My heart broke for Ronda Rousey. In an interview with Ellen Degeneres that aired February 15, 2016, Ronda admitted to considering suicide after losing at UFC 193 in November 2015. That was the first defeat of her MMA career.
She said in the interview, “I was down in the corner [of the medical room], and I was like, ‘What am I anymore if I’m not this?’ I was literally sitting there and thinking about killing myself,” she said. “In that exact second I’m like, ‘I’m nothing.’”
For those new to the name Ronda Rousey, she is a female superstar in the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Prior to losing in November, she was 12-0 for her career. Yet, with all that success and incredible athletic accomplishment, we recently discovered something very significant about why she fought. On the surface of things, it seems that she was under the impression that her identify as a person is based primarily on her success as an athlete.
My heart went out to her because athletes never have to live under that false assumption. Rousey is not alone. She is one example of many who have mixed up their identity with their performance. Gratefully, she was courageous to be honest and to find help to get her through this tough time.
Yet there is a crucial lesson that all athletes, coaches and parents of athletes must learn. It is this. An athlete must never derive their identity from what they do or how well they perform. In other words,
Who I am is not what I do. What I do is not who I am.
Those who have gotten this concept wrong, play, coach, and parent under pressure, not freedom. “What am I if I’m not winning?” is the nervous question of the person. Regardless of how immensely successful and accomplished they may be, they are not playing with full joy because of this false belief . This phenomena is seen from backyard pick up games to worldwide championships.
- Young athletes playing to make dad happy.
- Professional athletes playing angry because they have something to prove.
- Demanding parents because they are living vicariously through their kids success.
- Selfish coaches that care more about the win-loss column than the athlete.
This may come as a surprise to some, but Christianity has a unique solution to this harmful reality. Let me offer three timeless truths, that when understood and applied, will bring a freedom and joy to athletic endeavors.
First: Athletes are significant apart from success.
Humans are created in the image of God. This means that all humans are created with dignity and honor and significance. Genesis 1:27 states that God created males and females in His own image. Humans have minds, hearts, and wills that reflect a good and perfect Creator. God has given us honor as the pinnacle of creation and dignity so that humans are to rule over His creation.
So, for the athlete, significance never has to be tied to success. One’s significance is derived from being created in the image of God. Significance, in God’s eyes, is not based on ability, skill, wins, or losses. We are important not because of the scoreboard, but because we reflect God in life. The athlete can be free from the weight of earning accolades or popularity to make them feel valuable. Even if the athlete never turns pro, or the pro athlete is on a losing team, or the parent has a kid with two left feet, each athlete already has significance. There is no need to earn and work for something that you already have. Simply by nature of being alive, the athlete has dignity and honor. Check out this video from TOPSoccer that beautifully demonstrates this.
[p.s. this is one of the main reasons it is so important to demonstrate good sportsmanship. We honor the competition because they too are image bearers.]
Second: Athletes are wonderful apart from human work.
Don’t get me wrong, I love watching the “beautiful game” that is soccer. I love to watch Messi and Neymar Jr. pass, dribble and shoot, displaying the wonder of the game and their magisterial skill. I too, like any other fan, marvel at Stephen Curry’s ability to rain down 3-pointers. I admire the steely toughness of Super Bowl 50 MVP, Vonn Miller. These athletes, along with the scores of others, have devoted themselves and disciplined themselves to work, and work hard. They do wonderful things within their sport.
However, long before any of these picked up a ball, God said they were “wonderfully made.” And David, the King of Ancient Israel, said, “Wonderful are your works” (Psalm 139:14). These statements reference God’s formation of humans in the womb of their mother. Somehow, in the mystery of God’s design, a human demonstrates the wonderful work of God. This is essential for all athletes to know. God has made them wonderful. They were wonderfully made years before trophies were won and will still be wonderful years after their names fade from the headlines.
“All hard work brings a profit” says the wise man of Proverbs, but athletes don’t ever have to get confused and begin to think that they need to accomplish something or prove something in order to be wonderful. All humans are wonderful apart from human works. The fruit of hard work doesn’t make us wonderful. Hard work does bring profit, but not the profit of a wonderful identity. Athletes don’t ever have to try to work for something they already have…wonder and beauty.
Third: Athletes are loved without conditions.
So much of the world we live in is based on conditional agreements. Sometimes rightly so, other times its very misplaced. This reality is read daily on sports headlines. The “What have you done for me lately” attitude is everywhere. I think one of the toughest jobs is a head coach of a sports team. In some ways, it’s easier to be the team owner than the head coach because at least you can’t fire yourself. Professional athletes are also scrutinized by coaches, other players, and the public. The court of public opinion matters in our day. And that court too often makes it determination based on performance. The love of a sports team or athletes can change as quickly as the spring time weather in Texas. People’s support is as fickle as a junior-high boy’s latest crush.
Do athletes privately wonder, “Will they still love me if I fail?”
All humans, athletes included, need to know that we are loved without conditions. It doesn’t matter how good we are or how bad we are, God loves us. The Bible says that “God demonstrates His own love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). Consider that. The perfect, righteous, holy God sent His one and only perfect Son, Jesus, to pay the just penalty for people who have done wrong. God loved us when we were unlovely. God sacrificed His son for His enemies. If that is how God loves all humans, then that is how God loves all athletes.
All athletes, young or old, skilled or clumsy, professional or recreational are unconditionally loved by God. God loves the athlete in success or failure. God loves the athlete when they hit the game-winner or publicly choke under pressure. God loves the athlete with shelves of accolades or the special needs 10 year-old TOPSoccer player. God loves athletes…humans, without conditions.
If you’re an athlete, parent, or coach take these three timeless truths as good news. Your significance never again has to be tied to your performance. Your value never has to be based on wins or losses or trophies or public praise. God loves you no matter what.
What do these truths look like in a high school football athlete? Watch this video so you can see how this kid has found great freedom in playing because he believes these truths in his heart. You’re going to love it!