4 Areas of a Well-Rounded Athlete (and how to think Christianly about them)

4 Areas of a Well-Rounded Athlete (and how to think Christianly about them)

“We believe in becoming the total athlete. And a total athlete is growing in three areas: physically, mentally, and spiritually. Your coaches are here to train you physically. Your teachers will train you mentally. We want to help train you spiritually. If you want to be a total athlete, we’re here for you.”

This was the pitch we would give as campus ministers to the college athletes before their season began. We wanted them to know that we existed—and that we were a resource they could leverage. But beyond that, we wanted them to know that prioritizing their spiritual growth, wherever they were on that journey, was a vital part of becoming a well-rounded athlete.

Of course, this idea of a three-pronged approach to an athlete’s growth existed long before ministries like Athletes in Action put a “Total Athlete” brand on it. It started with the YMCA. A few decades after the first YMCA was founded (1844 in London), they honed in on a compelling vision to see the mind, body, and spirit developed in young men.

I want to add a fourth category to consider.

My fourth category for a well-rounded athlete is “social.” The social aspect of an athlete is focused on how one interacts with those around them. Thus, a well-rounded Christian athlete trains intentionally—and Christianly, in four areas: physically, mentally, spiritually, and socially.

What does this training look like practically in each area?

Physical Training (Loving God with Your Body)

How do I engage my body for God’s glory?

The physical aspect of training is the most obvious of the four. And it’s probably the one most athletes prioritize above the rest. For the Christian athlete, the physical component of training is an opportunity to live out the Apostle Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 10:31 to do everything “for the glory of God.”

This starts with understanding that the body given to you by God is good and your intentional stewardship of it is a way to honor God. This perspective means you can glorify God as an athlete through your physical effort and pursuit of optimal physical performance.

And I would argue, even the physical action of play itself can be glorifying to a God who identifies with us as a Father.

But training your physical body in a way that glorifies God goes behind the field of play. It extends to every other aspect of your life too.

  • Are your eating and drinking habits honoring God?

  • Do you get an appropriate amount of sleep?

  • Are you making time to warm up and stretch?

  • Do you take proper care of your injuries?

A (very) brief theology of faith, the physical body, and sport

Prior to the late 19th century, Christians didn’t place much value on the physical body. At the time, Christians largely held to a dualistic theology that often pitted the spiritual and the physical against one another (with a higher priority being placed on the spiritual side). A necessary correction took place in the Muscular Christianity movement that started in the mid-nineteenth century.

This movement aimed at helping Christians pay more attention to their bodies and give more value to the physical world. In the world of sport, early adopters of this new muscular Christianity movement, like Dr. James Naismith, began showing the Christian community that something physical, like sport, could become an avenue for athletes’ spiritual growth.

Naismith’s creation of the game of basketball probably does not happen without this movement.

As protestant Christians opened their theology to valuing the body, mind, and spirit together, they eventually democratized this idea through the installment of the YMCA.

Athlete, how you steward the body God gave you is an important part of glorifying God through sport. But what drives that stewardship is equally important.

Mental Training (Loving God with your mind)

How do I engage my mind for God’s glory?

Let’s break the mental part of training into three categories: mental health, motivation and theology of God and sport. Again, how can a well-rounded athlete think Christianly in this area?

Mental Health

The mental aspect of being a well rounded athlete is growing in popularity. And for good reasons. A 2019 study of over 5,000 elite athletes showed “640 distinct stressors that could induce mental health symptoms and disorders.”

I think we glorify God when we show increased awareness and ability to identify what is going on inside of us. Why? Because we serve a God who delights in order—not chaos. And I truly believe that the order (or the churchy word shalom or peace) he desires extends beyond the world around us and into our minds as well.

Having an accurate assessment of your mental health is the first step towards peace because it identifies what needs attention. It’s the same reason we get x-rays and MRI’s as athletes when we have pain. Identifying the what and where of the pain puts us on the proper path to recovery.

But simply knowing a bone is broken doesn’t fix it. In the same way, we need to move beyond just knowledge of our mental health’s effects on us. I would suggest two training methods for your mental health:

  1. Be vulnerable. Admitting the areas of our life that cause us unwanted stress may feel like an act of weakness, especially in an athletic culture that celebrates a “nobody cares, work harder” mentality. But it’s quite the opposite. It shows incredible strength, courage and bravery to share about your struggles with someone else. Before Jesus went to the cross, he spent time with his Father praying through his thoughts about what was to come. He was raw. He was honest. But Jesus modeled this for a reason. And I think one of the reasons was to give us permission and encouragement to do likewise—before God our Father—and before others.

