In the lead up to International Women’s Day, we’ve delved into the Christians in Sport Podcast archive to an episode featuring an amazing woman in sport, Jane Powell. With an impressive sporting cv, including international playing and coaching merits, we’ve potted some key lessons from Jane’s story as an encouragement to all Christians in sport:
Jane Powell showed sporting talent from an early age and excelled in anything she put her hand to. Badminton, cricket, hockey – the proud Yorkshirewoman dreamed of using her sport at the highest level.
She recalls, “I remember as a fifteen year old walking up the road from school and saying ‘I just want to have an influence in British sport.’”
And what an influence she has had.
Having played badminton for England as a junior, Jane went on to represent her country at hockey and cricket. Although she missed out on the chance to be an Olympian as Great Britain’s hockey teams boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games, Jane later headed up England Hockey’s coaching at Beijing 2008 and London 2012.
In between, Jane’s cricket career included a Test match century and captaining England in the 1988 World Cup final before eventually coaching the national team.
Since 2013, Jane has been the performance director at England Lacrosse, and in the same year was awarded an honorary doctorate at the University of Worcester in recognition of her services to sport.
Amongst the highs and lows of her sporting career, Jane has delighted in her relationship with Jesus as a Christian and sought to use her God-given talents to glorify Him.
So, in a hugely blessed career, what are some of the lessons Christians involved in sport can take from Jane?
Jane first came to faith whilst training as a PE teacher.
“My sister became a Christian before me: she said she had found a new friend and this friend was Jesus. So I thought I’d explore it to check it was alright for her. I realised not only was Jesus relevant to my sister, but He was relevant to me.”
This new identity, a Christian defined by Jesus’ death on the cross, had a big effect on how Jane viewed herself.
“Up until that stage my status was ‘how good am I at sport? Was I recognised as hockey captain? Was I recognised as cricket captain?’ It was just that continual striving.”
Jane reflects on the difference Jesus makes, “It was great to know that once I met Jesus I was a child of God, and that wasn’t dependent on whether I was successful or whether I win or lose. I’m a child of God every single day of what I’m doing.”
All Christian sportspeople can know this freedom, taking the pressure of performance or others’ opinions off because our value comes from what Jesus has done for us. With this identity, like Jane, we can enjoy the talents God has given us purely as gifts from Him which we can use to honour God.
But despite the freedom and joy of playing for God, Jane still discovered that sport can be hard, particularly when things quite don’t go to plan.
Many athletes struggle with injury, selection frustration, coaching relationship issues – sport can be full of disappointments. For Jane, her hard work on the training pitch was undone when the Great Britain hockey teams decided to boycott the Moscow Olympics.
Zimbabwe won the gold medal in that 1980 competition, but went on to lose 3-0 to the Great Britain squad the following year when they played the reigning Olympic champions on tour. Jane scored all three goals.
What a crushing reality – to miss out on the Olympics only to beat the gold medal holders comfortably!
“I did look back and think, ‘That was my chance’. That was the only chance I had of an Olympics because then I went into cricket and cricket wasn’t in the Olympics.”
It would have been easy to wonder what could have been, to wish that things could have been different. But like all Christian athletes, Jane could trust that God was in control and so could feel comfort in a disappointing situation.
And wonderfully, despite obvious disappointment in the early 1980s, God gave Jane another opportunity to head to an Olympic Games. In fact, she was Head of Coaching at England Hockey for two Olympic Games, in Beijing and London. She reflects, “He often gives you back more than he takes away.”
While we may not understand why things haven’t turned out how we hoped, the Bible is clear that God works in all things to work for our good and to make us more like Jesus (Romans 8:28). So, although not all of us will get to live out our Olympic dream in another capacity(!), we can be confident and grateful like Jane that God is sovereign and He’s in control of every situation.
On several occasions, Jane made the choice in her career to have integrity and put serving Jesus above serving others.
She recalls, “When I first played I can remember one of the coaches asking me, when I was hitting from one side of the field to the other, to look like I was going to play it reverse-stick and then at the last minute ‘just use the back of your stick – no one will be able to spot it, it will be so quick.’ And I said, ‘but you can’t do that. That’s not right, that’s breaking the rules.’”
Threatened with being left out of the squad, Jane practised the legal shot like mad at home to ensure that she could hit it well and fairly.
“It would have been so easy to cave in and just go, ‘I want to stay in the squad.’ But actually, representing Christ was the most important thing to me and I knew I had the ability to do that.”
In her role as Head of Coaching at England Hockey, Jane had high contact time with squads and worked to gain the respect of her players in the right way. In doing so, having integrity here was also crucial.
“Integrity has been really important to me as a Christian [coach]. Isn’t there that saying that you might be the only Bible some people read? If I’m the only one they see who’s a Christian and I’m carrying Christ’s name - that’s what it means to be a Christian – am I worthy of that title?”
Integrity is powerful, no matter what level of sport you play at, because Christians’ distinctive behaviour helps those around to see there’s something distinctive they’re living for: Christ’s glory.
Whilst it can be a big ask to try and hold ourselves to account on integrity, particularly when we’re the only Christian in a club or team, there are several ways Christian athletes can get help in this. Perhaps we could share encouragements and accountability with other Christians (maybe with other athletes or those in the church family), or ensure we’re growing in our love for Jesus through the Bible (e.g. being taught at church, or in Bible studies and personal reading). Another way to grow in integrity would be asking for God’s help in prayer, that He would help us to want to live and play distinctively for Him in our sporting set up.
However God helps us grow in integrity, let’s seek to follow Jane’s example of putting serving Jesus above serving others.
For all Jane’s incredible success, it can be easy to feel like her journey in sport is very different to yours or mine. How can other Christian sportspeople really learn principles from her career that will honour God and point others to Him?
Here’s one great closing thought which many of us can agree on and pray that God will help us live by: that life should be lived to glorify God.
Jane says, “I’ve lived my life knowing that if you’re a Christian, you should live an excellent life. Everything should be done with excellence because we’re doing it for God, not for man or for coaches. We’re doing it to say thank you because you’ve given me these abilities and I want to give them back to you and I want to be the best I can be because of what you’ve given me.”
She concludes, “I’d say that whatever I’ve done, I’ve done it to the best of my ability and pushed myself to glorify God. He’s the one who’s given me all that I’ve had. The journey has been fantastic.”
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