Editor’s note: To help Christian sportspeople navigate these uncertain times, we will be publishing a series of posts focused on what it looks like to “Run The Race Well” in a time of coronavirus and quarantine. We will be getting contributions from a variety of perspectives: theologians, philosophers, athletes, coaches, mental health professionals, seminary students, and more. This post comes from Kevin Washington, Director of Player Development for the University of Texas football team. 

Kevin Washington

When an individual wakes up to sunlight instead of an alarm, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s even more beautiful for college athletes who have been waking up to a pre-dawn alarm for years. As they yawn and stretch, they are not sore; they don’t need that extra nine minutes because they spent the night studying. On top of that, there is no required schedule. They can move at their own pace. Gone are the mandatory workouts and tutoring sessions. Finally, there is freedom from the tyranny of organized sports!

That is what many athletes may feel as they adapt to life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As good as it may feel at first, however, it can quickly become a siren song for the unsuspecting. Sleeping may start to stretch later and later into the day as purpose vanishes along with any routine. Relationships may start to weaken as athletes no longer see the same people every day. Athletes accustomed to being recognized for their craft and consistent support from teammates may feel like few people truly care about them anymore.

The attributes above describe the onset of what is called identity foreclosure. This happens when individuals identify with one aspect of their identity too much, thereby neglecting their growth in other areas. For the athlete, once competition ends, “payments” to that identity stop and the identity is snatched away, or “foreclosed.”

Identity foreclosure is most often experienced by retired athletes. But with the pandemic, many athletes will be experiencing a test run of their retirement future. How can they avoid the identity foreclosure trap?

Instead of focusing their hope primarily on the inevitable return to play, athletes can start by using this time to develop holistically. For Christians, this should be rooted in an understanding that our identity grows out of our union with Jesus Christ—meaning, we are defined by who He is and what He has done for us. Since we are created in God’s image, our primary purpose in all of life (to glorify God) cannot be sidelined or retired simply because sports are on hiatus.

If the calling of God is to glorify Him in different roles and through various opportunities, Christians should not relegate the pursuit of excellence to one area of life. God did not create one-trick ponies, but marvelously complex beings that grow and mature along with their opportunities to worship Him. With the clarity of a freshly cleaned window, the current shutdown can give athletes an opportunity to see more clearly the real purpose they pursue. It can also allow them to explore other interests while developing fully into the image of God.

On a practical level, athletes could live this out in a variety of ways. They could read up on an assortment of topics, discover interesting podcasts, or connect with people in specific professions. It might be helpful to identify two or three non-athletic roles to grow in, and one new skill or opportunity to develop. This type of intentionality will develop the holistic living we see expressed in Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.”

As athletes develop their mind and heart, they don’t have to neglect the body. Holistic development includes physical activity. In the midst of exploring new horizons, athletes can continue training to maximize their athletic ability.

Yet if athletes only work to maintain their edge athletically, if they only dream about their future return to sports, this will ultimately stunt their growth and their full potential of who God designed them to be. Hope for the athlete cannot focus solely on the return to competition, because one day that will end. Instead, hope must be placed in the Savior who makes every moment matter, in and out of competition.

As the world waits and prays for the Lord to end COVID-19, let’s develop a mindset aware of the manifold opportunities God has given His children. Let’s encourage each other towards the equilibrium found in Christ. Athletes, feel free to enjoy waking up with the sunlight for a change. But don’t let the moments slip away. Fight against identity foreclosure now so that it won’t consume you in the future. Focus on our union and identity in Christ, because what is fully paid and freely given can’t be foreclosed on.

About the author: Kevin Washington’s passion is to help competitors thrive on and off the field by connecting their faith to every aspect of their life through combining physical and spiritual training. He has worked in ministry as a chaplain, and currently serves as the Director of Player Development at the University of Texas. Kevin played football at the University of Notre Dame and at Abilene Christian University. He has bachelor’s degrees in Sociology and Film & Television, and master’s degrees in Communication and Biblical Counseling. Kevin is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Biblical Counseling. Kevin and his wife Jordan live in Austin, Texas. You can connect with him on Twitter & Instagram (handle for both: @kevwash630), or check out his coaching and counseling service, Performance Peace (Instagram: @performancepeace).