Motivating Moods in Sport

ashley-nullAshley Null has worked as a chaplain at several major sporting events, including some of the Olympic Games. With our own Commonwealth Games fast approaching he gives us an insight into the emotional lives of elite athletes.

> What drives them?
> How do they withstand pressure?
> How good are they at negotiating sporting failure?

Whilst he writes about elite athletes, these words are very applicable to anyone who has been a perfectionist or high achiever. Or anyone who has wanted to win! Can you think of anyone? Answer the questions at the end.

The Emotional Life of Elite Athletes

Clearly, emotions are completely intertwined with being a professional athlete.  Champions cannot forget the joy of their first major achievement.  Nor can they always block out the horror and embarrassment of a major loss—those painful memories always seem to pop back up when it’s least helpful.  And what about anger?  Anger at opponents; anger at coaches; anger at how others have treated them outside of competition; anger at the shortcomings—or even complete absence—of a parent; anger at oneself for losing: so many elite sportspeople live with anger.  The question for Christian athletes is what should they do with these emotions?

Some folks think elite sportspeople should learn to harness all the passionate energy coming from these emotions to use them as motivation for excellence.  Jesus, however, is not in the business of baptizing destructive emotions.  Galatians 5 makes clear that the fruit of the Spirit cannot come from the works of fallen human nature. Athletes who rely on negative feelings to spur them on to victory will find they cannot simply turn them off after the competition is over.  Anger and fear of shame will rule their personal lives as well (Romans 6:16), often to the hurt and harm of the people around them. Jesus, however, wants to transform the negative feelings that happen in sport into something positive and life-giving. To begin with, he uses the emotional struggles of athletes to help them see the areas where they need to grow spiritually.  Then, little by little, he shows them how sport, despite its ups and downs, can be a source of real, abiding joy in their lives.  After all, that’s why God gave athletes the gift of sport in the first place.

Indeed, the initial reason God gives any good gift to human beings is the evangelism of joy. As a witness to his providential care for humankind, God gives the people of the earth sun and rain, plenty of food to eat, and the opportunity to turn their hand to a variety of activities in order that they may have joy (Deuteronomy 16:16; Matthew 5:45; Acts 14:17). The Psalmist (19:4b-5) recognizes sport as one of these joy-giving activities: ‘In the heavens [God] has pitched a tent for the sun which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.’

By comparing the feeling champions experience when performing their sport to a honeymoon—intense physical satisfaction and emotional contentment all at the same time—the Bible could not offer much higher praise for the joy of sport. As a God-given gift,  every race, every game, every performance is an opportunity to experience afresh the thrill that comes from doing something God designed the heart of every sportsperson to love. In the film Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell aptly expresses this approach to sport: ‘I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.’

However, born estranged from God, we lack the sense of wholeness that can only come from being in a right relationship with him.  Like Adam and Eve hiding from God in the Garden, we turn to the good gifts he has given us and make fig-leaves trying to cover our nakedness and shame at feeling empty (Gen. 3:7).  We use our talents to prove our worth and significance to others and, even more importantly, to ourselves.  As a result, the greatest pastoral need for elite athletes is to understand that the Gospel is the antidote to their bondage to performance-based identity.

So many factors in competitive sports encourage athletes to base their self-worth on what they are able to prove they can do.  And when sportspeople buy into that lie, they completely mess up their emotional guidance-system. More often than not, they are trained to feel good about themselves only when they are winning. When they lose, they are expected to internalize a deep personal dissatisfaction with themselves. For only if their emotional experience of losing is sufficiently horrendous will they find the willpower to make every sacrifice necessary to claw their way back to self-respect by winning the next time. Current psychological research only confirms that performance-based identity leads to fear of failure among elite sportspeople before an event, and a deep sense of worthlessness as well as shame afterwards if they lose. After all, as one athlete told a researcher, ‘If you lose, you’re nothing.’

According to Andre Agassi’s deeply honest autobiography Open, by the age of seven he associated winning tennis tournaments with emotional safety: safety from his father’s rage at his not being good enough, safety from his own sense of shame at failing to prove he was good enough, safety from his deep self-hatred as result—a self-imposed emotional abuse which the mature Agassi labelled as ‘torture’ (2009, pp. 37-38). At age ten, a well-meaning coach told Andre how to harness his  internalized anger and shame for success:
You’re hurting right now, hurting like heck, but that just means you care.  Means you want to win.  You can use that.  Remember this day.  Try to use this day as motivation.  If you don’t want to feel this hurt again, good, do everything you can to avoid it.  Are you ready to do everything? I nod. (2009, p. 55)
At 22, however, Agassi discovered that even winning a Grand Slam was not enough to heal the wounds from all the self-torture which he had inflicted on himself to gain such an achievement.  After his victory at Wimbledon, he realized that ‘winning changes nothing . . . A win doesn't feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn't last as long as the bad. Not even close.’ (2009, p. 167). Because so many elite sportspeople instinctively shame themselves as the price of, and power for, excellence, most champions compete not to win, since the thrill of victory is so short-lived, but rather compete not to lose, so as to avoid the bitter sting of their own deeply cutting emotional self-torture.