  2. Memorize God’s Word. For a Christian athlete, pursuing mental health can be more than studying and memorizing the Bible—but it can’t be less. In the battle for our mental health, God’s word can be the bridge that allows us to move from pressure to peace. Here’s a great one to start with:

    “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:6-7


Athlete, your motivation (your “why”) matters.

It matters because if your motivation trends up one day and down the next, your ability to compete at a high level will rise and fall with whatever is driving you. If we want consistency in our athletic performance, we need a motivation that remains permanent and independent of our circumstances.

Yes, motivation matters to optimize athletic performance.

But it also matters because God shows us in his Word that it does. What’s driving us at the core of our being is of primary importance to God who prioritizes the posture of our hearts above all else and cares deeply about what drives that heart.

We see time and time again in God’s Word that he is after our internal motivation. He places a premium on our inside game in sports and life, the game that happens in our hearts and in our soul. What we believe on the inside is what fuels our actions and efforts in life and sports. God’s desire is that we would fully know who we are in him—and that this new identity would move us from fear to freedom.

As a son or daughter of the King, God wants you to live and play in the freedom of knowing who you are as His children, instead of trying to prove who you are to yourself and to everyone else.

When you begin to understand what Christ has done for you—that He has given you complete access to God the Father—you become freed up to enjoy your sport instead of relying on it for things it can’t deliver back to you. Yes, you still pursue the win. But another “win” emerges in the process.

You begin to recapture the joy you initially had in your sport in working hard towards victory, all the while fueled by a passion to play the game for a higher purpose.

How do you best position yourself to compete with a new motivation like this? You need a growing knowledge and belief that God cares about how you engage with sports.

Theology of God and sport

God cares about how you play your sport (1 Corinthians 10:31). He cares about how you train Colossians 3:23). He cares about how you interact with your teammates and coaches (Ephesians 4:29). He cares about how you view your opponents (Philippians 2:3). He cares about all of it.

And we can make declarative statements about all of those things because the Bible informs us of what God values and desires.

Having a growing understanding of who God is and what that means for you as an athlete is a crucial part of mental training. If you don’t believe that God is in your corner (Romans 8:28) and cares about your sport, then your motivation will never transcend above earthly motives. If you don’t believe that God cares about your worries and anxieties as an athlete (Philippians 4:6-7), you will default to burying those feelings or believing the lie that you have to fix everything on your own.

Growing in your understanding of who God is and what He desires from you as an athlete opens up new categories of motivation, like playing for an Audience of One. It gives you a growing framework that not only can you play for God, but through the Holy Spirit, you can also play with God as you realize He never leaves you.

So, how do you mentally train in this area? Here are a few options.

  1. Read books dedicated to the topic of God, Faith, and Sport.

  2. Find and follow people on social media who speak to these issues.

  3. Connect with an AIA, FCA, or other sports ministry staff member on a regular basis.

  4. Download the Ao1 Life app and click through the various resources.

  5. Read the Bible like an athlete. That is, continually ask the question “How do I apply what I just read within the context of my sport?”

Spiritual (Loving God with your soul)

How do I engage my spirit for God’s glory?

Athletes should prioritize their spiritual training because:

  • God tells us to prioritize it

  • God promises to lead the process in our spiritual growth

  • Spiritual growth has massive positive ripple effects in our athletic contexts

God tells us to prioritize our spiritual training

We already saw God (through Paul’s letter to Timothy) direct his people to train for godliness in 1 Timothy 4:7. But this is not an isolated command. All throughout the Bible we see God imploring us to have a mindset and heart posture dedicated to growing into his likeness by aligning ourselves with his word.

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” – 1 Peter 3:18

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” – Matthew 5:6

“So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” – Ephesians 4:14,15

If your coach tells you to do something, you do it. They have a position of authority over you (whether you like it or not!) and the coaching they give you is intended to make you a better athlete and help the team win. This should go without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: God is not your coach. He is the creator, sustainer, and master over the entire universe. If we agree to abide by our coach’s directives, how much more should follow God’s? His instructions are given to help us grow into his likeness and help in the expansion of his Kingdom. We would do well to follow them.

