Fear of failure. Winning. Fame. A big contract. Any contract. A way out. Championship trophies. Love of the game. Awards. Accolades. Teammates.
All of these and more are the things that motivate athletes these days. Let’s be honest, they have always been the things that motivate athletes.
For a kid like me who played just about every sport under the sun (literally under the Florida sun, although certain sports had to be adjusted for the climate, such as roller hockey instead of ice hockey…but watch out for my Tampa Bay Lightning this year!), winning was a big motivator. Sports were fun, but winning was more fun! As I grew older, the fear of failure began to creep in, and by the time I entered college as a wide receiver at The University of South Florida, this was the dominating reason I played the game. I just didn’t want to make a mistake. As long as I didn’t, I would feel a sense of belonging and acceptance from those around me.
This motivation has indeed resulted in great success for some, but I believe is it the rare exception. Jerry Rice is one example who comes to my mind. Many, including this author, would say he is the greatest receiver to ever catch a football, yet
he confessed during his Hall of Fame induction speech how pervasive the fear of failure was throughout his career.
“The reason nobody caught me from behind is because I ran scared. That old fear of failure…I was always in search of that perfect game and I never got it. Even if I caught 10 of 12 passes, or two or three touchdowns in the Super Bowl, I would dwell on the one pass I dropped.”
Now, I’m not against working hard and striving to improve each and every day. I can relate to beating myself up over the dropped passes and wanting to get better. As an athlete, if excellence is not your goal, then you need to ask yourself if you ought to be playing your sport. But what Jerry Rice said next struck me the most.
“But if I have a single regret about my career standing here today, it’s that I never took the time to enjoy it…I was always working. Right after the season, whether we won the Super Bowl or not, I would take 2 weeks off and go right back to training. The doubts, the struggles, it’s who I am, and I wonder if I would’ve been as successful without them.”
Wow. This causes me to take a long, deep pause. I can completely understand wondering about whether he would have been as successful a pro football player without his insecurities. Clearly, they drove him to be the best there ever was. And I have no intention of throwing Jerry Rice or anyone else under the bus. Here’s simply the question that comes to my mind each time I listen to that speech:
Would I want to have a Hall of Fame career if I didn’t enjoy it?
For those who claim to follow Christ, or even those considering how the Bible might speak to this, how would you answer that question?
Very few will ever be enshrined in a Hall of Fame. So at street level, perhaps that question is a bit of a dead end. Maybe the better question is this: Is there a motivation that enables me to enjoy my sport? Is there a motivation that brings freedom from that “old fear of failure”? Could it even still result in a Hall of Fame career?
From the Christian worldview, I believe the response would be a resounding “Yes,” and it can be found in the pages of the Bible.
Fully known, fully loved
To understand what this might be, we have to dig down deep enough to understand what we are searching for in life ultimately. What are the deepest needs in our hearts and souls that we hope to fulfill through winning, championships, and Hall of Fame inductions? There are many different words that could be used, but I’ll go with loved. At the core, I believe we all want to be unconditionally loved.
Our fear is that in our current state, whatever that may be, we are unlovable. So we scratch, claw, fight, work out and so on in an effort to be more lovable, hoping that it will work, that we will be loved. We fear if we are truly known, then we will be unloved, so we would rather work really hard or put on a facade, remaining unknown but feeling “loved.”
In the Bible, Luke 15 gives us a beautiful story that connects with what we’re discussing here. Jesus tells a story about a young, independent son of a wealthy man who gets to thinking that he’d be better off on his own. He’d rather be free from his father’s authority and live his own life. Perhaps he feels his potential is trapped or he’s tired of following the rules, that his dad doesn’t really want what’s best for him, that his dad doesn’t really love him.
So, he asks for his share of the inheritance…while his father is still alive. This is shell-shocking enough to modern readers, but to the original hearers, it would have been utterly detestable and grounds for stoning to death.
The son goes off on a long journey, squanders his wealth on wild living (use your imagination), and finds himself feeding pigs, sometimes snacking for himself on the goods he offers the animals. Again, this is gross enough for us today, but for the original hearers, the levels of ritual immorality were exponential. To summarize, socially, morally, and religiously, this young buck was as unlovable as they come.
He decides to head home, hoping that perhaps he can simply work for his father, enough to get three hots and a cot each day. That’s when we get to see how the father has handled his youngest son’s disowning and departure: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). Immediately after this, he throws his son a party because he is so overjoyed to have relationship with his son once again. He didn’t even ask what he had been up to. He simply never stopped, and couldn’t stop loving his son, no matter what.
This is a picture of us and God. We all have wandered at some point, thinking we know best and that God must not actually love us. Yet God never stops loving us and is simply interested in relationship with us. He knows all things, including “what we’ve been up to,” but none of that is a dealbreaker. There is nothing we can do to cause Him to love us any less, because there is nothing we did in the first place to cause Him to love us at all. There is no skeleton hiding in any of our closets that would cause God to say, “Whoa! Actually, nevermind; I’d rather you weren’t in My family.” He took care of the cost to reinstate us in His family once and for all through Jesus’ death on the cross for the payment of our sins, an astronomical price, yet one He deemed worth it. Because of His resurrection, we can be a part of His family forever.
We are fully known and fully loved by God. And that will never change.
How does this connect to sports? When we have the security of a relationship like this, a place where we are fully known and fully loved, we can be free to enjoy our sport and even make mistakes. When we are motivated by the knowledge that we are loved and no longer have to do anything to prove our “lovability,” there is freedom to simply play. Now, whether or not I end up in the Hall of Fame, a worthwhile and lofty goal, doesn’t change whether I am loved.
A few years ago, I heard this story about an exchange between a college quarterback and his position coach. At a pivotal point in the season, their team was down by four facing a 4th and 10 from about the 30 yard-line with 30 seconds to go. Needing a touchdown to win the game, a timeout was called to talk things over. As they got set to head back out to the field, the coach took off his headset, looked his quarterback square in the eye and said, “Whatever happens next, I love you.”
The game ended a few minutes later after the quarterback threw a pass to the back of the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
I don’t know what the ultimate motivation was inside that player’s head and heart, but I wonder if he went back out to the field a little bit lighter, knowing his entire identity was at least secure in the eyes of his coach. I wonder if that freedom enabled him to take a risk that resulted in victory. That’s the freedom that a fully-known-and-fully-loved relationship offers, and the best thing about it is that the offer stands whether or not the end result is what we want.
Even if it doesn’t result in a Hall of Fame career, that sounds a lot more enjoyable to me.