Six Life Lessons Sports Have Taught Me

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First, I know not everyone loves or has invested in sports the way I do and have, and if that’s the case for you, you should watch this up to 1:34 (and then the rest, because he’s hilarious!).

For the rest of us, for whom sports is somewhere between a big deal and the thing we work the rest of life around to get to enjoy, here are six crucial things I have learned through my involvement in sports.  They have each helped me to live more fully as a follower of Jesus.

1. There’s another game tomorrow, the next day, or the next…

Winning can feel glorious and losing devastating, for those of us who invest our emotions into games.  The more we’ve invested emotionally, the bigger the payoff and the bigger the letdown.  But both those feelings are temporary.  If I crashed and burned today, I can show up and try again tomorrow.  If I played out of my mind today, I get to enjoy that for a while, but tomorrow I’ll probably be back to my normal range.

I think this perspective can help tremendously for keeping our eyes on God, not the daily ups and downs, because that’s how we experience life.  Great day today, crappy day tomorrow, and we learn to keep perspective that neither one defines our lives with Jesus.  I’m not entitled to having everything go my way, and the struggles I’m facing, bad as they seem, don’t encompass my world.  They’re just what I’m seeing today.  The cliché is “You win some, you lose some.”  But if we don’t get this, we risk losing sight of God in the ups and downs.  Playing sports provides the opportunity to handle success and deal with disappointment while reminding us that both are temporary. Tomorrow will come.

“Eliminate any hint of worthless and deceitful words from my lips.
    Do not make me poor or rich,
    but give me each day what I need;
For if I have too much, I might forget You are the One who provides,
    saying, “Who is the Eternal One?”
Or if I do not have enough, I might become hungry and turn to stealing
    and thus dishonor the good name of my God.”

2. Learning contentment in failure and success. 

Responding with grace to victory and loss is a big first step.  Learning to be content with either requires a larger step beyond that.

Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”    

I can say honestly that I have never gone hungry.  Have you?  We’ve had seasons with a tight budget and pulling the belt in to what felt like the last notch, but in a world perspective we’ve always had every one of our legitimate needs met.

But I have learned to be content with failure and with success.  By “content,” I don’t mean giddy or deliriously happy.  I mean accepting and receiving with gratitude what God gives me.  Do I really mean I receive with gratitude when I lose?  Yeah, I really do.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  We live with many of these peaks and valleys:  health and sickness, relational bliss and relational storms, parenting triumphs and parenting failures.  I’m grateful for succeeding and failing longer term, in basketball and baseball and ultimate, as a preparation for finding this balance in other (more) crucial areas of life.  Learning to find strength in the God ever present yet intangible is not an elementary Sunday school lesson, it is the stuff of adult discipleship.

“Contentment in want” almost sounds un-American.  It’s like settling for less, accepting loss.

Exactly.  Knowing God’s presence and experiencing that he will never leave us nor forsake us, when our circumstances make us feel that we have been forsaken, leads us beyond an emotional relationship with God into the deeper levels of faith.  So, failing to become a star or even a starter on the basketball team, over several years, and discovering God’s presence with me in that failure (which felt like the end of my 18-year-old world at the time), prepared me to survive much deeper loss.  Following Jesus is the way of the cross; we must learn to walk through suffering and loss, or we have not yet embraced the Gospel.

3.  I’m mortal.

I know, this one makes me sound like a slow learner.  I am.  To a certain degree, I consider that a badge of honor, refusing to “go gentle into that good night.”  I wouldn’t still be playing moderately competitive ultimate or basketball at 47 if I were willing to let up or call it quits when things hurt or became more difficult.  I still believe–against increasingly compelling evidence–that I can guard fast guys half my age.  But the moment I admit to myself I can’t, it’s over, so that ain’t happening.

Continuing to play sports at my age means negotiating with my body.  From my teens to my thirties it meant making demands of my body, literally flinging myself into a play.  In my early thirties, I caught a goal for what my memory says was the game-winner (who knows?) by diving for and catching a disc that was at shoulder height.  That means I went parallel with the ground four feet in the air, caught the disc and landed without snapping myself in half or even dislocating a shoulder.  Now, I am constantly working to keep the balance between conditioning enough to keep playing hard and nursing whichever nagging injury has flared up this week, while adapting my game to what my body can do today.  The math on making too wild of a play simply doesn’t work out anymore–few points are worth 6-8 weeks of rehab.

