On Sports Metaphors and the It Factor

It’s all over.

The dash to the finish line was a crazy one, and I want to tell you all about it after we have a proper photo shoot. While BrownSands is blocking, though, let’s talk about sports.

Because I have been watching a lot of sports.

I caught medal events in athletics, badminton, basketball, canoe slalom and sprint, BMX biking, mountain biking, road race cycling, track cycling, diving, horsies jumping, football, golf, gymnastics, trampoline, handball, rowing, swimming (ugh so much swimming), synchronized swimming, taekwondo, table tennis, triathlon, volleyball, water polo, and freestyle wrestling. I also caught plenty of beach volleyball, boxing, fencing, field hockey, judo, rugby, tennis, greco-roman wrestling and a few short recaps of archery, race walking, marathon swimming, sailing, shooting, and rhythmic gymnastics. The only sports I missed entirely were the marathon, time trial cycling, dressage, modern pentathlon, and weightlifting.

My sport-spotting table. At least I didn't make my own spreadsheet.
My sport-spotting table. At least I didn’t make my own spreadsheet.

I watched athletes throwing, lifting, jumping, running, working together in teams, working alone as individuals, competing head to head, competing side by side, strategizing, freezing up, faltering, pushing ahead, falling behind.

As I watched, I noticed that one thing all these athletes had in common was not only excelling in physical achievement, but dealing with pressure. It’s one thing to be the best, but it’s another thing to deliver on the Olympic stage – which is very much a stage. Just to make it there, most of them have to have a certain something about them. An “it factor,” if you will. This is especially noticeable among those young things who achieve the unimaginable, because they aren’t old enough to believe the old codgers who tell them what’s not possible. But it’s also true among the old guard who come back to their third or fourth Olympics, even if they never place. And of course, among the greats, who become legends across nations, points of connection as we behold what is possible.

So how do they do it? How do they deal with the pressure? Here is my speculative analysis: This “it factor” consists in two main things: practice and confidence.

The practice part is obvious. You can only rely on being as good as your worst day. And no matter how much raw talent you have, it’s repetition of the basics that creates the soundness you can fall back on. It’s physical development, with a touch of the psychological, because then you can trust your body to know what to do.

The confidence is interesting, though, because that’s purely psychological. In order to hold up under the enormous pressure to perform, you need some kind of sense of your own value which is outside your performance.

A solid sense of self can come from a solid upbringing, but it can also come from a relationship with Jesus. I think that’s why we see a few Christian athletes showing their maturity in how they speak about faith and sport, like swimmer Maya DiRado and wrestler Helen Maroulis. (You should totally go read their stories as they are way more interesting than me. But I’ll wait up if you decide to come back. You back? Great! As I was saying,) If we see strong believers doing well at sport, it’s not because God gives them special prayer-answering bonuses. It’s that being a child of God gives them peace in who they are, that they are loved no matter what, and that their future is secure in his hands. That’s what makes the grace of God so powerful: you don’t earn God’s love by performing; God’s love gives you the freedom to do good, to do all that you were meant to do. The fact that this allows some athletes to compete with confidence is, to them, a sort of side perk.

The reason this is all so fascinating to me is that, as a young athlete (ice skating), I most definitely did not have this “it factor.” I had a serious propensity to crumple under pressure, and I did not handle well the anxiety of competing – I just happened to also enjoy it, which is why I kept doing it. I did not have a strong commitment to practice; I didn’t understand why it was important, so I did the minimum and relied on talent and enjoyment to keep me improving at a modest rate. After all, I was mostly trying to have fun. And I did not have that confidence in myself outside my performance; I had parents who loved me and did not pressure me at all, but I crumpled under the criticism of my coaches. (I’m sure they were frustrated with me at times, which I can understand.)

Therefore, when it came to performing in competitions, I ended up feeling like my success was riding on luck. If I landed the first jump or two, I was elated, which sometimes gave me the confidence to land the rest. But if I missed one, I could rarely gather myself enough to execute the remainder.

So I have these intense memories of what it was like to be the bullet in the gun, for hundreds of hours to come down to 4 minutes on the ice, and for it to all fall apart. Sometimes it was great (and I loved performing outside of competition), but mostly it was really hard, and I didn’t have the maturity, either of understanding or commitment or emotion or faith, to make it into satisfying work.

That’s why it’s so incredible for me to watch these athletes, especially the young teens who just seem to get it. Yeah, the ones who make it happen so young must also have massive amounts of pure talent that is rare in itself, but they also worked their little buns off. But they still couldn’t succeed without the confidence. Canadian swimming phenom Penny Oleksiak seems like she barely takes the competition seriously, and I love that about her. Maybe part of why she’s so amazing is because she has no interest in deeply comprehending the massiveness of her achievement. Young things like her used to drive me crazy, because I was so jealous that they could do what I couldn’t, and I didn’t understand why. Now I just admire them, since I’m old enough to be willing to learn from them.

I have a lot more solidarity with the athletes who are still coming back to the games in their 30s. They’re Olympic athletes, of course, while I feel good if I walk for fifteen minutes once a week, so my identification with them is largely metaphorical. But it’s only now, starting my fourth decade, that my confidence is leaving the theoretical and accompanying me into action. I’m not on a world stage, but I do have to stand and speak almost every week, so maybe that’s why this feels significant to me. And even if I weren’t in ministry, everyone has opportunities to put themselves out there, to take risks, to do great things that demand emotional maturity and calm confidence in who we are.