God promises to lead the process

God doesn’t just tell us to prioritize our spiritual training. He does something extra to sweeten the pot. He promises that our growth is ultimately dependent on him leading the process.

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” – 2 Corinthians 3:18

“For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” – Philippians 2:13

“So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” – 1 Corinthians 3:7

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” – Philippians 1:6

This is both freeing and frustrating. God tells us to pursue righteousness and align our lives in a way that honors him, but ultimately, any growth we experience is not of our own doing—it’s from him. Athlete, God always wants the glory. The beauty in all of this is that God promises that spiritual growth will happen because he is in charge of making it happen.

If you play college sports (or hope to someday), you probably chose the school because you trusted that the coach would get the maximum amount of potential out of you. How much more so with God? Why wouldn’t we want to prioritize spiritual training when we are promised God will quarterback the process of growth on our behalf?

It actually helps you as an athlete

1 Timothy 4:8 tells us that training in godliness is better than physical training because of two reasons.

  • It’s beneficial for this life

  • It’s beneficial for the life to come

It can be easy to focus on the second reason. Of course training in godliness will help us for an eternal relationship with God after this life is over. But how is it beneficial for this life, especially within your context as an athlete?

For starters, let’s make sure we are not equating the words “helpful” or “beneficial” with success.

In the same way that drinking plenty of water best positions your body to stay healthy and fight off sickness, prioritizing spiritual training best positions you to face whatever the world of sport throws your way by giving you a constant, biblical perspective. This helps ground you in reality. It gives you a proper framework to face the world around you.

And maintaining perspective puts you in the best position to optimize your God given skill set. It allows you to see your sport against the backdrop of bigger things going on in the world around you. And what’s bigger than eternity (Ecclesiastes 3:11)? Proper perspective is not about minimizing sport and lessening one’s competitive drive, but seeing it against the backdrop of eternity in a way that frees an athlete to play without the fear of failure.

Why? Because perspective should free athletes from attaching too much weight to the outcome of a game.

While eternal perspective is helpful for a Christian athlete, relational perspective matters too.

An athlete committed to training in godliness has a growing understanding that they are a son or daughter of God. They understand that God identifies with them as a Father. This does not mean Christian athletes have an advantage because they have “God on their side.” It simply means they already have access to everything—through God—that sports promises but fails to deliver: lasting joy, peace, and contentment.

Again, that doesn’t guarantee success. But hopefully you get excited about the possibility of competing with a mindset like that and understand the freedom (and potential competitive advantage) of playing with freedom instead of fear.

How do we train spiritually?

There are many ways to train spiritually. Pray. Attend Church. Fellowship with other Christians. Share the gospel with those who are not Christians. Tithe your money and time. Fast from food to focus on God. Invite the Holy Spirit to help you.

The list can keep growing. With all of the tools available to you, it can actually become overwhelming to know where to start. If that’s the case with you, start here:

Read. The. Bible.

A sports metaphor might help drive this point home. Before you can run plays you have to know the playbook. How do you learn the playbook? You study it by reading it and processing what you don’t understand with teammates who do. You mentally think about what you have to do, then you reread, re-practice, and repeat the whole process until it becomes second nature.

The Bible demands a similar approach in our lives. But in this case, we aren’t learning “plays,” but meeting with Jesus. We need to prioritize time reading and studying God’s Word, seeking to understand his character.

Growing in godliness through habitual reading of God’s Word is kind of like distance running. The more you run, the more fit you get. You may not remember how many miles you ran 6 months ago, or even 6 weeks ago, but that workout still contributes to your fitness today. Keep stacking days of reading the Bible together. It’s ok if you don’t remember what you read last week or last month. You probably don’t remember what you ate for dinner last week on Monday, but that meal sustained you through the night and strengthened and nourished you. Reading the Bible is the same thing.

And yes, there are days you don’t want to work out or train, but you do it because you understand that short term discipline produces long-term results. The discipline of hard work often leads to delight when things finally “click” for us in sport. Approach your Bible “workout” in the same way. Trust that the discipline of spending time getting to know God will lead to the delight of growing closer to him in relationship and in character.

Prioritize it into your life today for the way it will transform you tomorrow. You have to set your mind to it, to have a plan—or else it probably won’t happen.

Social (Loving God through loving others)

How do I engage with others for God’s glory?

