Athleticism could be generous and open, perhaps even should be.
Competition drives people to do incredible things. Anyone running their first 5 k knows that their training may have gotten them to the starting line, but it was the fun of running with others and pushing that got them through the finish line. It is the racing between one another that spurs us on and builds us up to see where we can go together. Not all competition is like that, but it could be.
For true racers we want to do our best, we want to win, but we don’t want to win when someone else is unlucky or has a poor race. That would be no victory at all. It’s a sense that we want others to see how well they can do around us. Being cut throat does not even begin to make sense, why would you want your friend your rival to be hurt?
However, I know that competition can be taken too seriously. It can be hurtful, negative, and destructive. It can break relationships and put strains on our body, mind, and soul that break us down in their obsession. Competition can be more than divisive, and numerous Christians have fallen into sinful behavior stumbling over an excess of zeal for a particular team. Off the field, competition has led many to buy what they cannot afford and to live beyond their means for show.
Does it have to be this way?
What would a generous competitive spirit look like? What would it look like if we took Paul’s competitive words to heart, to out do one another in showing honor, respect, love? Perhaps that may encourage a generous fandom, but in athletes and teams would it encourage generosity and hospitality? These are terms that we do not always associate with sportsmanship, even good sportsmanship.
There are a few ways I want to grow into a generous athlete (particularly a swimmer):
1. Athleticism in Service: Teaching people to swim, kids and adults. Spending time working with others on their strokes and their workouts. Maybe even giving them someone to pace off of. I want my swimming, or whatever exercise I’m doing to be an opportunity to help others. Being fit gives athletes a chance to serve physically in ways that we could not do otherwise and opens us up to acts of mission and care for others that we could not do otherwise.
2. Athleticism building Community: Can our activities serve as ways for community to grow? Swimming should give me opportunities to encourage others to reach their goals and to help them celebrate their success as they go. If our work outs are not bringing us into community, are they isolating us? Is our push towards success or victory bringing us closer with our friends or pushing them away? Swimming, Running, Football – every type of training should give us opportunities for healthy solitude that feeds healthy relationships.
3. Athleticism seeking Excellence: Seeking excellence instead of perfection allows us to realize the plain truth that there is no such thing as perfection. Excellence is the ability to celebrate where we are physically while seeking improvement. This whole model puts into mind that the sin of pride can wreck our enjoyment of the sport/physical activity we find our heart in.
4. Athleticism as Centering: Our hearts need a place to be, Augustine said that “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you, God”. An Athlete then cannot worship the sport. We have to realize that we could give our heart to the sport, that idolatry is a very real threat for both victory, perfection, and even the routine of the sport. Then we can seek and find the discipline and repetition and the all out endeavors as mental and psychological and spiritual space for interacting with God.
I recognize that not all Christians are Athletes and not all Athletes are Christian. Spirituality here is part of my quest to discover exactly what it means to be a Christian Athlete. My exercise is more to me than mere treatment of the body, it is a contemplative act that I hope feeds my soul through prayers and meditations of my mind and heart alongside physical acts that serve as prayers from my body. In these pursuits of the body, I hope never to loose sight of my God for the false god of victory or vainglory or selfishness.