We all love big competitions as the best teams fight it out for the top spot.
But what’s it like on the inside of this kind of elite environment? How would it be to seek to play for Jesus in the world of pro rugby?
Pete Browne played professional rugby for 12 years. The back rower started out at Newcastle Falcons and finished in Ulster in 2018 after a career including great success, first at Harlequins and then at London Welsh.
So, with Pete sharing insights from his professional rugby career as a Christian, what are some of the highs and lows of the inside experience?
Pete reached the peak of his playing career in a successful three years at Harlequins, winning some of the biggest trophies on offer including the Premiership title. How does a pro rugby player not let success like this go to their head? “Ultimately my faith meant that I wasn't playing just for success. My success was in playing because God had given me these gifts. My performance doesn't matter; I'm still loved by Jesus and I’m just there to glorify God.”
Christians can know incredible security even in the most pressured environments because their purpose is in knowing our Creator and living life to honour Him.
Success on the pitch isn’t guaranteed fare for rugby players either, even in the best-performing setups. Despite working alongside top players, on-field success and positive club culture, Pete’s time at Harlequins was wracked with injury.
How do you deal with disappointment as an elite Christian athlete? In a performance-driven environment, Pete highlights that he sought to be defined instead by his identity off the pitch, defined by Christ’s death on the cross to make him right with God. “My performance, my body and the way that my body worked, or wasn't working in these instances, didn't define me. It was my identity in Christ.”
But remembering this can be hard for elite athletes who know Christ, especially in contexts with little Christian fellowship or in the pressure of big matches. “You can know it [that your value is in Christ] in your head, but knowing it in your heart is a different instance,” Pete reflects.
In these situations, it’s so valuable for players to be plugged into the local church or to keep in regular contact with close Christian friends; someone who can point them to the truth that they’re a child of God above being an athlete. Pete shares, “one of the hardest things as a Christian within this performance based environment is reminding yourself of that. I was very thankful to have my friends and family around me who were able to give me a perspective on that.” Praise God for those who help provide access to encouraging resources and fellowship in the midst of high-performance environments.
A number of people can help form this support network for elite athletes. Christians in Sport's Elite Team regularly meet with individual players and athletes and in many clubs there are also chaplains helping provide this. Ultimately though, the local church is the best place for elite sportspeople in locally based clubs (as opposed to global tours) to continually be reminded of their identity in Jesus and to be sent out to go and speak of Him.
So elite rugby can be a huge mix of stresses and joys, successes and disappointments. And in the pressure of this environment relationships can also be tested. If someone is vying for your spot, or you feel like you’re not contributing at all to the team with an injury, how does a player stay engaged with their squad?
Christians in elite sport can know that they have inherent value as a child of God, not based on their on-pitch performance. It’s this perspective, this sense of a greater purpose and worth, which can help Christian athletes stay involved in the team when it would be easier to turn inwards.
Pete had a few rough patches where injuries or performance excluded him from first team selection. In this disappointment it would have been easy to disengage with those around him and just focus on his own issues. But Pete notes, “the perspective I had was that these guys are worth more than rugby; I genuinely cared about playing with those guys. Being there, being present and wanting the best for them. Being on the coach with the guys and having conversations about everything and anything, about God.”
This flows from knowing the greatest news in the world - the gospel - and wanting to share that! Sharing this good news of an offered relationship with God can be a great motivation in engaging with the squad through all the highs and lows of pro rugby: “If I believe that I can have a relationship with God, the God who created the whole universe, the God who is ultimately powerful and in control of everything, surely I'd want other people to know that.”
If you’re a Christian then, as you watch the elite rugby, please pray with us for all those involved who are Christians. Pray for them to know that their value comes from Christ, not from their performance in the competition. Pray also that they would be bold in sharing with their teams the amazing news of a relationship with God which is offered through Jesus.
If you’re an elite sportsperson and want to find out more about what support we can offer you in your sporting context, get in touch with the Elite Team today. You can find all the relevant contact details and more information here.
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