Ever wondered what our work with elite athletes consists of? Men’s golf worker Kenny Crawford helps us step into the world of staff supporting and serving those in elite sport with the gospel.
It was mid-September on a golf course on the outskirts of Amsterdam, and it was absolutely lashing it down.
Sodden after nine holes of a pre-tournament practice round, the prospect of another nine was hardly tantalising. And the fact that there was only one umbrella between three people - golfer, caddie and the Christians in Sport staff worker - made the offer of a warm lounge even more appealing.
But it was declined. Of course it was. The staff worker had jumped on a plane to spend a couple of days supporting professional golfers at the European Tour’s KLM Open. They wanted to be with the player - to hear how they’re feeling and see them perform, to provide Bible teaching while they’re on the road and to encourage them to read God’s Word for themselves, to help them understand sport is a gift from God and a vocation for Christian living and witness.
This is replicated across a variety of sports. We also send staff workers to support athletes in the world of football, rugby, tennis, athletics and rowing, to name a few.
Professional athletes can have a lot of people around them: from teammates, coaches, and officials through to fans, friends and family. But for the athlete who is a Christian, there won’t always be many surrounding influences that guide them towards deepening their relationship with Jesus Christ.
What’s more, if that athlete plays a worldwide tour-format sport - like tennis, golf or athletics - they are away from their home church for huge chunks of the year.
Getting to church can be hard for elite athletes, but we encourage them to stick at being involved where possible. Being plugged into their local church allows these Christians to grow in spiritual maturity and will help their growth in the long term when sporting commitments change, both when the current tour is over and also in eventual and inevitable retirement.
Church involvement isn’t easy though on tour, and it’s all the more crucial then for Christians in Sport to have that regular presence alongside athletes. The effort, cost and travel involved to provide this is so completely worth it because it is a type of support the local church would find difficult to do.
For instance, there are highly successful athletes whose circumstances have led them to weep and pour out their heart in the company of a staff worker, who has subsequently been able to point them to Christ through the reading of the Bible. There are normally just a handful of people athletes really trust, and often our workers are included in that number. To have a Christian in that position and present in a moment of need, when the local church can’t be there, is one of the main reasons Christians in Sport invests in this work.
We take joy from seeing athletes experience the elation of good times in sport, and we empathise when there is inevitable disappointment. Staff workers have prayed with Christian athletes immediately after losing finals they should have won on paper and encouraged others to speak boldly of Jesus going into training camps and competitions. What a privilege to be right there at that moment, equipped to provide spiritual support and keep pointing them to Jesus Christ.
It has been a real encouragement to see how the lockdown and pausing of elite sport actually served to grow the reach of the work amongst elite athletes. In a number of sports, weekly Zoom Bible Studies began, and grew significantly, as players and coaches had more time to be able to commit regularly, as well as that desire to seek community during the isolation of lockdown.
Since elite sport has begun again the groups have continued to run, although sometimes with a slightly lesser frequency and have continued to prove a real encouragement to those on them as they’ve studied the Bible and prayed for each other.
It’s important to note that the Christians in Sport team don’t limit their support only to athletes who are Christians. They aim to be good ambassadors for Christ to whoever crosses their path.
On one occasion, in a hotel restaurant, a staff worker got chatting to an athlete they recognised from other recent events. After exchanging views on the quality of the curry they’d both eaten, the staff worker sought to explain their reason for being at the events. “Oh yeah I’ve heard about the Bible studies,” said the athlete, who isn’t a Christian. Word clearly spreads.
Dialogue is being built up between staff workers and athletes who don’t know Jesus in the world of football, tennis, golf, rugby, athletics and beyond. This is happening! Because who else is going to reach these people? By being normal, showing sincerity and remembering details about peoples’ lives, opportunities are being opened up to share something about Jesus to athletes who don’t know Him.
Of course, Christians in Sport can’t have a staff member at every single tournament or event, yet the trust built up over time in person by the team means they can continue the discipleship and pastoral support remotely.
One way modern technology really comes into its own is helping staff workers keep in touch with athletes they know and support throughout the season. WhatsApp messages can become a valuable means of reminding an athlete about a Biblical truth when they most need it, or a FaceTime call can provide an opportunity for the athlete to quickly pray with someone they really trust.
Staff workers can occasionally feel like they are ploughing a lone furrow, because they can be in a far-off land operating on their own. But in reality they are not. Behind them are the prayers of many supporting this work and ultimately God Himself, graciously providing the reassurance and strength to continue in this vital mission field of professional sport.
So the staff workers will keep packing their suitcases, driving those miles, jumping on the planes, preparing Bible studies, and torrential rain or not, continuing on for the remaining nine holes.
What was the simple sentence from the drenched golfer at the end of that practice round near Amsterdam?
“Thanks for walking with me.”
Those five words are telling. Yes, staff workers can walk with athletes physically, but they also walk with them spiritually. Christians in Sport is going to places so they can study the Bible with professional athletes who are following Jesus Christ more closely and shining brighter for Him as a result.
If you're an elite athlete please drop us an email to get in touch with our team to find out about how we can support you.
Kenny Crawford is part of the Elite Sport Team working in professional golf on the European Tour.
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