The confidence needs no metaphor; it’s the same across fields. The grace of Christ sets us free.

But the practice is a question. A practice routine when you’re training for a marathon is pretty well established. But what does practice look like for a Christian mom or dad? For a priest? For an engineer? For a poet? For a construction worker? Any ordinary churchgoer wanting to tell his co-workers about Jesus?

As for me, I identify pretty strongly with the multi-eventers: all the different races of housework and administration, the leaps of loving my children and husband and friends and neighbors and congregation, and the throwing of teaching in the pulpit and classroom and living room floor. I’d like to look into how they train, to see if I can learn anything about competence in several areas.

I’ll probably learn a lot from the cursory google I have going on in another window. But if I had to guess, most of their work is just being physically fit. Probably a fair amount of jogging, eating right, and getting enough sleep, then some division of time in running hurdles, throwing javelins, etc.

Paul dug this metaphor pretty hard. If you’re a Bible reader, the relevant passages have probably already leapt to your mind:
Hebrews* 12:1-2: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
1 Corinthians 9:24-25: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wealth, but we an imperishable.”
2 Timothy 4:7-8: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”

This isn’t a sermon,** but here’s a brief summary of what I’m seeing in these passages:

  • Laying aside weight/Repentance from sin
  • Endurance
  • Self-control
  • Love
  • Eyes on Christ, who did it first

Hm. Some of that looks pretty familiar.

We read Galatians 5 in morning prayer today. I just skimmed it again, and found this lesser known running reference in v. 7: “You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?” If you’re familiar with Galatians, you know it’s the book where Paul is most cheesed off (which is saying something). The Galatians are getting distracted by those “weights” and “sin that so easily entangles” mentioned in Hebrews 12. So Paul straight up lists what he’s talking about in vv. 19-21: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” I.e. will lose the race. Then, in contrast, we get the very familiar list of fruits of the spirit, which also coincides with some of my bullet points above from some of the other race passages: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

I want to note this for a second. The fruits of the spirit passage is very, very familiar to many of us. But if you just look at the list, that list of virtues looks a little… wimpy. Doesn’t it? I once went to a talk by Dr. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen in which she noted that most of those Christian virtues have been stereotyped as feminine. You know, soft. If you read the list in isolation, you might think, yay, a Christian’s supposed to be a nice person, but GAWD how boring.

But, um, no. The context of this chapter shows that this is about the most freaking hardcore thing you could chose to do. (And, humorously, this is also the chapter in which Paul gets so frustrated with the folks arguing for circumcision that he says they’d wish they’d castrate themselves! Which would decidedly not be “masculine.”) Look at the list of crazy sins you have to throw off! If you’ve ever tried, you know how hard they cling to you! And the list is followed immediately by, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Crucifying the flesh is a metaphor for holiness right up there with hill repeats, or back-to-back 90km bike rides. “Keeping in step with the Spirit,” which is the subject the chapter concludes on, isn’t just a floaty feeling thing, it’s keeping up with a training coach who is pure love and knows exactly what is good for you, and will push you well past your limits to make you into the person who can win this race.

So we have something in common with Mo Farra when he said he was “putting my body through hell every day to do myself proud in Rio.” Paul pretty much said the same thing when he said, “I discipline my body and keep it under control,” literally “I pummel my body and make it a slave,” “lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).

I don’t know about you, but I was inspired by watching all these athletes push their bodies to the limit. No, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to the greater good if you can throw a 4 kilo ball past 20 meters. But a painting doesn’t make a lot of practical difference either. A body at the peak of health, pushed to do extraordinary things, is a beautiful thing. It might even be called a glimpse of heaven, when our new bodies will be able to fly in the new heaven on earth, with no more sickness or pain.

If you’re like me, participating in that image directly is not in the cards right now. (Health and fitness are well and good, but they are NOT the idol that our culture is completely fixated on right now.) But we are not only able, but called, to participate in the race set before us, and run it in such a way as to win the prize.

So here are the questions I’ve been journaling about. If you want to do the same, be my guest. Everything’s better with running buddies.

What is my race?
-What am I trying to win?
-Big picture and small picture?
-Long term and short term?
-Combined score and events?
What entanglement do I need to throw off?
-Where am I running with my sweatpants still on?
-What sin am I still prone to?
-What is one thing on that list of weights do I need to work on throwing off this year?
What is my practice?
-What is one thing on that list of virtues do I need to work on this year?
-What is one way I can shift my daily practice to walk in step with Christ?
Where is my confidence?
-Do I believe God wants this for me?
-Do I believe God loves me no matter what?
-Have I embraced the gospel deeply enough to run with freedom from fear?

*Yeah ok Paul probably didn’t write Hebrews. But whoever wrote Hebrews definitely read a lot of Paul. And a good metaphor is a good metaphor, shown to be even better for being embraced by multiple Biblical authors.

**Well, it wasn’t meant to be a sermon, but it totally went there. But unlike a sermon, you don’t have to shake my hand afterwards; you can let me know in the comments how you think I’m full of it.

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