What are the things that I need to look out for? I’m not talking about physical injury. I’m talking about things far more serious than that.
1. Don’t lose your heart
Sport can be dangerous. It gets under the skin and into our hearts. We love it. But the danger is that we can love it too much. When I was a university I well remember one church leader chastising me for the importance I attached to my involvement in rugby. He told me in no uncertain terms that he thought rugby was my idol. I told him that he didn’t understand how sport and teams worked. He didn’t. But he was right. I see that now. Rugby had become an unhealthy obsession. I’d turned a good thing into a God thing. It had become the supreme object of my affections. I was worshipping it, and me, rather than the God who gave it to me. If we’re not playing sport to the glory of God, we’re still worshipping. But we’re worshipping someone or something else. The Bible calls it idolatry. So how do we know whether we’re doing this? We need to do some self examination. We need to ask some tough questions of ourselves.
First, we should examine the thoughts of our hearts. We usually think about the things that we most value. So where does our mind go when we have nothing else to think about? If it’s sport or sporting success it may well be this has become too important to us. What do we dream about? What makes you indescribably happy and what makes you unbearably miserable?
Secondly, we should examine the words on our lips. We usually talk about the things that we most value. So what do we talk about? What are we talking about when we have our most passionate conversations?
Thirdly, we should examine the content of our diaries. How do we use our time? We usually find time for the things that we most value. Is the diary wall to wall sport? Where do church, family and friends fit in? The answers to those questions will help you realise whether sport has become an idol.
2. Don’t try to win at all costs
The Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi is credited with saying, ‘winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing’. It’s wrong of course. There’s a bigger picture. There are some things more important than victory. When Andrew Flintoff bent down to speak to Bret Lee in 2005, we got a glimpse of the bigger picture. The victory at Edgbaston was terrific. But the noble interaction between two world class athletes put it in context. But just because winning isn’t everything doesn’t mean that we can use this as an excuse for being half hearted in the way we play. We can’t use it to justify a mediocre performance. And it’s no reason to be uncommitted in the way that we prepare. In Colossians 3:23, The Apostle Paul wrote, ‘23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving’. And so Christian sportspeople ought to be the most loyal, committed and hard working members of the team. But we need to stop short of thinking and behaving as though winning is everything. We mustn’t sacrifice our godliness on the altar of victory. It’s not ‘win at all costs’.
3. Don’t confuse ability with identity
I’m now playing veterans rugby. We’re older, slower and weaker than we used to be. Markedly so! But we’re still a pretty good side because some of our ability and acumen remain. And we still play non-veteran sides full of young athletic lads who think that their best years are ahead of them. Who knows what they think when they see us trot out onto the pitch. I still get an inordinate amount of delight from beating those teams. But that’s not altogether healthy, is it? It suggests I’ve got identity issues. I have. But I’m not alone. Lots of us derive our self worth from our accomplishments. And sport is no different. And so, sportspeople can be surprisingly insecure. That’s because of the maxim ‘you’re only as good as your last game’. That’s nonsense. But we believe it. We’re enslaved by the conviction that ‘who we are’ is bound up with ‘how we play’. The reason for that is because that’s usually the way that teams work. A disproportionate amount of attention, respect and praise is given to the star players. That reinforces the view that only the brilliant are to be valued. But Christians should have a different perspective because we understand that teams need diversity within unity. Or as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 12:1 ‘The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable’. That’s one of the reasons I love rugby; the big lump can play at prop and play his part, the lanky beanpole can play second row and play his part and the tiny whippet can play wing and get the glory for scoring the tries! But he knows he’s not done it alone. He’s part of a team that functions on interdependence. Even if we’re one of the most gifted players in the team, when we appreciate that our abilities are God given and that in a team we need others, humility ought to characterise our demeanour. Not arrogant self absorption with our own performance.
Play sport, by all means. But don’t be naive. Beware of the dangers.