Below is an article written by Mike McElroy. Mike is a senior strong safety for Southern Illinois University Football (American Football). A few weeks ago I gave him a copy of “Real Joy – Freedom To Be Your Best” by John Ashley Null. Mike devoured the book and was soon anxious to discuss his insights regarding performance based identity among people in sport. Shortly after a lunch meeting and discussion, Mike emailed me this article. I hope it will inspire your heart as it did mine. People like Mike are the future of ministry in sport.
What is your identity? Once more, what is your primary identity? The thing that defines you and if taken away you would be lost without it. Are you Kyle the sprinter, Kim the setter, Ryan the point guard, James the student? What happens if that identity is suddenly taken from you, do you become obsolete and worthless? So many times athletes put their identity in their sport, letting it control them and mold them. As Christians we are called to make God our primary identity, and let Him mold and control us. With an identity other than God we sometimes feel like we are on a roller coaster with extreme highs and lows. We constantly feel pressure to perform, especially if we claim it to be our identity.
If your primary identity is Ryan the point guard and you fail to produce points or assists people will no longer associate you with that identity. Then you must go looking for something else to identify with. See how this can lead to trouble? If all our self-worth comes from our performance we become slaves to outcomes. Great performances leave us on top of the world while poor outcomes leave us feeling alone and weak. If we identify with God first and make all other things secondary identities we become so much more stable. The outcomes of events can no longer take us on extreme highs and lows. In Deuteronomy 31:6 He promises to always be there through victories and defeats and that no matter the outcome He will never leave. We never have to worry about finding a new identity.
One of the main fears most athletes have with making God their primary identity is the loss of control. As competitive people we are taught from a young age that if you want something YOU have to work for it. If I want to get stronger I have to work out more. If I want to run faster I have to run more sprints. We love being able to control our outcomes and manipulate situations so that we win. That’s why Gods call for submission is so hard, when it shouldn’t be. It is almost too simple for us to comprehend. All we have to do is ask for it, He has already done the work. Submitting and living for Him is the only work we have to do. The issue comes with giving up all control and letting Him, not self, lead.
Having sport as your primary identity leads to decay in three areas. There is spiritual decay where our source of joy comes from our performance. How we feel and who we are gets tied in with the awards we achieve or the games and meets won or lost. It also leads to emotional decay. The friends we surround ourselves with start enjoying our company because of our status on the team. Our self-worth is based upon performance, and we are social butterflies after wins. While bad performances leave us feeling the need to fill the void, or looking for other outlets to get the bad taste out of our mouth. Finally, relationships become affected. The friends we have are there thanks to our athletic prowess so we know them and communicate on a superficial level. If God is our primary identity then He is our sense of joy and that will never change, because He is never changing. Emotionally we know that He is in control and there is no need to stress over uncontrollable circumstances or wins and losses. He also shows us how to be relational with people. We model our lives after His and our friendships become real and affectionate instead of simple and superficial.
To be successful on the field or in life one must be goal driven. When the goals are ours and not God’s we often run into trouble. We often set and run after selfish goals and in doing so we equip ourselves with blinders, blocking out all “distractions” to reach this goal. This leaves, in its wake, relationships with friends, families and most important God. With our mind firmly fixed on our goal God feels distant and we feel a sense of abandonment or emptiness, especially if the goal is not reached. This is not how it is meant to be, God wants us to compete and be successful in attaining our goals. To achieve our goals we must draw even closer to Him than normal, He is the only one who can give us strength and help us achieve. So set lofty goals in life and on the field making Him your primary identity and reap the blessings from it. As athletes remember that we are given our talents for one purpose, to reflect Gods light and share Him with the world. We are given a spectacular platform to share Him in locker rooms, media interactions, classrooms and beyond. We need Him to be our primary identity, while sports and other hobbies become secondary. Your gifts are given to glorify Him, not self. That being said, go out and compete with a pure heart in doing so win others for Christ.