Some people who don’t play contact sports wonder why we athletes keep going — especially in American football and rugby which are the two sports I have played the most — despite crippling injuries and a lot of physical pain. Even with all of the amazing memories and lifelong friends that are unique to these intense physical contests, I would not try to convince anyone to join due to the danger. But I would like to explain how, for me, the spiritual benefits of rugby far outweigh the pain. After careful consideration and study of the 37 spiritual practices in the Alphabet of Spiritual Literacy, which are so beautifully described by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat in Spiritual Rx: Prescriptions for Living a Meaningful Life, I believe that my experience as a rugby player relates to each one.

Having a heightened sense of awareness is a key skill in being a successful athlete, especially when a slip in focus for one second could result in you or a teammate being seriously hurt. The high-intensity nature of rugby and the fact that it is continuous (unlike American football) means that you cannot afford to take a mental break for even a second. For me, this contributes to a meditation-like state where a forty-minute half feels like fifteen minutes.

Some players don’t quite understand this aspect of the sport, but all of the best, most dominant players combine their strength and aggression with creativity, agility, and decisive skill to create stunning sequences which are as beautiful to me as the most intricate dances. It’s one thing to power over your opponent and another to make him fall over without contact because of a perfectly-executed play.

Being Present
When in practice or a match, the complexity of the game necessitates that each player is fully in the moment, leaving their worries behind. Oftentimes when I was going through a rough patch, I would look forward even more to training sessions because it is so easy to fully escape your everyday concerns and immerse yourself into the game.

Seeing terrible injuries firsthand has certainly deepened my compassion and caused me to change the way I play over the years. A youth football coach once told me, “You’re either the hammer or the nail,” and when I first started contact, I was reckless and powerful. Now when I go into contact, I am measured and precise, making sure to determine my body position as it relates to the ground and the bodies around me. This approach is a more effective and compassionate method because it greatly decreases the injury risk to yourself, teammates, and opponents. Although there are some mean-spirited players, the vast majority of rugby players don’t want to see anyone get hurt and will go out of their way to keep an opponent safe. In a sport where there are thirty players and one referee, you can get away with more dirty deeds than in any other sport, but in my eight years playing rugby, dirty play has only happened a small handful of times because the spirit of the game is to look out for each other.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of playing rugby is the relationships that it fosters with teammates. In a sport where the decision of your friend might result in immediate bodily harm for yourself, connections form quickly on the basis of trust and mutually assumed risk. In explaining how rugby bonds become so tight, I have always said that it is the closest thing civilians can get to the relationships that soldiers have with their platoon.

Playing any sport requires plenty of devotion and self-discipline, but rugby especially demands that each player is devoted to being in a cycle of repeatedly injuring and healing oneself enough to make it to the next match. This is only possible by dedicating time to recovery, and being in season requires consistency in scheduling and effective time management.

The only way for such a demanding lifestyle to be sustainable is for you to have effortless enthusiasm that comes out every time you get a chance to play or practice the sport. For me, there is an endless reserve of energy that spills out into the world when I play rugby.

Rugby players must have faith in their teammates in order to coordinate successful play together. In addition, teams trust that their opponents will do their part to keep the game as safe as possible.

This one took me a while to learn because I had a hard time letting go of mistakes. It felt impossible to forgive myself and teammates when major mistakes were made, especially those that led to losing a match. However, with time, I learned to quickly forgive and forget mistakes because holding onto them diminishes attention and makes consequent mistakes more likely.

After a hard-fought match, the only appropriate response is grace. It can feel gut-wrenching when you end up losing a close contest after investing so much, but rugby requires respect for the other team, which means that you win and lose with grace; boastful celebrations or pouting complaints are highly discouraged. It takes grace to look your opponent in the eyes and sincerely congratulate them so soon after being locked in physical combat.

Win or lose, when I play a day of rugby and come out with only scrapes and bruises, I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude that I was able to have such an intense, fun experience without hurting myself more.

At the start of every season, the best teams hope for a championship. I have been fortunate over my sports career to have won many, including a high school state football championship and a college rugby national championship. Each season began with an infectious hope that we would win the ultimate prize.

A good teammate and successful leader ensures that every member feels welcome, valued, safe. The captain is a lot like the person hosting the dinner party in that if they are doing their duties, everyone will feel at home.

This is one of the most underappreciated skills of world-class rugby players, and what separates the average players from the ones who can win you a match. They are the playmakers who envision an attack plan by reading the shape of the defense seconds before they execute. Rugby is a mental game between a few key players on each team, who are creating chances by kicking, passing, or running. The side with the most imaginative improvisations, which the other side has not predicted, will usually win the match. It is also important to imagine great achievements for yourself and teammates in order to begin the process of making them happen.

There is no greater joy in sport, for me, than watching teammates achieve greater results than what they had previously thought possible. The best teammates can believe, imagine, and teach one another to become better. I would much prefer assisting a friend in scoring their first time than scoring five times myself because it means so much more to them.

In every season, especially because of the physical nature of the games, disagreements and fights between teammates occur regularly. To resolve these, teams and sometimes coaches must come together to find a mutually agreeable solution because everybody knows that they can only win if they are all on the same page.

In a sport where violence is ever-present, it is that much more important that the players foster a sense of kindness that helps counter the aggression, keeping an emotional balance while uplifting team spirit.

This is another hidden skill of the best rugby players. Due to the continuation of play and improvisatory nature of the game, teammates must be in constant verbal and physical communication so that they can coordinate. To an uninitiated observer, it must sound like chaos, like a crowded banquet table with ten conversations, but, in the moment, being able to listen to your teammates’ and opponents’ communications will often provide the decisive advantage.

