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Monday, April 12, 2010

Sportsmanship, the Greatest Commandments, and the Christian Athlete

(AP Photo/Rob Carr)

For the first time ever I avidly followed golf this week, and by avidly I mean that I caught highlights a time or two on Thursday and Friday and watched all televised coverage on the weekend.  (Usually I don't watch golf, and when I do it's the last two hours or less of the entire tournament.)  This is because (a) I've been sick in bed, and more importantly (b) I was pulling for Tiger Woods in his bid to return to his career and reform his life at the same time, which in my opinion is really the only way to do either.  (Why I was rooting for Tiger, whom I have heretofore always both respected and rooted against, is another story.)

Anyway, it appears that on Thursday and Friday we really were seeing Tiger 2.0.  He seemed relaxed, good-natured, accessible, and in touch with his surroundings.  But then two things started happening.  First, the pressure inexorably ratcheted up as the tournament drew closer and closer to its conclusion, and second, Tiger started losing his touch.  Both of these factors seemed to call back the emotional presence of Tiger 1.0.

To me the most telling demonstration of this was his brief interview immediately after his final hole.  When asked more than once and in different ways what his overall evaluation of his experience of the week was, his single-minded focus was his failure to finish first because of his sloppy play.  (He ended tied for fourth, rather amazingly I might add.)  At any point during that little interview he might have mentioned his gracious reception by "the patrons" at Augusta (why on earth do they insist on calling them that?) or the soothing companionship of the unflappable K. J. Choi, with whom Tiger was paired every day of the tournament and who miraculously finished with the identical score as Tiger's every day, or the trust (we assume) his wife Elin had in him to allow him to be out of her sight for a week.  But these things were entirely outside of his consciousness.

And that's when I think I began to understand the reason both for Tiger's brilliance and for his self-destructive behavior.  As the pressure rises, Tiger's universe shrinks until there is absolutely no one left in it but himself.  When Tiger loudly calls down curses on himself (in effect) for shanking tee shots as he did twice on Saturday and once on Sunday, it's because in a very real way in his own mind there is literally no one else to hear them.  You and I and the other however-many-million people watching simply don't exist.

This is why Tiger is so good.  Every sport requires focus and concentration to perform at the highest level, but there is nothing quite like golf, in which the serenity, silence, and alignment of body, mind, and emotions have to be perfect all the time, where the tiniest deviance or disharmony has the potential to devastate any chance of success.  In order to maintain this perfection, every golfer must retreat from the distractions of the world around him for every shot, which is no small feat.  Tiger is exceptionally good at doing this.  But he is so good at retreating into his own world that arguably for the last several years he never came out to rejoin the real one.  He has engaged in center-of-the-universe behavior because in his constructed universe there is no one else.  His challenge now, which he got his first taste of this week at Augusta, is to continue to insulate himself mentally from the world around him for the sake of his game but no longer to lose touch with it completely and to come back to it even while the ball is in the air and certainly when the round is over.

But isn't this the challenge for every athlete?  I had never thought of it this way before Sunday, but the essence of sportsmanship appears to be that with respect to the athlete's competitive performance he is a single-minded, flawless, merciless killing machine, but at the very same time there is enough of a tether to reality that immediately upon the conclusion of the play and before the next one starts he is fully humane to his teammates and opponents.  The split personality of sportsmanship might best be demonstrated when a defensive player in football lays a devastating hit on the ball-carrier with the intention of turning the latter's body into a fine powder and then helps him up and pats him on the butt before they return to their respective huddles.

For the Christian athlete, this means that while in the competitive moment no one else exists, neither God nor neighbor, at the same time he devotedly loves God with his whole being and his neighbor as himself.  He flips between those two mental worlds of "I am all" and "they are all," between total disengagement and total engagement, in an instant.

This has to be extraordinarily tough.  I have actually had a taste of this, though not in sport.  I was a contestant on Jeopardy!, which you might think of as the highest competitive level for trivia (or at least way up there).  During my games (especially the first one) I was entirely and ruthlessly immersed in the competitive moment, and I would have answered every question correctly and left my opponents with nothing if I could.  But at the same time, in my overall experience, especially when I wasn't facing down clues, I had to represent Christ and truly love my competitors, preferring them above myself.  The only way I could do this was by making a huge effort beforehand to commit the entire thing to God to determine as he would and to detach myself entirely from the results, even though it involved significant and potentially life-changing money.  How much harder if the money was even more and if it was my actual career, not just a freak diversion?

This is the struggle the Christian athlete faces every time he laces up and puts on eyeblack, a struggle that most of us never experience, though I imagine that heart surgeons, litigating attorneys, corporate executives, politicians, and soldiers routinely deal with the same thing.  How do we shut out the world to compete at the highest level as if we are the god of our own tiny universe and still fear God and treat others as more important than ourselves?  How do we keep our competitive world from swallowing the real world and leading us to do outrageously foolish, wicked, arrogant, self-centered things?  Next time you're fawning over Tim Tebow or Josh Hamilton or the next great Christian athlete/projection of our hopes and dreams, consider praying for them as they negotiate this delicate mental dance that most of us don't face.


  1. Great Blog Cory! It appears to me the Christian Athlete must strive for maintaning that intense focus while remaining "one" with God who lives in each of us. Once accepting Jesus it would be competative suicide to attempt to shut him out while competing....just my humble opinion for what its worth....miss you here in Jersey...

    Love ya Brother..............Joe M

  2. Thanks, Cory! I was reminded of a mantra that one of my profs often repeated in my hearing: "There are two kinds of musicians that succeed; those who do it 100% for their own glory and those who do it 100% for Christ's glory. If you are anywhere between those points you will not reach your highest potential." It is not only in sports; it's in any pursuit of excellence. For the Christian, we must always strive to avoid the the ego-mania that any degree of success tends to breed.

    Glad that I saw the link to this blog! Great to re-connect.

    Phil T