Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Sleeping with My Basketball

I’ve been thinking about competition this week and I should mention that it isn’t the first time I’ve really considered the implications of participating in events in which my success depends on your failure and your success depends on mine.

If you ever read my book How to Smell Like God, you may remember my story of striving for success in high school basketball. To this day I’ve never met anyone who was more competitive than I was in high school: I kept track of every minute I practiced over the summers, averaging more than three hours a day between my freshman and junior years. That means if I missed a day, I would practice six hours the next.

If I missed two days for a family event, I would have to practice five hours a day over the next three days. Also, I slept holding my basketball for four years so that I would be holding it eight hours a day longer than my competitor. It was my life.

I told all of this to a girl I was hoping to date in college and she said, “Steve, let me ask you something.”


“What was your god in high school?”

That question was one of the steps that led me from being a churchgoer to being a believer in Christ.

After becoming a Christian I realized I’m supposed to seek the good of others, love them, serve them, and seek humility rather than honor (see Matthew 23:6-12).

Since then, I’ve been asking myself a question that I’ve found over the years few other Christians seem to ask themselves when it comes to competitive events, and the more I honestly answer it, the more I’ve changed the way I view competition.

Try asking it of yourself and see where the answer leads. Here it is: How can I love, serve and honor someone above myself whom I am wholeheartedly trying to defeat?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Doc Op said...

Funny how women can set us straight. Years ago, in one of those confessional "Singles" moments, I told a friend who was a girl, that I really struggled with 'self identity" -- I said that I carefully presented myself so that people might find me "creative" or "smart." She replied: "Kirk, we already know that you are those things, we just want to know if you can hold a job."

Truth is, I still wrestle with this. Right now, in our community, we are having a state wide photo contest that will culminate in a coffee table book. We are invited to present our pictures to a digital forum, where we can in turn, vote thumbs up or thumbs down on all of the various entries, and make comments on each photo. (there are tens of thousands.) As is, the skill level ranges from top-of-the-craft to lots of proud moms with camera phones.

Given that I earn a living as a photographer, it has been a joy to "meet" many photographers of extraordinary skill. I didn't know we had so many, many in my own town. But more than that, it has been a good exercise for me in working with ego and affirming others.

I am sorry if this runs counter to the basic idea of self-deflation, but I have been working to NOT present some of my images, that I know are better than what has been presented of a certain subject. I also seek to find several good images in every gallery I enter, and make positive comments on several images in each. All in all, I am finding as much joy in the competition as I am in affirming those who are not working at the same level.

In this case then, it isn't a case of competition, or NO competition, but rather, embracing a form of contolled competition -- combined with a delight in seeing how others are enjoying and mastering photography, and savoring our shared world.

mark songer said...

LOL Good grief, Steven! :)

:: cues Cheech & Chong's song "Basketball Jones" ::

Seriously, though. I understand the conundrum. It's almost like the only way to be competitive and Biblical at the same time is to relegate ourselves to PeeWee soccer mentality where no scores are kept, no standings are posted and everyone gets a trophy.

Personally, I think it all comes down to motivation. Why are we trying so hard to win? Is it for our glory? Is it for God's? Can we win with humility? Is a person who is bitter and resentful for coming in anywhere less than first place as guilty of sin as the person who does come in first and gloats or allows pride in winning to affect them negatively?

I remember a Sunday school teacher suggesting that in Heaven, if people were having a footrace, everyone would cross the finish line at exactly the same time. Even for not being competitive, I gotta say that would be pretty boring.

I believe that if you have a God-given talent to play basketball, write books, sing, etc..., then we should always do so to the best of our ability. If you have read Randy Alcorn's books "Deadline," "Dominion," or "Deception" (especially Deadline) he suggests that those who excelled in (for instance) singing on earth would sing in Heaven but on a glorified scale. Those who excel at painting here would paint to the glory of God in Heaven. A singer wouldn't necessarily paint and vice versa.

If that's the case, then we should do the best at what we do always. We should have the humility to be thankful to God and supportive of others if we win. We should ALSO have the humility to be thankful to God and supportive of those who DID win if we didn't. The onus does not fall just onthe winner.

If I'm in a competition where I know I have the ability to do well (not basketball -- I couldn't make a basket if I were sitting on the backboard despite being 6-2) then I am not satisfied with less than my best. Whether I'm singing, teaching or recalling useless information at Trivial Pursuit, if I have done my best, I'm satisfied. Even if I don't win.

I know it's hard to keep this attitude at all times. I have lost out on opportunities to sing solos or lost parts in plays to people who I felt I was better than (on a technical scale) even though they were more right for the part. It's hard sometimes to suck that up. But I just took the role I was given and played it to my best or offered support to the person who did get the solo I wanted by singing in the choir behind them to the best of my ability.

Great, now you've got me thinking I'm being prideful by relating all this to you :)

My point is that just because everyone is doing their best for God doesn't mean everyone is at an equal level of skill or ability than anyone else. You may know for a fact that you are playing your best game of golf and you feel that God is glorified with every swing of your club because of it. But does that mean you could beat Tiger Woods (even if he does have a stress fracture and torn ligament after just coming off knee surgery :) )?

The point is to do your best and be humble in your victory or loss and celebrate everyone else doing their best in their own victory or loss.

I really need to learn how to give shorter answers to questions :)

mark songer said...


I love your approach to the photo competition. I think that's awesome how you are, for lack of a better term, allowing others to win. I think that's also a very valid approach to the topic at hand. I have just never figured out how to do it without being obvious :)

Anonymous said...

