When people hear the word “discipline” it often invokes negative connotations of obeying rules through harsh techniques or some sort of kill-joy on the human experience. However, those who achieve any success be it an athlete, musician, or entrepreneur know that the skill of discipline is a key ingredient to their success. About a month after the Super Bowl loss Tom Brady was on Good Morning America being interviewed by Michael Strahan. When asked about the secret to his long-term success in the NFL Brady stated plainly, “It requires a lot of discipline.” Brady mentioned that in his early years in the NFL he lacked concrete discipline. During these years, he relied more on his talent and had a kind of “whatever” mentality when it came to sticking to a structured routine of self-mastery. When we hear the word “discipline” from an athlete we might simply assume he’s referring to hard work. Yes, but more specifically the discipline Brady is referring to had to do with developing a well-defined structure and routine in his training. He stated that this discipline was “to make the right decisions” and that his choices are based on “where your priorities are.” He went on to say that in his younger days, “my routine was not very good” when it came to how he was working out, what he was eating/drinking, and basically how he was taking care of his body.
While Tom Brady is not a beacon of sanctity, even he, a prominent athlete, knows that the inner drive of discipline and order is rooted in God. When describing this discipline Brady declared, “God had given me this when I was young.” And how was this positive attribute of discipline cultivated in Brady? By his Catholic upbringing. As Brady told Strahan, “I grew up as a Catholic boy and went to Catholic school and found all these different ways that they [religion and sports] correlate to one other.” Therefore, Brady’s Catholic formation laid the foundation for the discipline he needed in the NFL. Even when discussing the documentary series Religion of Sports, Brady and Strahan went on to connect how sports and religion are similar in that both use discipline to properly structure people toward their full-flowering. In short, Brady’s success, as well as other athletes, is rooted in a deeply religious concept – discipline.
In fact, St. Paul, himself, introduced the discipline of sports and discipline of faith link when he suggested, “Every athlete exercises self-control [discipline] in all things” (1 Corinthians 9:25) as he went further on in chapter 10 to articulate how the believers need to avoid certain temptations.
Before seeing the Biblical vantage point of discipline, we first need to ask what is discipline? Discipline is the art of self-mastery to improve the human person whether it be physically, intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually. To make any advancement in these areas a person needs discipline. As psychologists indicated in a recent study on discipline, “The word discipline means to impart knowledge and skill – to teach.” This is the positive aspect of discipline and notice this optimistic side of discipline is geared to the long-term improvement of the person. The negative side of discipline is that it invokes a painful experience on a person. However, the uncomfortable element in discipline is short-term, not long-term. So while discipline has two sides of the coin, a good and a bad, the bad side is short-term. Moreover, this negative connotation of discipline is like the pointing finger that leads one to his long-term well-being much like a personal trainer is for an obese person – uncomfortable at first, but eventually, it is the instrument that helps that person.
In fact, former Navy SEAL and best-selling author, Jocko Willink, stresses that discipline is the main ingredient to freedom (see here).
With discipline and self-mastery, one must restrict himself in his choices and action. An athlete must have the ability to say “no” or put up restrictions on what they put in their body and how they use their time. In other words, the person has to restrict what takes him away from his end; his purpose. But, these restrictions are merely a short-term means to an end that allows the person to fully develop in their craft and achieve success. For example, a student who grows in his or her intellectual development must put in hard work and necessarily cut off any distractions that will take them away from their intellectual advancement (laziness, addiction to alcohol, drugs, or any other outside distraction that takes them away from their end).
The other feature of discipline is it makes a person or an object well-defined. If discipline is to restrict outside elements, and definition only comes when outside elements are restricted, then discipline is a prerequisite for anything to have definition. For example, the state of Tennessee is defined by its restrictions; its borders. A triangle is defined by having only three sides and being restricted from having four, five, or six sides. The same holds true for every created thing. Therefore, without restrictions, a thing has absolutely no-definition and thus, becomes obsolete.
To demonstrate discipline vs. no discipline picture two images. Imagine a rapid river and a lazy pond. The rapid river represents discipline. Because of its discipline, it is able to build up restrictions of what it is not. Thus, it has heavy rocks and boulders to restrict it. Because of these restrictions the river moves with purpose and is powerful. It is well-defined and attractive to all. The river achieved its end – its purpose by its self-mastery in discipline. The lazy pond represents the no discipline or “whatever” attitude that is reminiscent of a rebellious teenager. Because it has no discipline it can’t build up restrictions. Therefore, it is not well-defined and becomes adrift. It has no movement, no drive. It is unattractive and merely exists in this bland state of lifelessness.