Accepting our limitations is a core aspect of discipleship.  The reality of aging is growing in wisdom and maturity as our bodies slow down.  Staying in shape?  Absolutely.  Retaining as much flexibility as we possibly can?  Yoga it up, Baby!  But we are of dust and to dust we will return.  We’re made of God’s breath and dust; only God’s breath carries on into eternity.  As a friend just said, demanding more than my body can sustain is just self-punishment.  That’s a pretty bad drift from the joy of playing ultimate and a lack of wisdom.  I’m not 25 and I won’t be again.  How do I play–and follow Jesus in every other aspect of life–joyfully at 47, as a 47-year-old?

4. It’s the journey, not the destination.

Discipleship to Jesus is not some glorious victory we achieve.  It’s a life of growing humility and learning our need to dance with grace.  As long as grace is a theoretical construct, rather than a felt need, a life-or-death proposition like oxygen or food, we can imagine that we’re going to win.  But the imagery I appreciate most in baptism is that we are being drowned, put to death with Christ, so that we can be raised to life again, free from sin’s control over us.  God did that for me; I didn’t win, I just died.  Then the rest of life becomes learning to stay close enough to God to remember that I desire the life he’s given me.  The farther I drift, the more the things of the world look sexy and the easier I forget why I needed to be resurrected with him in the first place (Oh, that’s right–those things kill me!).

None of us amateur athletes ever master the sports we play.  We’re up and down and all over the map.  We have dazzling moments (in our own mind’s eye replay) and times we just flail…and this is after playing for a large number of years!  But the joy in sports is playing.  I know the pictures of the Superbowl winners hoisting their trophy makes it look like the joy must be in that ultimate victory.  I like winning.  Winning is more fun.  But the metamorphosis, for me, came when I began to appreciate simply being able to play, rather than needing to win.  As I grow older, my gratitude for still being able to play increases.  And it really is the journey, all the little moments of camaraderie and teamwork and the probably 45,000 high fives I’ve given and received in my lifetime, the hot days and the rainy days and the “I-can’t-believe-we’re-playing-in-this” days, that give playing sports meaning.  They are a microcosm of the journey of our lives.  For the most part, we don’t become better athletes as we grow older, but I hope we become more grateful, more joyful, more team-oriented, more other-centered.
If that also describes my discipleship, God has me on the right track in this journey.

5.  I’m not the best.  

You are also not the best in the world.  I know that, because the best athletes in the world are not reading my blog.  There are a small handful of people in each sport who are, arguably, the best.  Then there are the rest of us.

I’m not attempting to address the spirituality of people who actually are the best baseball or football or cricket players in the world.  That looks hard.  Pride must be an issue.  The praise they get borders on worship.  And a whole lot of us are watching all the time.  I deeply appreciate when an athlete can continue to be a positive role model in that glaring spotlight.  (Thank you, Stephen Curry.)

This story is not about me.  It’s about God.  I have the part God gave me to play.  He has made me part of his kingdom and for reasons only he understands, chosen to partner with you and me in the redemption and restoration of our world.  Crazy.

Many of us start out playing sports hoping and dreaming to be the best.  I wanted to play shortstop for the Yankees.  Then we run into our natural limitations.  We face people with far more innate talent and ability than we have.  We realize that there are people who work harder, no matter how hard we work.

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

I believe that humility is the characteristic God most desires in us.  When we have that, the rest of the world kind of falls into place better.  God chose not the brilliant and the most talented, Paul wrote, but foolish folks, weak people, the low and despised. That’s not exactly flattering.  I take this to mean we would be tempted to boast, otherwise.

For years, I complained to God that I had this ferocious desire to compete, stuck in this puny frame.  What’s up with that?  I know a lot of guys who felt like they got ripped off in the genetic lottery (but come on, how many people win the lottery?  Isn’t it, by definition, a rip off for most?  Sorry, different blog post).  Bizarrely, God did not choose to make me 6’6″ with a forty-five inch vertical leap and 4.5 speed in the 40.

