I became a follower of Jesus right smack in the middle of my athletic career.
I was a successful high school wrestler who had gone to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to continue my path as a student and athlete. During my sophomore year I committed my life to Christ which brought about many wonderful and complex changes.
One of the challenges I had as a new Christian was figuring out where to fit prayer into my life as a wrestler.
I read what the Bible said about prayer, asked plenty of questions from my friends with UNC Athletes in Action and believed some goofy stuff at times. I bounced between the extremes of God not caring to hear prayers about sport to thinking somehow if I prayed correctly it would help me win in the midst of the battles.
So what follows is a two-part essay on prayer “in the arena.” The first will cover some things NOT to do and the second will look at some of Jesus’s teaching about prayer applied specifically to the journey of high-level athletes.
Let's be honest: As athletes we can do some really strange stuff related to prayer. So it is my hope in part one to talk about what NOT to do and hopefully have a little fun along the way. Please don't take this personally or be too sensitive as some of this might sting a bit and land close to home.
How Not to Pray Before Competition
When I use the word “before” I'm speaking about pregame but also our regular practice of, well, practice.Let’s face it—we can be a pretty superstitious bunch as athletes. If we get the right practice and pregame rituals down then things are going to go well in the game. There is some truth in this as routines help us focus, calm the mind and ready the body for the competition ahead. Yet it’s dangerous as Christian athletes to mix God up into our routine as if we are using him as a means to our athletic ends. Some of us pray before practices and games almost as if God will give us good luck if we do so. As if God is a lucky rabbit’s foot and our prayers are mere chants to get us wins on game day. God is not our good luck charm and neither are our prayers.
Let’s not have our relationship with God boil down to “if I do right, pray right then the game will turn out alright…because I can do all things through Jesus.”
Let's not pray this way before a game.
How Not to Pray During Competition
After the games begin, we make tons of decisions, reacting constantly to the flow of play, to our coaches, and to our competitors.
Many of us relate to God during competition just like we did in pre-game. As a Christian athlete, do you make the mistake of treating God like a genie in the lamp? Does your wish put Him at your command?
If we reflect on it, no one really thinks the Almighty exists to serve their three point shot.
Or do we?
“If God would only give me this final touchdown!”
“Oh Lord if you just let us win this big playoff game!”
“Jesus, I know you want us to win over that other heathen team.”
“Will not heaven come down to give us the W? We all did go to chapel this morning!”
“I’m swagged out with Philippians 4:13! Three wishes father—we want to win, win and win. Praise his name!”
Let's not pray this way during competition.
How Not to Pray After Competition
Finally, after the match is over, the tournament finished or the game has concluded there are further opportunities for reflection and prayer.
If before the game we can treat God as a rabbit’s foot and during the game as a cosmic genie, our temptation after the final whistle is to treat God as the judge of our spiritual performance.
If we win the game then obviously God was well pleased with who we are and the way we follow him! If we lost we must have done something wrong and failed in our prayers.If we had only done our divine manipulation correctly every little thing should have gone right.
Does God care about how we live and pray? Yes!
Does God care about how we go about our training, competing and interacting with others along the way? Yes!
But we do a very wrong thing if we correlate our spiritual performance and our athletic outcomes.
We should not pray after the game asking God to show us our sins so that the scoreboard might be different next time. Your spiritual walk with Jesus is not observed by God like a judge on America’s Got Talent. If you do well, you’ll get to go on to Vegas!
If not, well then, figure out your spiritual life and get back to me. But He doesn’t relate towards us in that way.
Three ways not to pray before, during and after competition. Have you ever done any of these?
I sure have.
But there is another way to be tightly connected with God before, during and after the games. Tune in to part two where we will put away the lucky charms, take the genie way out of the lamp and see God as He rightly is—as the loving father, head coach and the King of all of life.