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Don’t Waste Your Sports, Part 1: Sports at Their Best—And Worst

I can see it clearly. My feet are firmly planted on the starting block, knees bent, arms hanging loosely at my sides. The water is still. I take a final deep breath, waiting for the gun to go off, anticipating my lunge into the pool.

It takes little imagination to relive this moment. I can’t count the number of times I dove into the pool, absolutely intent on winning.

What led me to compete as a swimmer? Well, at first my parents made me do it. They put me on the swim team when I was six. And let’s be clear: I despised every moment of it, because swimming is pure and monotonous discipline. And I wasn’t disciplined. I was a born loafer.

Here’s the strange thing: I continued to swim until college, and in spite of my hatred for early morning practices and frigid pools, at every meet I was driven to win. I was elated when I won and depressed when I lost (which was, sadly, much more frequent). I despised swimming. So what explanation is there for my passion to win?

At the time I would have said I was competitive.

What I didn’t perceive then was my own passion to be admired. Swimming was merely my stage, my opportunity to impress others with my athleticism. Each event was a platform for drawing attention to myself. And it was no different in the other sports I played (and liked better): baseball, basketball, football. Now, as I reflect on those years, I see more clearly what was in my heart as a young man. I can see how proud I was.

The problem wasn’t swimming, or baseball, basketball, or football. These and other sports are a gift from God, and competing in them can and should be a joy. I love playing a variety of sports in the back yard with my son and grandsons. I play golf (which, for me, is a means of cultivating humility). I keep two gloves and a ball in my office, and I play catch in the parking lot so often the UPS guy probably wonders whether I actually work. My family’s holiday traditions include a football game the day after Thanksgiving. Everyone plays. Even the ladies. My wife and three daughters play, regardless of cold weather, muddy fields, and even pregnancy. (Although I’ll admit the game gets shorter every year.)

Sports are a gift from God. But as soon as you introduce the human heart, things get complicated.

Why is it that sports seem to bring out the best and the worst in us? Sports can provide hours of happiness, but they can also ignite impatience, anger, even rage. What gives?

If you’ve ever asked yourself this question, you’re not alone. Erik Thoennes, a professor and former college football player, puts it this way:

I had the delightful experience this week of watching a dozen 5 year old children get a tennis lesson. They were asked by their instructor to simply run forward and then backward over a 10 foot span. They did far more than run. Skipping, leaping, bounding, hopping, spinning, laughing, animal imitations, running with closed eyes, dramatically falling, jumping up again, and purposely crashing into one another, all became part of the lesson. When the instructor armed the children with racquets, the fun really began. The racquets quickly became guitars, swords, canes, horses, trombones, rifles and fishing poles. The lesson continually bordered on becoming “unproductive” and utter chaos because playing was as instinctual to the children as breathing. The teacher was successful because he appreciated the children’s insatiable need to play, and allowed for copious amounts of it within his instruction.

But it’s not always like that. Dr. Thoennes points out the dark side of sports:

This week I also read of a father who went to jail for 8 years for unintentionally killing one of his son’s tennis opponents after drugging the opponent with medication that causes drowsiness. The father, who was doing all he could to ensure the athletic “success” of his son and daughter, had similarly spiked the water bottles of 27 other rivals over a three year period. The difference between the fun loving instructor and the winning obsessed father could not be more pronounced. And their differences highlight drastically different ways of viewing sport in Western Culture….One appreciates the actual process of playing a sport; the other has sadly turned sport into an ugly expression of human pride,…envy, and malice. What will keep us from turning sport into something ugly rather than beautiful?[1]

Good question.

Sports, at their best, are beautiful. In a 2008 game, Western Oregon University softball player Sara Tucholsky hit a three-run home run to give her team the lead, but while trying to touch first base she tore her ACL and collapsed. The rules prohibited her teammates from helping her round the bases. That’s when two of her opponents—including Mallory Holtman, the conference’s all-time leading home-run hitter—lifted Tucholsky and carried her around the base path all the way to home plate.

But we’ve all seen sports turn ugly too. Maybe you don’t know anyone who drugged his opponents’ water bottles. But turn on ESPN, and on any given night you’ll hear about steroids, suspensions, and scandals.

So how do we keep sports beautiful? Does God care either way? What are sports all about anyway?

This series of blog posts exist to answer these important questions. My prayer is that by the time we’re done, we’ll discover answers from the wisdom of God’s Word. We’ll find real guidance for athletes in the pages of Scripture. We’ll see that sports, although they bring us great joy, are not actually about us at all. Something—and Someone—much more important is in view.

Enjoying Don’t Waste Your Sports? Get more:
Buy the booklet.
Hear the sermon.
Other posts in this series:

  1. Sports At Their Best—And Worst
  2. What Are Sports Really For?
  3. Meeting God Before the Opening Tip
  4. Play to the Glory of God
  5. The Grateful Athlete
  6. The Humble Athlete
  7. The Servant Athlete
  8. Sports Idols
  9. Your Next Game
  10. Application Questions for Athletes

Watch the video:

[1] K. Erik Thoennes, “Created to Play: Thoughts on Play, Sport, and the Christian Life,” paper presented at the Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting, Providence, RI, November 2008.