Have you ever volunteered with Special Olympics? In my experience with competition there -- each does their best to win, and everyone is excited and happy for the winner.
I once heard a Special Olympian say (and I'm paraphrasing here): I didn't win and I'm darn good; he must be amazing to beat me.
To take joy in someone winning, even your opponent, spins the idea of competition making it not all about self about whether you've won or lost.
I wish we could all be so simply pleased to share in someone else's triumphs. We should be happy that we strove to do our best and that someone, anyone (any child of God) was good enough to win.

~~Robin said...

Marc Songer--I liked what you summed up: do your best...humble in victory...celebrate others. This is the closest I think to a functional answer I've ever come across.

I had a great upbringing, but we were pretty disfunctional when it came to competition. Not in the way most people are. We were taught to root for the underdog--not only in sports, but in all aspects of life. Not out of pity, because we thought we were better (we weren't), but out of respect for others (now who sounds boastful). In the little town of 500 people I grew up in, athletic ability was everything. The kids that had it seemed also to have the most prominent and influencial parents in the community. Really, what I saw was bullies raising up more bullies. That always confused me--I thought maybe money and position could buy such talent?? Anyway, my parents modeled just the opposite. They rooted for the underdog, I think, because no one else did. They taught us that everyone, no matter how different they are from you, or how bad it is that they are at what they are trying to accomplish (as long as it isn't unethical), deserves a cheering section. So, this is how we all (5 kids) behave to this day. If we do compete at something (never sports--we don't have this gene), and do well, we really just 'brush it under the rug', which isn't really that healthy at all. My parents didn't deliberately teach us to not want to win, they just spent so much time teaching us, through their witness, to root for the one who was ridiculed or the one who just wasn't quite as good.

Migrant workers came from Texas every late summer to work in the fields of my small Illinois community. Most people in my town did their best to avoid them; locked their doors at night (no one ever locks their doors in my town--we didn't even HAVE a key for our back door), and kept an eye on their daughters. Dad, however, invited them over for a pig roast. He'd practiced his Spanish all year with the dog--ours was the only bi-lingual Irish Setter in the county, as far as I knew. Word got out and camper after camper of migrant workers began rolling in. Mom worried, not about foreign strangers, but that there wouldn't be enough potato salad for everyone. My dad also lost his garage business, partially due to illness, but partially due to the fact that he would accept IOU's from anyone he knew couldn't pay. He wasn't a wimp-he was a big man with a big presence, but he also had a big heart, and even though he wanted us to succeed in life and have it better financially than he did (he always said "you gotta look out for yourself", while he was fixing someone's car who we all knew would never pay him), it's his heart that we learned from the most.

So--competition. It's always been a word that has left an unidentifiable taste in my mouth. I don't know if it's bitter or sweet, or a little of both. Sorry I've written way too much on someone else's blog, but the topic is a mystery to me....I really like seeing different points of view on this, as I'm not sure there's an easy answer here.

~~Robin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
karla said...

God has blessed some with unique athletic ability. I see no sin in using those abilities, even finding recreation in perfecting those abilities.
As with every good and perfect gift, we have the ability to taint them, make them sinful. Pride and idolatry often come into play in the athletic arena. To say that because we often ruin these gifts from God with our own sinfulness, therefore we should not use them is taking it a step too far, I believe. Many Christian athletes have used their gifts to bring God glory. They play not to defeat others, but to be the best that God has made them to be.
From the previous blog--our differently abled athletic olympians teach this lesson beautifully.

Murph said...

I seem to remember you still sleeping with that ball at camp. Hope you are well. Just ordered several of your books, if they are anything like your live storytelling, I am confident that they will be enthralling. An alumni website for camp should be up soon, keep an eye out for it. Murph

Daddy Raptor said...

I coached high school basketball at a Christian school for 2 seasons. Wrestling with the problem you have presented led me to encourage players to forget about the score board. If you have given your best, total effort for the Lord then you have won regardless of what is on the score board. This shifts the competition aspect away from others to you. The focus was, instead of winning the game, playing the perfect game. The perfect game would be scoring every time you had possession and stopping your opponent from scoring during each of their possessions.
My first year of coaching in high school was with a team relatively short for hoops and ravaged by the previous graduation of seniors. The deal was to out run the larger behemoths with a controlled fast break. If that didn't work, we set up in a spread, free lance, and stall type offence. There were not any other plays other that a few inbounds plays and a couple of trick plays I read in a book!
Consequently, conditioning was a large part of practice. We were in better shape than any team we played and ran them into the ground. Then we would play devil-dog, man-to-man, help defense that sometimes resembled a zone when played correctly.
Another very important discovery concerning motivation was that players responded to nurture twice as much as to admonition. During my high school and college basketball career I only had brow-beaters for coaches. I decided never to embarrass or yell at a player during a game. Sometimes in practice, behind closed doors, you had to get a teenagers attention but still with respect. But, never in front of family and friends.
One game in SC we held a team to 4 points defensively. I know it is not good sportsmanship to run up a score on another team but my 2nd string was killing and I didn't have the heart to stop their efforts to play the perfect game.
I knew very little as a coach. At time outs I would let them rest and drink Gatorade and tell them to keep doing what they're doing. I was just a glorified cheerleader. Of course, John Wooden once said that, “The secret to coaching is finding good players and sitting back and watching them play!”
The secrets that I found of nurture and focus and tried to teach allowed my guys to set the league record for consecutive wins at 15 games and claim the conference championship. We were highly favored to win the state but got defeated by a weak, underdog team. I wept throughout the noon devotional service. Doubtless it was a lesson in pride that I needed and hopefully learned.
Perhaps the most important life lesson I learned from basketball is to totally release your best effort for God’s glory in whatever you do. If that is effectively done, then you transcend the state championship trophy or the Christy or whatever it may be, and all other earthly acclaim. Sometimes easier said than done though.