On every rugby team I have played on, there has been an abundance of love between teammates. To successfully get the most out of a team, everybody must be vulnerable and committed to exhausting their efforts every practice and match. It’s second nature to love a teammate who is all-in. Rugby teams everywhere begin and end their time together with arms around each other in a big circle.

Meaning is found when people put their trust and ambitions in something larger than themselves. A rugby team provides the structure for every one of the thirty or so players to contribute as much as they can, multiplying their efforts, which return to them as ecstatic memories, life lessons, and lasting friendships.

Knowing when to play through an injury and when to take time to let the body heal is a crucial skill that rugby players must learn. Nurturing wounds, both physical and mental, teaches resilience and balance.

Lucas Hackett-Provenzano playing rugby

Being on a rugby team requires that you are open to criticism and change. As the season progresses, the teams with the most flexibility — to adapt tactics and positions, and to respond to the many difficulties of a rugby season — are the ones who have more success.

Rugby is a place for organized and contained violence and anger; playing it is certainly not peaceful. However, I have a greater appreciation for and ability to remain peaceful because of rugby. It trains you to control violence and anger and to leave it all behind once the match is over.

No matter how old we get, the game of rugby has a way of making the players feel like kids again. Amidst the seriousness of competition and physical danger, it is important to remember it is a game that we play to have fun.

For new players, it is certainly a personal quest to start playing this sport, and it provides a difficult and worthwhile challenge. Each team also embarks on a quest together at the start of every season.

At the pinnacle of emotion, after full exhaustion either during a pause in play or after a game, a full-body feeling of awe can transport you away from all earthly issues. It does not happen often, but through rugby I have experienced some of the most profound emotional ranges such as disappointment, gratitude, and bliss. At these points, one must have reverence for the incredible range of human experience that is possible for us.

Team sports often force individuals to confront their shadows since the negative emotions and habits that we bring will rub off on others in a team environment. Good leaders help their mates become better players, but also more whole human beings. Teammates often have a unique opportunity to change each other for the better because of the vulnerability that the game requires, especially for men who typically have a hard time processing emotions.

Rugby is not a sport that you can leave behind once you leave the pitch (field). For me, especially during the season, at times of silence during the day my mind is filled with thoughts and ideas about rugby.

Every player must be both a teacher and a learner. This is the way that team chemistry and coordination is built behind the scenes so that during the match everybody knows exactly what is expected of them and how to execute a game plan in unison.

Aside from getting better at the sport, I have been privileged to witness and assist in some dramatic character development of myself and others. I have seen the sport transform immature boys, lacking direction and self-confidence, into men with discipline and belief in themselves.

One of the great joys of rugby, and the reason I greatly prefer it to any other sport, is that team unity is the most important determining factor for which side will win. All other sports can be won by just a few star players who do most of the work. In rugby, the weakest link in a team is far more impactful than the strongest. To have success, all fifteen members must be of one mind.

For some positions, deliberate manipulation of the opponents, discernment, and reading the game are the most important qualities a player can have; for all rugby players it is crucial to develop a vision for the game and to always be moving to the right spots in attack and defense, putting pressure on the opponents.

Thanks to the infinite possibilities and fresh ideas to plan and improvise on a rugby pitch, spiritually attuned players can easily find themselves lost in their own wonderful world. I was inspired by a friend in high school who scored with the most dazzling display of skill and creativity that I had ever seen. When the defense was rushing full-speed at him he chip-kicked the ball with a high arc and short distance, ran between the opponents, caught it before it hit the ground, and outran the rest of the defense to score a jaw-dropping solo try. After practicing for years, I was finally able to emulate his move in a college match five years later thanks to the seed that he planted in me.

X- The Mystery
To practice mystery, one must be comfortable not knowing everything and feel safe improvising in a world full of unpredictable happenings. I have not found a better way to build this skill than playing rugby. Every situation you encounter on the pitch is unique. Playing for years helps one stay calm and measured in a dangerous, ever-changing, and physically taxing environment. The bounce of the ball, decision of the referee, or change of the direction of the wind can all decide the fate of a rugby match, and sometimes there is no logical way to explain or foresee a particular rugby result. Learning to appreciate and be comfortable with these mysteries is the mark of a veteran rugby player.

The drive to achieve individual and team successes fuels rugby players to push themselves past physical limits. Every player desperately wants to win, score, and at the end of the season, be a champion. These goals are always gratifying when achieved.

Due to the unique athletic and mental gifts that each player brings, it is so important that rugby players know their strengths and create a unique set of tools that they and only they can bring to the field. With the humility to know their limitations and the confidence to bring out their most daring moves and ideas, each rugby player has to find their unique path and fit it into the framework of the team.

It is no wonder that some of the most lively, passionate, and spirited people you meet are rugby players. This beautiful sport returns personal investment tenfold with spiritual gains and lessons. Even if they are not cognizant of it, rugby players refine a plethora of spiritual practices so that, despite often living with physical impairments, they are some of the happiest people I have known.

Lucas Hackett-Provenzano is a graduate of Pomona College 2022 who majored in religious studies and was an intern with Spirituality & Practice on the Practicing Democracy Project. His thesis was titled “How to Have Habits of Healing and Hope” and was the culmination of what he had learned in his academic studies, life experience, and sports career. He currently resides in Redwood City, CA, living with family including his three mothers and twin brother. Lucas began playing rugby when he was fourteen and currently plays for the Razorbacks Mens Rugby Club in East Palo Alto. Lucas is especially passionate about recognizing the divine in everyday situations and maximizing his physical, mental, and spiritual health.