Instead, he taught me to make peace with my limitations, to glorify him with all five feet and eight inches of my height.  Somewhere between needing to be the best and learning to rejoice in the abilities God has given me, it sunk in that 1)God wouldn’t love me any more if I were the best baseball or ultimate player in the world, and God’s love is the only real measure that matters, 2)wanting to be the best came from a false belief that impressing others would give me more value; it doesn’t, and 3)God looks for faithfulness, not success, and faithfulness can be achieved in any size frame whatsoever.  That’s the justice of God.  He chose the foolish and weak–favoring those who don’t have the favor of the world–and then leveled the playing field by making the expectation one that anyone can become (I was going to say, “achieve,” but we don’t achieve faithfulness, we become faithful as God transforms us.  Back to that whole journey thing.)

 

6. Being “coachable” is a great starter course for repentance.

I’m a coach now. I wasn’t always.  I was once a player who was known for–and took pride in–my “an attitude problem.”  I was cocky and full of myself and didn’t take correction well.  I thought I could get my way by playing hard enough and well enough to prove I was right.  That didn’t work.

As a coach, I see myself differently, both myself now, guiding and influencing my players, and myself of some (cough, cough) years ago, too stubborn to accept I could be wrong.  Ironically–or maybe not–the characteristic I most seek now in players, after heart, is if they are coachable.  If you can see you’re wrong, you can learn and you can improve.  If you can’t, you’re stuck.

I’ve noticed in preaching that Christians have no problem assenting to “you’re a sinner,” but react very differently to “you’re wrong.”  Logically, if you acknowledge you sin, you have implicitly admitted to being wrong.  But somehow we can hold these separately in our heads:  “We’re sinners” is fine, but “we’re wrong?”  Them’s fightin’ words.

Improving in whatever sport you choose depends largely on your willingness to a)be a beginner who isn’t good yet and doesn’t know much, and b)receive correction and learn.  I don’t know how many times my children have said, “I’m no good at this!” to which I had to respond, “No, you’re new at this.”

If I jump off the wrong foot doing a left-handed layup, correction doesn’t imply that I have a moral flaw.  I’m just doing it wrong.  But to get better, I have to accept that I’m doing it wrong and seek to do it right.  Repentance, biblically speaking, is turning around and going the other way.  It focuses less on feeling sorry that I did something (though a contrite heart is good) and more on stopping doing that and doing something else, instead.

One reason I named my blog “Grace is Greater” is that we grow in grace as we grow in our awareness of how messed up we are.  When I see my need for grace, I appreciate grace more (“those who have been forgiven much, love much”).  The more clearly I see myself, the more I recognize–and become willing to admit–how much is wrong with me.  How sick my heart is.  How badly I need God to change me.  God’s grace is always enough for that. In fact, it’s extravagantly more than enough.  It’s greater than what I could even dream of having the nerve to ask for.  God offers us that on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis.

But it’s still hard to see I’m wrong.  It’s hard to confess my sin.  It’s hard to have those parts of my heart that are sick get operated on.  As Bill Mallonee of VOL wrote, “Doctor is in, surgery is free, uses no anesthetic but it’s all guaranteed.”

God has done a lot in me (he understated) since my “attitude problem” days. I’ve learned several new sports, I’ve learned to see the good in being corrected.  Now I’m back to being a beginner–this is my first year as head coach–and I’m making rookie mistakes.  I’m discovering a whole new level of being “coachable.”  This learning and accepting correction and repenting and turning around never ends…I hope.

Being coachable, being correctable, trains us to see when we’re wrong.  Jesus came for the sinners, not for the righteous.  If we’re not correctable, not able to admit our sin, we place ourselves outside of the group he came for.

5 thoughts on “Six Life Lessons Sports Have Taught Me

    • God’s timing is pretty good. He also works in us according to the passions that (I think) he gives us, so no reason that we need to agree on this. And believe me (or read it in the competition series), it took a LONG time to redeem how messed up I was from/through sports. Oh, wait–you saw some of that. 😉

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