Thomas Bjorn won his first professional golf tournament at the age of 25. He finished his interviews, took photos with his newly secured trophy, went back to the locker room to tidy up and the stepped outside to leave.
“I just stood there thinking, ‘Is that it?’...I felt empty. It was my first victory on the tour…it was the biggest dream of my life. But then you are alone. I felt flat. I realised that what you really want is not just a win for yourself, but for something bigger, you want to share it.”
Team Europe retained the Solheim Cup last week and the Ryder Cup is in its final day in Rome. We’re in the midst of a very odd two weeks in the world of golf where all eyes are not focussed on individual players (or the money) but on the teams they are playing for. Ii’s team golf season and everyone loves it.
But why is it that sportspeople - who are individually driven for all but two weeks a year - love it when they get to be part of a team?
Bjorn, reflecting on the loneliness of his first victory and the delight at securing the Ryder Cup in 2018 put it well:
“There is a difference between team and individual sport. In a team sport, you can share your successes and failures. You are surrounded by team-mates. I think that changes the experience and feeling…It binds you together.”
Journalist Matthew Syed, reflecting on Bjorn’s comments, notes how modern psychological research affirms these findings. Traditionally, motivation was viewed as an individualistic thing; humans were entirely driven by their own self-interest. So, for example, if you wanted someone to try harder, it was accepted thought that the best way to achieve this was to increase the size of their pay packet.
As in many sports, golf has been significantly impacted by this way of thinking, most recently by the birth of LIV Golf. And yet Syed notes:
“We are belatedly discovering…that humans are not economic automatons. We are not interested merely in self-enrichment. We are also social animals.”
Research by Greg Walton, of Stanford University, (as well as other academics) reveals that, most commonly, it is actually the connections we have with our peers and co-workers that motivate people to work hard, not individual or financial incentives. These are what give meaning to our work, and our play.
This makes total sense for a Christian. The Bible wholeheartedly supports the idea that community and connection are at the core of our DNA. In the creation story, God says in Genesis 1:16: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness”.
It is notable that “let us” represents God as plural rather than singular. As the Bible unfolds, it becomes clear that this is because God has never been on his own, he has always been three in one; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
“You loved me before the creation of the world” (John 17:24), is how Jesus describes his eternal relationship with God.
The Trinity’s love for each other was too good to keep to themselves so from the overflow of their love the Father created the world, through his Son and by his Spirit. We were then created, not because God needs us, but out of love, so we can share in his creation and share in his love, with others.
It is deeply human to have relationships, to give and receive love. Sometimes being alone is good and necessary, but to be lonely is terribly distressing.
Sport England’s recent report on participation backs this up:
“Active children and young people are more likely to be happy and less likely to feel lonely often or always than those who are less active.”
However, since the pandemic, there has been a drop in team sports participation. It seems that individual gym memberships and the increase in digital wellness apps and programmes have led people to see exercise and fitness as less of a communal activity than it was before.
Sport can be one of the most collaborative, community and team-building activities on the planet - and it should not be a surprise that God designed some of us to make the world a friendlier, happier and more loving place by enjoying our athletic abilities together. Sport, when played in this way, allows us to experience something that humanity has been hardwired to both need and enjoy – true relationship and deep community. For those who follow Jesus, this then will lead to greater opportunities to share our faith with those we play and train with.
So as you watch the Ryder Cup or take part in your sport – thank God for the gift of community and the gift of sport which can be so excellent at forming it. And if you’re tempted to only use your sporting talents individually (as the research shows many people are ) – maybe by withdrawing from team sport because it’s harder to schedule, or not arranging to train with someone else because it’s a bit inconvenient – consider how you can continue to train and compete with others.
The most special and unique golf tournament we have, period. There's nothing better than celebrating a win with your teammates.
Even the most individual sports can be taken part in with others. We were made to be in teams, in the image of our God who has always been part of one. Let’s go and delight in the gift of sport and the gift of playing it together this week.
Jonny is the Resources and Communications Team Leader at Christians in Sport. He plays cricket at Cumnor Cricket Club and is one of the leaders of Town Church Bicester.
Get the perfect start every
A weekly devotional for sports people