Editor’s note: Shelby played volleyball for Rice University and is currently a graduate student in the sports ministry program at Baylor’s Truett Seminary. This is the third in a series of posts from former college athletes on the lessons they’ve learned about faith and sports (the first two were from Josh Ehambe and Abby Lee).
My faith has always been a huge part of my life. I grew up going to church every Sunday and youth group on Wednesday nights. From middle school through high school I went to Christian schools where I took Bible classes every semester. I also had parents with an unwavering faith and commitment to the Gospel. Because of this background I understood who Jesus was. Christian faith was living and real for me.
Sports have also shaped who I am. My earliest memories involve my parents driving me back and forth to practices, games, and camps. They must have covered a lot of miles because I played almost every sport, from basketball and soccer to lacrosse and gymnastics. In the end, though, I fell in love with the greatest sport out there—volleyball. From sixth grade through college at Rice University, my days, weekends, and holiday breaks were filled with practices, tournaments, and matches.
Faith and sport have influenced so much of who I am, from the friends I’ve made to the way I spend my time. Looking back on my long journey with volleyball, however, I’ve realized that while faith and sport were both important to me, a true integration of the two was elusive. Faith mattered deeply, but for most of my volleyball playing days, I never truly took the time to allow it to influence how I played.
So, here’s a message to my former self and to any young Christian athletes looking for help: three lessons I wish I had known when I was first starting out as a college volleyball player. I hope these insights can be a point of reassurance and hope as you strive to connect who you are in Christ with the games you love to play.
1. Look for God in the Whispers
“The Lord said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.” – 1 Kings 19:11-13
When I went to Rice I had grand expectations of what college life would be like. These expectations involved big and important moments: the excitement of the first day of orientation; the new friends I met on the first day of class; the butterflies I experienced during the first game I started (honestly that game is still a blur, I was so nervous!); the cheers from the crowd when I got the game-winning kill in a five-set match.
Those big, Instagram-worthy moments really did happen, and they still bring smiles and joy. But when I reminisce, it’s the small and the ordinary that bring out the biggest smiles. The moments when there were no cameras around, when it’s just you and your teammates or your closest friends (and many times these are the same people). It’s the dance parties in the locker room before games and karaoke during long bus rides. It’s team lunches in South Servery dining hall, and the long walk to summer weights at 5:30 AM where at some point delirious laughter would randomly erupt. It’s also that feeling when you finally finish your last condition test as a senior (no more 300 yard shuttles!), or you set a PR in squats or hang cleans, or your coaches surprise you with a stop for ice cream on the road.
Those are the moments, when I think back on my college volleyball experience, that truly matter and bring happy tears to my eyes even as I am writing this.
And those are the moments, too, where I see God’s hand and faithfulness so clearly. It’s true that throughout Scripture we see God acting in big ways: he calms the sea, he heals the sick, he brings sight to the blind. However, the moments in Scripture that really stand out to me as signs of his greatness and power are the moments where God is heard in the whispers.
I wish I had invested more in those ordinary experiences instead of in the big and loud events. I wish I had taken the time to pause, to be still and listen, to recognize God’s presence in my everyday routine.
As an athlete, the first step you can take to integrate your faith and sport is to find God in the little things. Stop and listen and wait to hear God in the whispers, and not just in the earthquakes and the fire.
2. Develop Your Spiritual Muscles
“Pray continually” – 1 Thessalonians 5:17
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” – Hebrews 4:12
Recognizing God’s presence in every little thing around us is important, but it’s also essential we recognize God’s presence in our personal hearts and lives. It’s simple but it’s not easy. Completing daily quiet times has always been a challenge for me. Reading my Bible, spending intentional time in prayer, and praying over all circumstances always felt like an added burden I kept pushing to the end of the day until it was time to go to sleep. I would say I would start tomorrow but tomorrow kept getting pushed back, too.
I always had a “good” excuse, or at least that’s what I told myself. I had a 6 A.M. lift so there was no way I was waking up any earlier to read by Bible. I had class all morning and then practice all afternoon and then homework all evening and then it was time to sleep—all so I could do it again the next day. It was a vicious cycle that continued to push me further and further away from God’s Word.
In addition, I kept telling myself I was okay. I was a good person. I wasn’t doing anything egregiously wrong and I was going to church every Sunday and attending a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) meeting every Tuesday night. I was fine, or at least I was doing better than some of the Christians I saw around me. (It makes me cringe to think I once had those thoughts).