Therefore, the first step in helping elite athletes to gain emotional wholeness is to teach them how to separate their personal identity from their athletic performance. For only love has the power to make human beings feel truly significant, not achievement. Only knowing they are loved unconditionally will give them a sense of worth and value that will not go away, even when their athletic prowess does. Failure to make the crucial distinction between significance and achievement will forever keep the self-esteem of athletes hostage to all the ups and downs of competition—and their emotional lives will be a complete wreck as a result.

Of course, the only source for an assured, steadfast, unconditional love is God himself.   Christian sportspeople, therefore, have a wonderfully clear opportunity for a difference source of identity. According to the Bible, their worth and value is to be found solely in the love God proved he has for them by dying for them on the cross. While we were yet enemies, Christ died to reconcile us to God (Romans 5:8-10), and through the gift of personal faith (Romans 3:23-24), sinners are reckoned righteous, despite their evident short-comings (Romans 4:5).  There is no now condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).  They are adopted as God’s own children forever (Romans 8:15-17).  Nothing in all creation can ever separate believers from the love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:31-39).

Always remember, however, the Bible’s teaching about God’s grace is an especially important principle to communicate to elite athletes who are already Christian.  Why? Because so many outstanding Christian sportspeople still think they have to earn God’s love.  They look at our Heavenly Father as the ultimate coach who  rewards or punishes their spiritual purity with success or failure in sport.  When they win, they think that their spiritual faithfulness has gained them God’s favor, and like a lucky rabbit’s foot, this divine blessing gave them their competitive edge.  But when they fail, such thinking comes back to bite them.  They end up listening to the lie of the Devil who points out their sins (Rev. 12:10) and says, “God knows you weren’t spiritual good enough today—that’s why you lost.” Only a proper understanding of grace will save Christians athletes from seeing God as the worst ever ‘bad dad’ sports coach who cuts them from the team in the face of spiritual failure.  The only thing worse than experiencing the pain and loneliness of losing, is not being able to go to God for assurance and hope, because you think he is punishing you for letting him down.

Of course, the joy of the Lord is the sportsperson’s ultimate strength (Neh. 8:10). But athletes can only have abiding joy when they know that God is a good steward of pain in sport—not its source. As sure as Easter Sunday follows Good Friday, Jesus promises Christian athletes that he does indeed work all things together for good (Romans 8:28).  All the pain that they have experienced in sport won’t have the last word.  As a veteran Olympic chaplain, I always tell athletes: “God’s love takes us on journeys we do not wish to go; he makes us travel by roads we don’t wish to use; but only because he will take us to places we never wish to leave.” (Davis, 2008, p. 169). Only knowing this kind of gracious love from God will save elite athletes from performance-based self-torture in their sport and in their faith.

That’s why the Gospel is essential for a sportsperson’s emotional health.

Questions you can ask:

How did I treat myself after I lost a big match?
How do I look at myself after I sin?
What gives me joy in sport?
What steals my joy in sport? 

Further Resources

Agassi, Andre (2009). Open: An Autobiography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Davis, Josh (2008).  The Goal and the Glory Ventura: Regal Books.
Drape, Joe (2009). Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redman. New York: Times Books.
Ehrmann, Joe (2011). InSide Out Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Marx, Jeffrey (2003). Season of Life: A Football Star, a Boy, a Journey to Manhood. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Null, Ashley (2004).  Real Joy: Freedom to be Your Best.  Holzgerlingen: Hännsler Verlag.
Null, Ashley (2008). “Finding the Right Place”: Professional Sport as a Christian Vocation. In Donald Deardorff and John White (Eds.), The Image of God in the Human Body: Essays on Christianity and Sports (pp. 313-66). Lewiston: Edwin Mellen.
Weir, J. Stuart, and Daniels, Graham (2004).  Born to Play! Bicester: Frampton House.
White, John and Cindy (2006).  Game Day Glory: Life-Changing Principles for Sport. S. D. Myers
Williams, Margery (1983). The Velveteen Rabbit. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Ashley Null, 24/07/2014
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