I know Mormons are a little different. I don't expect every person everywhere to understand a religion and its culture so well to be experts in everything they say or write.
However, Mormon athletes in college have been around for a long time, and so has the idea of those athletes serving missions. A recent article from NBC Sports about top basketball prospect (and Mormon) Frank Jackson highlights several points that typically make members of the LDS Church groan in the missionary-athlete discussion.
I'm not here to pile on the writer. After all, some of the mischaracterization seems to come from Jackson himself. But nothing about a two-year mission would constitute "working on your game."
So in an effort to help sportswriters everywhere understand missionary service (okay, some sports writers who will hopefully read this), as well as other sports fans and interested parties, I'd like to paint a picture of what a mission is, both in a broad look and a very detailed sense.
Let's start by talking about the term "take a mission trip." I couldn't detail it better than Greg Wrubell did on Twitter, so that's a place to start.
Simply put, the reason LDS folk groan at "mission trip" is that it doesn't quite paint the picture of what an LDS mission entails. A "trip" usually implies some degree of brevity: Your family trip to the Grand Canyon, for example. Many members of other churches do embark on mission trips: 2-3 weeks, perhaps 2-3 months to give service to a third-world area, teach English, and teach about the faith.
Such trips are awesome, and it's fantastic anyone would invest any amount of time and money to give to others and try to make the world a better place. None of this is meant to belittle those efforts.
The LDS mission is a full-time way of life for two years. A young man or woman leaves home and makes missionary service their life, called to and living in a part of the world not of their choosing.
LDS missionaries are set apart as ordained ministers and are directed to teach anyone who chooses to listen, and invite them to "join the fold," if you will. This does involve the typical picture of knocking on doors and meeting in the homes of those interested in hearing their teachings. It also includes helping build up local church congregations and supporting local leaders, organizing and carrying out service efforts, and, in many areas, teaching English classes.
This calling is taken very seriously by the Church, its leaders, and the missionaries themselves. Quite literally, a missionary wears the name of Jesus Christ on his shirt every day and is expected to do as he would do. I don't recall scriptural accounts of Jesus going off by himself to put up shots or squats. So at the very basis of what a missionary is, he or she represents something greater and is meant to forget self in the process.
Quality of Life
A missionary's quality of life can vary widely. For example, if a person is called to an area in the United States or other first-world countries (as I was -- Indiana), he or she will usually live in middle-class type conditions with adequate living quarters. Such a missionary will probably enjoy food they are used to and be invited into homes of local Mormons who are eager to feed them.
My brother was sent to Spanish-speaking areas and congregations of Southern California. Their hospitality is especially expressed through offering food, which can also be found in many places worldwide as well. Fed by Mormons and non-Mormons alike, my brother often ate two dinners per night. You oblige yourself to what people kindly offer you, not wanting to offend.
It's not difficult to see how such things could cause a missionary to pack on weight, especially because you don't normally spend much time exercising (which I'll touch on in the day-to-day details). That's definitely not a positive for an athlete-missionary.
Many missionaries have other experiences, however. If you end up in Indonesia, for example, you might live in a humid hut with no air conditioning and spend months getting used to the types of food available to you, which might be in smaller amounts than an American athlete is used to.
There's also a risk of contracting viruses or intestinal worms, which is not uncommon among a missionary population not versed in the ways and foods of the area. This brief study from undergraduate students at Weber State University tried to approach the subject with missionaries who served in the West Indies.
There is also a great physical and emotional stress missionaries shoulder in trying to complete the task put before them and the calling placed upon their shoulders.
So on the flip side, it's not difficult to see how a missionary could lose a lot of weight and even encounter legitimate health risks.
There are other health risks: bicycle accidents, car accidents (believe it or not, not every young man given keys to a car chooses to drive responsibly, and the athlete won't always be the one driving), and in some areas and extreme cases, violence directed at missionaries who may be viewed as rich and worth targeting. A missionary I knew in Indiana had a gun pulled on him after knocking on someone's door. While not common, it's also not unheard of.
These are things that just might affect the health and conditioning of an athlete-missionary.
Day-to-day life of a missionary
Understanding the day-to-day life of a missionary is key to knowing why an athlete-missionary isn't improving their game or enhancing their training.