Imagine the highlight of your athletic career for a moment. What the best play you ever had? Try to remember your surrounding, the score of the game, how much time was left, who was there to experience it with you. After the play was over, what happened next? I’m guessing you celebrated with someone else, right? Can you imagine doing something great in sport but not having anyone to share that moment with afterwards? Something would feel…off about that.

If you pursue the three categories above with excellence, but you do all of this without really connecting with your teammates, you put a cap on your own joy and limit your impact beyond the field. God created us to be in relationships with others.

It’s why the social aspect of being a well-rounded athlete is the crucial fourth component.

It is no mistake that God has given you the abilities you possess. It is also no mistake that God has placed you where you are, surrounded by the people you see on a daily basis.

Acts 17:26 says, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.”

God marked out our appointed times in history. God determined the boundaries of where we live.

God has a purpose for his people, and we see that in the time and location of our placement. And God has put you on your team for a purpose. Yes, pursuing wins and championships are part of the purpose and experience of sports—but for the Christian athlete, they shouldn’t be pursued at the expense of the relationships around us.

It’s for relationships (not merely athletic results) that God has strategically placed us on our teams and in our communities.

You were made for both community and mission.

Pursuing and surrounding yourself with other Christians who are trying to grow into Christlikeness, just like you, is an essential part of becoming a well-rounded athlete. At the same time, we can’t just create “holy huddles” and refuse to be in relationship with others who don’t believe the same things we do.

Engaging with non-Christians (or what some evangelists like to call “not yet Christians”) is equally essential. The social aspect of our athletic experience needs to involve intentionality with both groups.

Fellowship (Christian friendship)

Yes, this is a churchy word. But it’s a little more descriptive than simply “community.” Fellowship means sharing your life with other like-minded people.

Do you have Christian friends?

Just sit with that question for a little bit. When you have a question about God or a struggle you need to process, who do you go to? When you need someone to pray for you or with you, who do you call? On the flip side, when others need those things in their lives, do they call you?

We need each other to thrive in life. It’s why Proverbs 17:7 tells us that it takes iron to sharpen iron. Being in fellowship with other Christians helps us grow in our relationship with Christ.

If you don’t have Christian friends in your life, where do you start? Here are a few options:

  • Attend a local church. The Church is God’s plan for sharing the love of Jesus with the world. But it’s also a people (not just a building!) who meet together, learn together, grow together, sing together, pray together, and in general, do life together.

  • Get involved with a local sport ministry. If Athletes in Action or Fellowship of Christian Athletes exist where you are at, find ways to get involved at a deeper level with the leaders. If those ministries don’t exist where you’re at, consider starting it and create a space where friendship and community can start.

  • Start a team Bible study. This will also apply to the “missional” part, but hear me out. Starting a team Bible study often helps surface teammates who are Christians or have a “religious” background but have been quiet about it because they didn’t know who they could trust. Starting a group that meets up to talk about the Bible can help reveal a community on your team that you didn’t even know existed.

  • Pray. This shouldn’t be a last resort. But if you desire Christian fellowship, ask God for it. And then keep your eyes open to who God begins to put in front of you.


The mission of God is to redeem all creation back to himself. As missionaries (who happen to be athletes), our role is to share the good news that Jesus is God and we are not, that He died on a cross over 2000 years ago for our sins, rose from the dead, declared victory over sin and death, and offers us life in Him if we declare him Savior and Lord.

That’s what evangelism is all about. That’s one of the goals of a missional athlete.

Perhaps the best definition of successful evangelism I have ever heard reads like this: Taking the initiative in the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results to God.

God’s in charge of the results. We’re responsible to step out in faith and share about his goodness to those around us.

Our identity as a missionary in Christ is greater than our identity as an athlete because our hearts long for the things of eternity—not the things of this world. Wins and success are great, but they offer temporary satisfaction in our souls. We are made to be a part of something greater than sports. J. Campbell White said it best:

“Most men are not satisfied with the permanent output of their lives. Nothing can wholly satisfy the life of Christ within his followers except the adoption of Christ’s purpose toward the world he came to redeem. Fame, pleasure, and riches are but husks and ashes in contrast with the boundless and abiding joy of working with God for the fulfillment of his eternal plans. The men who are putting everything into Christ’s undertaking are getting out of life its sweetest and most priceless rewards.”