Editor’s note: This guest post comes from Abby Lee, a graduate student in the Sports Ministry Program at Truett Seminary.
I was in second grade when I decided I wanted to play college basketball. It happened after spending a week at the University of Oregon girls’ basketball camp. I looked up to the Oregon players like they were living the dream. More than anything else in the world after that week, I wanted to play basketball in college just like them.
Flash forward fifteen years and my basketball days are over, having accomplished the dream of playing NCAA Division I basketball. I wish I could go back in time and paint a picture for my eight-year-old self of the reality of playing college sports. Yes, there were exciting wins and lifelong friendships. But there were also hard practices, endless road trips, missed classes, practices and games during finals season, tough coaches, early morning lifts, and the dreaded conditioning tests. In short, playing college basketball was not the glamorous experience some assume it must be.
Being a Christian athlete added its own set of challenges, too. I often struggled to make faith fit into my busy schedule. When I had practice all day on Sunday, how could I attend church? When I didn’t even make it off the bench, how could I glorify God in my sport? Balancing the demands of college basketball with the truth of the Bible was a challenge for me.
I can’t go back in time to tell my younger self about these struggles and realities. But maybe I can help young Christian athletes get a sense of what college sports are like. Whether you are just beginning to explore the Christian faith or you are looking to grow, here are five truths I wish I knew as a college athlete.
1. YOU ARE NOT WHAT YOU DO
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” –Ephesians 2:8-9
Stepping onto campus as a freshman, I knew I had to prove myself to my teammates and coaches. In other words, I had to show them that I was worth their attention and earn my playing time. At the time I thought I would only have to prove myself to one coach. Little did I know, throughout my career, I would have to prove myself repeatedly to three different head coaches and many more assistant coaches. And each time trying to earn my worth was exhausting, draining, and, to be honest, impossible. I found myself equating the approval of my coach to God’s approval. When I didn’t get minutes in the game, I thought that I was somehow failing God’s purpose for bringing me to the team. My playing time and practice performance seemed to determine my worth.
Thankfully, we do not serve a God who asks us to earn his approval. God does not need you to win for him—Jesus already won when he died on the cross and rose from the grave! The number of minutes you play does not determine your value. Your stat line is not an equation of your worth. Ephesians says that by God’s grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not because of anything you did, but instead it’s a gift from God. There’s no amount of points, blocks, or tackles that could earn God’s grace.
This does not mean God is giving us an excuse for idleness. Rather, it means that what we do has no bearing on God’s love for us (more on this later). Realizing this truth has the power to set you free in your sport. When you understand that you don’t play to earn anything from God, you are free to play for God.
2. TRUE PEACE IS FOUND ONLY IN JESUS
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:7
Any athlete knows that there will be bad days. I have been through entire seasons where I didn’t seem to make a shot despite spending hours in the gym. And in college we have the added burden of balancing high-level sport with the demands of school—not to mention the difficulties of transitioning to life on our own.
My first semester of college was quite the adjustment, as I went from a small town in Louisiana to New York City. Most of the time I was overwhelmed, frenzied, and lost (no, really, I got lost on the subway a lot). But, without fail, the times I felt most at peace came from reading my Bible on bus rides to games and attending weekly Bible courses. I was able to set aside every distraction and burden and simply learn about Jesus.
You may find temporary satisfaction in a good game or a new personal best on the bench press, but these accomplishments will fade. Sports always leave us wanting more. We want one more made shot, one more sprint, one more good game. But in his letter to the Philippians, Paul boasts in God’s peace, which surpasses everything else, to protect our hearts and minds.
3. YOUR BODY MATTERS
“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
There is no question that the body is essential for an athlete. We are trained to push ourselves to the limit, mentally and physically, whether it’s on the court, field, or in the weight room. This might seem like a good thing—and sometimes it is—but it has its dangers too. It can lead coaches and players to see bodies as instruments to be used, and not temples to be protected and cared for. Athletes often feel the pressure to play injured and coaches sometimes shame players who are hurt.
In college it was difficult for me to prioritize my health. I did not want my coach to see me as weak, so I often felt as though I could not seek help for nagging aches and pains. And caring for one’s body means more than reporting an injury; it also includes nutrition and sleep. Getting enough rest was something I put to the side as a college athlete.
But the Bible tells us that our body is not only ours—it is also a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit! This means that you must care for your body as you would care for the house of God. Injuries and late nights are sometimes an inevitable part of college sports; however, when you prioritize the health of your body, you prioritize God’s temple. And when you begin to see your body as a gift, treasure, and temple, you will see that it is not just an instrument for athletic success, but a beautiful component of God’s creation.
4. YOU HAVE TO TRAIN LIKE JESUS
“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” – 1 Timothy 4:7-8
If I want to increase my shooting percentage, I dedicate more hours after practice to shooting on my own. If I need to work on my conditioning, I show up early to practice for some extra running. I cannot be surprised that I am not making shots if I never practice them. The point is: what we work on, we often improve on.
This principle also translates to our spiritual lives. The writer of 1 Timothy tells us that training in your faith is not only equally important, but more important than any physical training. If you want to grow in Christ-likeness, you have to train! When a crisis moment or a bad day comes, we cannot expect to automatically lean on God if we have not already been developing the habit of relying on Him, just as we cannot expect to make a game-winning shot if we’ve never practiced it.
Spiritual training is a practice that is easily cast aside in the busy schedule of a college athlete. But it is essential to staying rooted in faith and growing closer with Christ. Make sure to set aside time in your daily routine for spiritual disciplines such as prayer or studying scripture. For additional guidance, two books I recommend are Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster or Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun.
5. YOU HAVE A PURPOSE
“Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God is making his appeal through us.” – 2 Corinthians 5:19-20
Our first point, if you recall, was that we cannot earn God’s grace. This is true. However, this does not mean that we have no work to do. Which brings me to the most important truth I wish I knew as a college athlete. Swamped in homework and my sport, I often questioned my purpose. What is my role on this team? Why did God bring me here?
It turns out the answers to those questions were present in Scripture. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul announces that God is reconciling the world to Himself. In other words, he is correcting or redeeming the brokenness and sin of the world. This work is accomplished by God, but God has appointed Christians to be involved as well as “ambassadors for Christ.” Not only are we representatives of Christ everywhere we go, but we are meant to live lives that reflect God’s work of reconciliation in everything we do. We are called to be signposts of redemption, pointing people to the way of life as God intended and inviting them into that work as well. This is a great responsibility.
Having been a college athlete and experiencing the fallen nature of that realm, I can scarcely think of a place more in need of redemption than college sports. God calls you to act, through faith in Him, as an ambassador of redemption within sports. Importantly, this redemption is not marked by trophies and accomplishments, but rather by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). It’s marked by “considering others as more important than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3) and by praying and living in such a way that God’s will might be done on earth—and on your team, your campus, and your community—as it is in heaven.
This is the greatest responsibility of any college athlete. We do not play for a temporary trophy, but rather for the glory and redemption of creation through God the Almighty.
This blog is dedicated to my little sister, Maggie, a current college athlete who is both athletically gifted and marvelously intelligent. I pray that these biblical truths give you peace in your sport and studies. You are always enough, and you always have a purpose.
About the author: Abby (right) earned her B.A in religion and psychology and played basketball at Columbia University in the City of New York. She is currently earning her Masters of Divinity with a concentration in sports ministry at Truett Seminary. Maggie (left) is currently a sophomore at Wesleyan University studying molecular biology and biochemistry and playing basketball. You can follow her on Instagram: @ablee33