There has been a widespread expression of Faith within the distance running community of late. I have no doubt that it’s always been there, but with the recent success of Ryan Hall—a devout Christian—and the popularity of athlete blogs like the Elite Athlete Blog Series at TheFinalSprint.com, the topic of Faith has been at the forefront of the discussion of distance running. (To be clear, this post will focus on Faith in the “capital F” religious sense, not in the sense of general belief in one’s abilities.)
With blogs by Christian runners like Ryan, his wife Sara Hall, Josh Cox, Jon Rankin, Dathan Ritzenhein, Michael Fout, the majority of the posts have been about their Faith and the role it plays in their lives and training. And the comments are even more faith-centric, as running fans of Faith have discovered that The Final Sprint is a place they can go to get their fix of both. Next thing you know The Final Sprint will be changing its name to The Faithful Spirit!
For a blog about Optimal Training, this seems like the perfect topic to delve into. After all, when you are striving to be your best, you can’t neglect any aspect of your life that could help you realize your potential. So does Faith really have any effect on a runner’s ability to excel? And if yes, how so?
Faith and Confidence
One of Ryan Hall’s first posts was titled Confidence. He wrote it prior to his amazing run in London, and he says the following:
"During my senior year at Stanford I had to slowly nurse my confidence back from the grave as I had become accustomed to folding in big races. Training with my teammate Ian [Dobson] played a big part in reviving my confidence. Knowing that we had done all our workouts together made it a lot easier for me to hang in races when I may have otherwise not. With each race I steadily grew more confident. Teammates, good workouts, and solid races can go a long way in building confidence. But what else can give me the confidence to believe that I can go out with the big boys at London and be ok?
"Two short words have been pulsing through my head as I have been hammering out long hard runs at altitude and pushing my tempos to new levels…“I believe”. I believe that God has designed us in such a way that our body is able to do amazing things when we truly believe it is possible. Of course, it is not simply enough to believe without putting in the required training. But that inner belief that something is possible can not only play a big role in being able to accomplish the training necessary to produce a big result, but it also empowers us in the moment to achieve something others may consider impossible."
Ryan Hall’s confidence…or is it self-efficacy?
Longtime readers know that I often write about a topic called self-efficacy: the belief in what one can achieve based on one's efforts. You can see that it is really a derivative of the idea of "confidence,” which is simply the belief that one can achieve a goal. I generally prefer to focus on self-efficacy rather than the broader notion of “confidence” because it focuses explicitly on effort. Self-efficacy entails action, not just a belief in potential.
The formal theory says that one’s self-efficacy can be increased through four types of experiences:
1. Personal experience: "I've done it before, I can do it again."
2. Vicarious experience: "If he can do it, so can I."
3. Social persuasion: "Coach says I can do it and he knows better than anyone else."
4. Physiological factors: "I can't explain it but my body just feels ready to do it."
Personal and vicarious experiences have a very strong impact on an individual's self-efficacy, with personal experience being the most important. Social persuasion has less impact but can be substantial in some cases. Physiological factors have no more than a marginal impact for most people, but can be significant in certain situations.
Let's take a look at what Ryan wrote above, and break it down through the lens of self-efficacy:
By training with Ian (Dobson), he was able to relate his ability to Ian's. When Ian ran well, he knew he could keep running with him and run well himself. After all, if Ian could do it, and they were both doing the same workouts, then he could surely do it as well. This is a classic example of self-efficacy developed through vicarious experience.
By achieving gains in his races, Ryan slowly began to believe that he would be able to achieve higher and higher goals. The very act of being successful and seeing improvement in his own performances increased his self-efficacy: self-efficacy through personal experience.
Ryan doesn't talk explicitly about "social persuasion" or "physiological factors" but I have no doubt that each played some role. A good training partner or coach will be continually reassuring you that you can achieve your goals. If you trust their opinions, it will increase your self-efficacy. I've no doubt both Ian, Ryan’s coach, his wife Sara and many other supporters were providing positive, self-efficacy-building encouragement during this time.
Looking at what Ryan wrote, I think we could say that what Ryan calls confidence is very much self-efficacy. Except what's really interesting is the affect that Ryan's Faith has had on his confidence. Self-efficacy doesn't explicitly talk about Faith at all.
Apples and Garden Salads?
Like many runners, Ryan Hall gains confidence from his Faith. As he puts it, Faith helps him to "believe" that he can accomplish his goals. It seems pretty clear to me that Ryan Hall's faith is positively affecting his self-efficacy. But is it?
Couldn’t Faith and self-efficacy be wholly different ideas that we shouldn't even be trying to combine? Are we just talking apples and oranges here?
I don't think it's apples and oranges. But perhaps it's really a case of apples and garden salads. Faith is the apples. And self-efficacy is a garden salad, with each individual’s salad being made up of similar ingredients in different quantities. Think of personal experience as the greens, vicarious experience the eggs, carrots and cucumbers, social persuasion the croutons and bacon bits, and physiological factors the dressing (some days you feel like a zesty Caesar, other days Bleu cheese...).
Following this analogy, individuals of Faith simply make their garden salads with apples in them. Atheists, not so much. And while self-efficacy does not play a big role in a person's Faith—salads don’t make up part of an apple—perhaps the opposite is the case. Ryan obviously believes something like this, as he has said his Faith is a large reason he believes he can accomplish great things.
But does Faith relate to the notion of "effort" that self-efficacy
requires? Well, Ryan also says that Faith "play[s] a big role in
being able to do the training necessary to produce a big result."
His Faith contributes to his ability to work hard. It appears then that Faith, insofar as an individual has it, affects both one's goals and one's
So does Faith then fall into one of the above four categories of experience, or is it fundamentally different, a fifth ingredient?
Faith doesn't seem to me to be part of any one category. It is certainly not personal or vicarious experience, as they are defined above. And it's hard to argue Faith is physiological when if it were, we’d obviously see more Faith-enhancing drugs! So clearly the closest would have to be "social persuasion." But even that seems insufficient, as Faith isn't someone you trust telling you that you can achieve a goal (assuming of course that God isn't speaking to you directly).
Faith is a Salad Bar
But Faith doesn’t seem to be its own category of experience, either. Faith is broader than the types of experience self-efficacy identifies. If anything, it appears to be a framework for understanding those experiences. It is a world-view that affects the way you interpret the personal, vicarious, social, and physiological experiences that make up your self-efficacy. If that is the case, Faith is less like an apple, and more like the salad bar from which you build your garden salad. It dictates how you select what goes into your salad.
Faith is belief. In a higher power, yes, but often in more: a personal destiny, a mission, a moral code, or in the future reward/punishment for deeds done today. Your beliefs in each of these areas will affect how you interpret your personal experience, be it success or failure. It will affect how you view the success of others and how you choose those people whom you will trust for advice and encouragement. It may even contribute to making you feel as though you were meant to do what you are doing.
Having a high level of self-efficacy is absolutely essential to achieving remarkable goals. You will never find a champion who lacks for self-efficacy. Faith is different. You don’t need Faith to become a champion. But if you do have Faith, it may just give you an advantage.
I'd love to know your opinions. I imagine this will be just the first post on this topic, so please feel free to add to the discussion!