What I have learned after college is that life does not slow down. In fact, although I never could have imagined it during my busy student-athlete days, life gets even busier. There is never going to be a perfect or easy time to regularly read your Bible, but there will always be a good excuse.
In my attempts to be diligent in my quiet times with the Lord, one thought that’s helped me is this: we make time for the things that are most important to us. If scrolling on Instagram is important to me then I will make time for that. If getting straight A’s is my driving force then I will make time to study in the library. As a Christian, the most important thing in my life should be Christ. If I want this to be true then there is always time in the day to read my Bible and intentionally pray.
I am absolutely still working on this. I fail more times than I would like to admit. But I’m actively trying to commit time to Christ daily. If you’re a college athlete, I’d encourage you to join me. Start working on it now. Just like lifting weights or exercising, spiritual discipline is a muscle that gets stronger the more we use it.
3. Your Identity is Not Found in Your Playing Time or Stat Line (!)
“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” – John 1:11-13
I saved this point for the end because it was the most devastating and yet most important lesson I learned in college.
As I stated before, I was a good person in college. I did not party or drink. I did my homework and got good grades, I had good friends and I was even an FCA leader. I truly loved Jesus and thought I had Him as the center and foundation of my life.
What I learned, very abruptly, is that it is easy to love God when things are going well. It is much harder when the things that brought you joy—the things that consumed every minute of your day—are quickly taken away from you.
For me, this moment of loss came during the spring of my junior year when I tore my ACL. There is never a good time to get injured, but this was truly the worst timing. I had just finished the fall season on a high note at our conference tournament, playing the best volleyball I’d ever played. I had received good playing time throughout the year, and now I was going into my senior year at the top of my game and ready to take it to the next level. Things were lining up perfectly for an awesome senior season: win a conference title, make it to the NCAA tournament, and graduate from college, all with a good stat line and lots of playing time.
Then on a Friday in spring practice I went up for an attack, landed on one leg, heard a “pop” in my left knee, and crumpled to the floor. I immediately knew I had torn my ACL (and found out later I also tore my meniscus). Suddenly I was out of commission for nine months. That meant no volleyball and no practicing, and instead lots of pain, tears, and hours of rehab in the training room.
My injury also meant that I had to face and acknowledge some hard truths about myself. With volleyball gone for nine months, I realized how much I was placing my worth and finding my joy in volleyball alone. It had become my primary love. But even as I realized this, I still didn’t want to fully admit it. Many times during those long months my conversations with God were more like angry shouting matches than calm conversations. I didn’t understand why this was happening to me, and I was trying to figure out what I had done wrong.
But even in my pain and frustration, God was present, holding me up when I could not stand on my own, encouraging me in the dark times, and giving me a firm kick when I needed it. He also provided a community to walk with—Rice’s FCA group became my rock.
The healing journey with God was not instant. It was a long and arduous process. But I know this: with my idol stripped away, I came to see that my faith and my sport had been separated for far too long. I had made volleyball out to be a replacement for God, when really it was meant to be a way to worship him.
Not every athlete gets to compete again after a serious injury, but God was gracious. Eighteen months after my ACL injury, I returned to the court and got to play my final redshirt senior season. The lessons I’d learned from my injury transformed how I played. Playing free, with my focus on Christ and not on my stat line, changed everything for me—not just in my athletic life but also in my life after volleyball.
Of course, during the long days of rehab, I never thought of my injury as a blessing. And I’d never wish an injury on any athlete. Looking back now, though, I can see God’s hand and his plan for my life throughout my ACL journey. God never promises us success in sports, but He does promise his presence in everything we do. And it took an injury for me to realize that I’d been trying to keep him distant from my volleyball pursuits.
Maybe you can relate to that distance, that separation, between your faith and sport.
If so, I hope you can learn a little bit from my story. We serve such a great and powerful God who deserves our worship in everything we do. And we can seek Him in all things, including our sport. We can find him in the little moments of routine; we can learn and grow closer to him in our daily quiet times; and we can experience His presence in the midst of loss and pain.
When Christ becomes our foundation, even the darkest of valleys shrink in comparison to God’s great power and love for us.
About the author: Shelby graduated from Rice University in Houston, Texas, with a double major in Cognitive Science and Psychology where she was also a member of the Rice University Women’s Volleyball team. She is currently pursuing her Master of Divinity with a concentration in sports ministry at Truett Seminary at Baylor University. While at Baylor she serves as the Volunteer Assistant Coach for the Baylor Women’s Volleyball team. You can follow her on Instagram: @shelby.a.livingstone