In a post last week, I wrote: “Training the body is, or can be, a profound and necessary school for the spirit.” I promised that I would flesh this out in later posts. I want to begin that now.
First, note the qualifier. Training the body is or can be a profound and necessary school for the spirit. God seeks us in a million and one ways, subtle or stark. Our responsibility is how we respond. We can learn all the wrong lessons from sports. Yet we can also learn profound spiritual lessons that will shape us for the rest of our lives. I hope to convince you in this series.
After my note, I heard from a couple fellow intellectuals with dismissive snark toward the notion that sports are spiritually significant. This is regrettably typical of some intellectuals, who have trained themselves (and in some cases consoled themselves) in the belief that sports are for the simple-minded and superficial. By my definition, they suggested, all things can be spiritually significant. Well, yes. All things can be spiritually significant. I believe that very radically. And while it’s true that the unintelligent and the immature can flourish in sports (although in the vast majority of cases, excepting athletes who possess overwhelming physical talents, long-term success in sports does require a certain level of intelligence and maturity, even if that intelligence does not always look like the intellectual expects it to look), it’s also true that there are countless thoughtful and mature athletes who derive great spiritual benefit from their athletic life.
So, how exactly can sports serve for spiritual deepening?
Let me begin this series by sharing my story — and I’ll unpack that story, and bring in other stories, in the other posts in this series.
From the age of 12 to my neck injury when I was 19, I was one of the top gymnasts (my age) in the country. I experienced exhilarating highs, like winning the Junior National Skills Testing competition (a USA Gymnastics developmental program that determined who would be on the National Team for the next six months) on a severely sprained ankle in 1993. I experienced devastating lows, like tearing my pectoral muscle in the second day of the same competition (I was leading, after the first day) two years before. I competed overseas, and — very importantly, I think — I also had some great team experiences, such as winning the NCAA’s with Stanford my freshman year.
Every single day, I had to do things that frightened me. When I was young, the things that frightened me were my first double-back flip on the floor, my first “giant” on the rings, my first Diamidov or Heli twirl on the parallel bars, or my first “release move” on the high bar. As I got older, it was performing in front of thousands of people, competing in the event finals when everyone in the arena is watching you perform, or doing your last routine in a national competition when you’re battling for the lead. Toward the end of my career, it was doing skills like a triple-back flip on the high bar or a double-back flip on the parallel bars in competition, or training for a triple-front on the vault or a full-twisting double-layout on the floor. I often had to compete injured or in great pain, with hands bleeding all over the high bar or pommel horse, and on a couple occasions watched teammates get carried away on stretchers — and then had to jump up and take my turn.
Every single day, I had to do something that scared me out of my wits. There are many sports where you’re not really in any danger (golf, tennis, bowling, badminton, etc), and there are some sports where you’re only in danger of breaking your ankle or tearing your knee or maybe breaking your nose (volleyball, most track and field events, basketball, softball — even baseball except for extremely rare exceptions). Gymnastics is not like that. If you mess up, you can suffer severe head or spinal injuries that damage you for life. (Ahem.)
So every single day, I prayed. I prayed almost constantly, whenever I was doing gymnastics. Before I attempted something difficult on the floor exercise. Every time I jumped up on the high bar. Before competitions, during competitions, and after competitions. I prayed for victory in competitions, yes, but that probably amounted to 1% of my prayers during gymnastics. For the most part, I prayed for help (help me do this skill, help me survive this), I prayed to witness God well in my words and deeds, and I prayed for peace. More than anything, I prayed for the peace of God’s presence. I knew that, whatever happened, I could get endure it if I had the peace of God’s presence.
I’ll come back to this later in the series, but for millions of young men and women in the country, sports bring challenge and drama, sorrow and euphoria, defeat and victory, disappointment and fulfillment, fear and elation, camaraderie and discipline and sacrifice, passion and trust, diligence, duty, honor, respect, and glory. There are few arenas in the modern world (war being one of them, for better or worse) where you can experience these things more powerfully.
When I left gymnastics, it felt as though 95% of my prayer life had been amputated. I had once drawn encouragement from the stories of Joshua and David, Samson and Paul, men who had ventured and trusted God in the face of overwhelming odds. Post-athletics, my spiritual life suddenly felt dry. It wasn’t that gymnastics had been my whole life. I always had a balanced life, where I cared deeply about my intellectual and spiritual development; I read widely and constantly, was a leader in ministry, and so forth. I prayed about those things. But so much of what had made my prayer life fervent and passionate — and so many of the ways in which I had seen God provide — were suddenly gone.
Many athletes, when their sporting days are over, miss the discipline and camaraderie, the sense of focus and clarity or purpose, and the sense of trusting God in great highs and great lows. Their lives flatten out. The challenges, the striving, the forging of relationships in fire, are gone or at least greatly diminished. It’s probably a necessary transition, and it takes time. But it tells us something about what sports mean — or can mean — for us spiritually.
And I’ll start to explain that meaning in the next post in this series. Since I blog in my increasingly rare spare moments, please subscribe to the blog, if you haven’t done so already.