" (University Press of America). His newest book is called "Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims."