The final whistle goes confirming what you’ve feared for the last three minutes. Your dream of reaching the final is over. Their late score has seen them snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. As you know all too well, “no-one remembers a losing semi-finalist”.
It’s your final training run before Nationals. You’re in the form of your life, you cannot wait to be on that start line. Suddenly, you slip, your leg buckles, your knee twists, and you crumple to the ground. The searing pain tells you it’s bad news. The doctor informs you that you won’t run again for at least six months.
Disappointment and sport so often go hand in hand. Poor performances, defeats, injuries, getting dropped, a failure to improve - every sportsperson has experienced one or all of these multiple times. But how are you to respond to such disappointment? In particular, how is the Christian sportsplayer to respond?
Firstly, it must be said that feeling disappointed in itself is not bad. It is a natural response when things don’t go as we’d hoped, and it can be really tough to face. But our response to being disappointed may either be healthy or unhealthy.
A healthy disappointment comes out of a God-centred view of sport. If you are frustrated by a lack of progression or a failure to make the most of your God-given talents on the day, or if a difficult return from injury has left you struggling to enjoy sport the way you once did, then you are exhibiting a healthy disappointment. You are viewing sport as worship, but are simply disheartened that performances and results are not quite where they could be.
An unhealthy disappointment is one that is profoundly self-focussed. Perhaps the defeat or injury feels like your world has fallen down around you, or you feel as if your very identity is called into question as your sporting reputation takes a hit. Maybe you respond by training relentlessly, to the point of obsession, driven by a desire to prove people wrong. You may make excuses, or blame others such as a coach or teammates as you seek to justify your poor performance or the failure of the team. Unhealthy disappointment consumes you as you focus in on yourself.
Ultimately, an unhealthy response to sporting disappointment is a symptom of a deeper problem. One root cause of unhealthy disappointment is holding sport as an idol.
In other words, your sport has become your ultimate focus. Your desire to achieve and succeed in your sport is one of, if not the biggest thing in your life. So when disappointment comes, no wonder you’re devastated. If winning the gold medal or winning the league is of utmost importance, failure means you haven’t just lost a sporting contest but have failed in your primary purpose in life.
The prophet Isaiah describes our idols as a “burden” that we have to carry (Isaiah 46 v 1). Rather than lightening our load and freeing us to perform at our best, the idol of sport weighs heavy on our shoulders. Not only that, an idol diverts our attention away from God. Too much focus on our own thwarted sporting ambitions can obscure our image of God and of who we are in relation to Him.
Sport should be seen as a good gift from God to be enjoyed, not as a god in its own right. If we view sporting success as the source for our purpose and joy, then sporting disappointment will devastate us as it will certainly fail us.
Alternatively, or indeed additionally, your sporting performance may be the very basis of your identity. You are known as that sporty girl who always wins, or as the guy who is Mr Dependable in the team. So when you fail, not only have you lost, but your reputation and thus your identity is at best doubted, or at worst in tatters. An unhealthy reaction to sporting disappointment is often a result of misplacing our identity in our sporting performance.
Crucially, the Christian sportsperson must remember that their identity is in Jesus. The apostle Peter reminds us of this when he describes Christians as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Peter 2 v 9). We belong to God; He cares for us. Our identity is in the fact that we are created and loved by God, and that we are redeemed by Jesus. Our sporting performance (good or bad) does not define us, neither is it a measure of our worth. Rather, sport is an expression of worship to this good God as we use the talents and abilities He has given us as best we can.
So how do we ensure a healthy, rather than unhealthy, response in the face of sporting disappointment? In short, it is reminding ourselves of the truth of who God is and who we are in Jesus.
See sport as nothing more than a good gift from God. It is to be enjoyed and celebrated, but never put above God, never put as the ultimate thing in our lives. This will lift the burden of having to perform and will help us face disappointment with a clear perspective.
And let’s remind ourselves of our identity in Christ. Our value and worth comes from God, not from our own sporting performance. Sport will disappoint us when injury or defeat comes, but we can rest assured that our identity is permanently secure in Jesus.
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