The whole world excitedly waits for the opening of the 2012 London Olympics. The Philippines watched their athletes pack their bags and leave for London ready to unfurl the Filipino flag for the world to see. Their fans cheered them on while on training, congratulated them for qualifying, and wished them luck as they boarded their planes to yet another prestigious competition in their career.
Our athletes not only gain personal fulfillment and reward each time they win a place in the international games. They also lift the Philippines to a level of prestige giving Filipinos moments of pride and unity. They give Filipinos hope that through sports, we can come together across different regions and ethnicities. Our athletes are symbols of how sports can make a nation, as was passionately demonstrated by Nelson Mandela who used rugby as a tool to unite his people because he knew that it was the only activity where all Africans shared the same sentiments.
But unlike athletes from developed countries, our Filipino athletes do not have the resources necessary for optimum training. Under this less than ideal situation, how do they remain optimal performers and sustain their full potential despite their life struggles?
A concept that has recently emerged in sports psychology is Athlete Engagement (AE). It emerged from the concept of employee engagement, which is the commitment and willingness to go the extra mile at work. Sport psychology researchers have found that athlete engagement is characterized by four dimensions: confidence, dedication, vigor and enthusiasm. Confidence is the belief that one is able to achieve a high level of performance and attain desired goals. Dedication is the desire to put in effort and time for the achievement of goals one believes as important. Vigor is the physical, mental, and emotional energy or an experience of liveliness. Enthusiasm describes the feelings of excitement and enjoyment for the sport.
In my study on athlete engagement, I interviewed 10 Filipino athletes competing at the international level. I found that as in Western studies, Filipino athletes experienced confidence, dedication, vigor and enthusiasm.
However, one dimension that emerged that was not evident in other studies was spirituality. When athletes doubt their skills, they often turn to their Creator and adopt an attitude of hindi ako pababayaan ng Diyos (God will not forsake me). One interviewee said, when she lost in an international competition because of one slight error of a move she had mastered well during training, “Depressed ako. Nahirapan akong bumangon ulit. Gusto ko ng tulong hindi ko alam kung kanino lumapit. Kumapit ako sa Diyos. Kung wala S’ya, baka hindi na ako nakabangon at naisalba ang sarili ko” (I was depressed. I had a difficult time putting myself back on track. I needed help but I didn’t know who to seek. I held on to God. If not for Him, I probably would not have recovered).
Another athlete reported that when she was either training or in competition, she felt a sense of completeness and oneness with her sport. She called this as her spirituality that made her total sport experience whole, inclusive of both her desolate and elated moments.
Filipino athletes who compete at the international level face many challenges. They do not enjoy the same training facilities and programs as athletes from developed countries do. They struggle to support their families with their measly allowance. They juggle between becoming an excellent athlete and a good student. They are treated as second-class citizens in many places in the world.
Given all these, perhaps this fifth dimension of athletic engagement — spirituality — becomes their pillar to survive. Perhaps what keeps these Filipino athletes surviving and winning is that their confidence, dedication, vigor and enthusiasm for their sport are all rooted in their faith.
Michele Joan D. Valbuena is Associate Professor at the Department of Psychology, Silliman University, Dumaguete City. She is currently completing her PhD in Sport Psychology. She is an associate member of the Psychological Association of the Philippines and is presenting this full research at the PAP Convention this August (www.pap.org.ph).