What should be evident from this example is that structure and self-mastery are necessary for a person to thrive. Without it, one enters into this vapid, lifeless, unrecognizable state. Lest the reader thinks this is a generalization, many psychologists confirm this theory. Psychologist Marilyn Wedge writes extensively that without structure and discipline a child will become more prone to ADHD and a host of other behavioral problems. Other research found a strong connection between higher levels of self-control (i.e. discipline) and life satisfaction. Moreover, other studies show that people that have discipline are happier. Why are they happier? Because they have self-mastery. They are akin to the rapid river that moves with purpose and strength.
Family psychologists continuously point out that discipline and structure is a net positive for a child’s development (see also here here and here). The benefits of discipline keep going. Discipline makes for more intelligent and motivated students. Research shows that students who are self-disciplined are better able to focus on long-term goals and make better choices related to academic engagement. Another study found that self-control (i.e. discipline) helps people reach achievement in that they are not distracted by immediate pleasures and temptations. Scientists call this “effortful inhibition” — and it’s crucial to accomplish any long-term goals. Also, according to a study by U.S. National Library of Medicine strong discipline and self-control allows people to overcome “grit” or any outside challenges they may face. Discipline also makes a person more emotionally stable (see here) whereas studies show kids with poor discipline and self-control are more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior and an increase in depression (see here). One report asserts that kids who act on impulse instead of acting with discipline are more likely to become obese, smoke, and become dependent on alcohol or drugs. In fact, family psychology is coming to the conclusion that removing discipline and coddling children will lead them to become emotionally unstable and cause them to drift into negative behavior. What all this research reveals is that discipline is the fuel that sustains and develops a person. With discipline, a person lives well and without it, they slowly deteriorate into the lazy pond.
Let’s come back to Tom Brady’s observation that the discipline he desperately needed in football originated from his Catholic upbringing. While people might knock Catholic education for being too rigid, ironically this “rigidness” they speak of is the very ingredient they need that allows them to advance in their development and redirect them from laziness. In the Catholic setting, structure and discipline are used precisely so the person will eventually thrive with positive attributes. The reason discipline surfaces as a necessary ingredient is because every person has inherited a flawed internal compass within (a.k.a. original sin). Thus, everyone enters a fallen dysfunctional world. Discipline brings order into this chaos. Without discipline, disorder and confusion would endure making the human scene an out-of-control mess.
Moreover, notice that the word “discipline” is closely connected to the Biblical word “disciple.” Indeed, Jesus stressed that discipline was rooted in becoming his disciple. As he stated, “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:33). Therefore, discipline is a prerequisite to the Christian faith. While the word “discipline” occurs frequently in the Bible (see Proverbs 6:4, 13:24, Revelation 3:19, Ephesians 6:4), the highest concentration to the word occurs in Hebrews chapter 12. Notice how this passage highlights that while discipline might seem unpleasant at first, it ultimately is embedded in the formula of love – to will the good of the person.
“Do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves. . . It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline. If you are left without discipline . . . then you are illegitimate children and not sons. We have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respect them. . . But he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:5-11).
How sad it is that this all-important term of discipline is treated more as a bad word in today’s pop culture. Indeed, discipline has become a lost art today. Renowned health coach, Lisa Hisscock, mentions that only 6% of the population have discipline. However, she does indicate, “Discipline is a skill that can be learned with practice and strategic triggers. And once this skill is learned, it can be life-changing.”
In short, without discipline a person will be pulled in so many directions that they cease to have any purpose and thus become unrecognizable. The evidence in this article illuminates that having discipline can make you a good athlete, a better student, a happier, emotionally balanced person who is able to handle the trials of life with relative ease. These are all nice, but the ultimate gift of discipline is it will draw us closer to God and better able to live out the faith. Given that discipline is synonyms with self-mastery, it remains the key ingredient to will the good of the other by giving up the self. As Robert George eloquently put, “Self-mastery is a precondition of the willingness and ability to live self-sacrificially. One cannot give oneself to others if one is not first master of oneself. Lacking self-master, one simply has nothing to give.”
All the saints had discipline. They all gave in a self-sacrificial manner. They moved with purpose. They were recognizable and attractive to watch. They were fully alive. They wouldn’t have become saints and achieved anything without discipline. Discipline was the instrument God used to mold them into his masterpiece.
Whenever you see someone that has sadly turned into the lazy pond, offer them the medicine of discipline. If they take it, then eventually they’ll turn into the rapid river they were meant to be.