Below is the daily schedule for all missionaries, straight from the LDS Church's official missionary handbook:
6:30 am - Arise, pray, exercise (30 minutes), and prepare for the day.
7:30 am - Breakfast.
8:00 am - Personal study: the Book of Mormon, other scriptures, missionary library, and Preach My Gospel (the missionary teaching manual).
9:00 am - Companion study: share what you have learned during personal study, prepare to teach, practice teaching, study chapters from Preach My Gospel, and confirm plans for the day.
10:00 am - Begin proselyting. You may take an hour for lunch and additional study, and an hour for dinner at times during the day that fit best with your proselyting time. Normally, dinner should be finished no later than 6:00 pm.
9:00 pm - Return to living quarters and plan the next day's activities (30 minutes). Write in your journal, prepare for bed, pray.
10:30 pm - Retire to bed.
A missionary spends two hours every day studying, and another nine hours proselyting, six days per week ("preparation days" and Sundays are a little different.) That's a 66-hour work week for about 100 weeks.
(Sundays are like half-work days, proselyting-wise, because most of the morning and early afternoon are spent either in worship services or in meetings where missionaries help support local church leadership.)
There is a 30-minute slot allotted for personal exercise each morning. However, it is couched in the hour provided for shaving (must be clean-shaven), showering, and getting dressed in slacks, a white shirt, and a tie. If you can find a good workout within that hour that also allows you to be properly dressed and groomed, you're a miracle worker.
Typically, unless you live in an apartment complex that has training facilities (which might apply to like 2% of all missionaries worldwide), your exercise time is spent shaking off the cobwebs of sleep, stretching out the aches and pains of a nine-hour daily proselyting schedule, and maybe getting in a light jog outside your apartment.
I've made mention of preparation days. Once per week, usually on a day that falls Tues.-Thurs., missionaries are afforded a slight reprieve from the daily work. During 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. of preparation day, missionaries get that break -- but also need that time to do laundry, shop for groceries, get a haircut, and write emails and letters home. After those necessities are tended to, missionaries are free to use the rest of the time playing basketball, playing board games, etc. (Remember, no TV, movies, or Internet.) Then, from 6 to 9 p.m., you get back out and proselyte.
So if a missionary is lucky enough to carve out an hour or maybe two, he could get up some shots or maybe toss a football around. However, the official missionary handbook dictates a very specific set of guidelines for recreational activities. Remember, the athlete-missionaries are there to teach and preach, so activities that could result in injuries and prohibit a missionary from giving a full effort to missionary work (or that could lead to costly expenses for missionary insurance) are very much discouraged and/or prohibited.
These include contact sports (hi football players); winter sports; riding horses, in boats or in airplanes; and mountain or rock climbing. The handbook also specifies to play only half-court basketball and not to keep score of any competition to avoid going over the top and causing injuries (you've seen a church ball league).
It's like preseason basketball -- you do it to stay in shape and prepare for the real work, not to win.
So you have 30 minutes a day to stretch and maybe jog a little, another 1-2 hours per week to maybe get some shots up, depending on where you are sent, and riding your bike around town. That's the extent of physical training an athlete-missionary gets.
After two years of pouring heart and soul into missionary work, an athlete returns home. Review the Storify of Wrubell's tweets. For Tyler Haws, it took months of workouts just to restore the level of conditioning needed to play Division-I sports. Then, the first time he was passed the ball in a pickup game, he had to consciously think about what to do.
Yes, a more mature athlete could have a frame more capable of strength, compared to an 18 year old. But that doesn't mean they come home muscle-bound and ready to tackle people or able to throw down alley-oops. It takes a lot of work to even get to a point where that maturity is an advantage. Many athletes end up redshirting (if available) for the first season home to get in shape and not risk injuring themselves.
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So a mission is not an obscure, do-what-you-want two-year break where you go around town smiling and looking goofy in dress clothes and a bike helmet and occasionally talking about Jesus. It's a structured, rigorous way of life where much hard work is expected. If an athlete-missionary decides to not abide by the rules in order to keep that athletic edge, they will be asked to make changes or could eventually be sent home to resume "normal" life.
More on missionary service from the Mormon Newsroom.