Performance is everything
Performance is everything

During the group stage of Euro 2024 England struggled to show up, it’s easy to see why the mood was low, despite the certainty of them reaching the last-16.

Outside the England camp, pundits and ex-players have been critical of both of England’s performances so far. In a recent ITV interview Gareth Soughtgate was asked some pretty searching questions:

“Are all the players really fit enough to perform?”
“If I was to tell you the manager is getting a bit of stick in the press, would that surprise you?”

During the interview Southgate summed up the mood of a nation with a one-sentence answer:

“We need to play better, so we’re focussing on performance.”

So it's judgement day for arguably England’s best team in years, performance is the focus, but their performance in each game and in the whole competition, need not be the final word.

How can this be true in elite sport, surely performance is everything?

Performance does matter

Sport is about performance, there’s no question. And this is a good thing. Sporting talent and creativity are given to us by God as good things which reflect His own creativity. Competitors and teammates are people made in God’s image for us to enjoy relationship with. It’s a good thing to want to perform to your best, both to serve your teammates and give your opponent the opportunity to perform to their best.

At this moment it’s Gareth Southgate’s job to coach England to success, his and his players’ job descriptions are first and foremost to perform. But the pressure to perform, whether internal or external, is consuming – it has a dark side.

We all feel this pressure to perform. We all feel the need to hit a certain standard in all areas of our lives. Sport is perhaps where this is seen clearest, because sport is performance driven.

There’s no hiding from your result on the weekend, from your stats in training, we need to perform. We have to perform. Just as the pressure is on for England tonight, we feel the pressure to be defined by our performance.

Sport is a wonderful gift, but needing to perform all the time is exhausting.

But identity built on performance is never enough

Is there any more obvious example of this than the predicament England find themselves in? Unbeaten so far at the Euros, top of their group, guaranteed a last-16 place, and yet largely defined as ‘losers’ by the pundits, writers and fans? There is always a desire for more, no situation is ever perfect.

Ultimately Southgate, Kane, and the England team need to earn their ‘salvation’ on the pitch in the eyes of the publis. There is seemingly no way out but to perform, and they will be lauded if they do, even promoted to heroic status if they go all the way to winning the final.

But is that enough? It can never be enough, and it certainly won’t last.

If you’ve played competitive sport at any level you’ll know this. If your self-worth is based in your performance it is fragile and more often than not, disappointing. We cannot live up to the expectations we have of ourselves 100% of the time, not even close.

Just as the English public expect Champions League winners like Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden and Kyle Walker to do the business every time they pull on the Three Lions, we naively expect that we can do the same when we compete, and in our own lives. As sportspeople in particular we back ourselves to overcome adversity, to be winners.

And yet we so often fail – if we’re honest we’re losers more often than winners, it’s just that most of us have the luxury of being able to hide our failure from public scrutiny, a privilege international footballers don’t enjoy.

And even in those rare moments when we are winners, the high fades away all too quickly, eroded by the next disappointment, replaced by the next challenge. It never lasts.

There is only one defining performance

The constant requirement to perform for the coach or the fans is exhausting. The internal drive to perform in our lives day in, day out, is unsustainable. But in Jesus we see a better story.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” – Ephesians 2:8-9

When we realise we cannot achieve perfection, we look to Christ’s life and see He is perfect.

When we despair and believe we are beyond hope, we look to Christ’s death and see He paid with his life for our salvation.

When we condition ourselves to believe our worth is defined by how we perform, we see Christ’s love that is unconditional.

The greatest truth for any sportsperson, from England captain to local coach, is to know that the only defining performance is Jesus’ total and eternal victory over sin and death at the cross.

As you watch the game tonight, or head to training, will you remember this glorious truth? Will you fight against the temptation to only feel good about yourself when you win?

Will you invite Jesus into your world of sport, in the ups and downs, and know it is a place where you can grow in your faith, where you can freely love others, knowing that you are loved unconditionally by God?

Let Him keep working in you to make you more and more like him, for His glory and your good.

Brian Glynn

Brian oversees digital communications at Christians in Sport, he runs for Cornwall Athletic Club and attends Christ Church Truro

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