Sport and self-esteem

Image: Sport and self-esteem

Does coming second in the Olympics make you a loser?

Is second place a failure?

Have you been enjoying the Olympic Games? We all know winning silver is nice, but not as good as gold. It seems like our athletes have been giving us this message as well.

I am writing this in Australia, and it's been interesting watching the reaction of some of our competitors.

It was tough seeing swimmer Emily Seebohn break down as she fronted the media after winning a silver medal. She had a taste of gold in the 4 x 100 metre freestyle, Australia’s only gold after 6 days of competition. However, after ‘losing’ the 100 metre backstroke final, heartbroken and fighting back tears, she told the world's media that she had let down her parents and Australia.

Upon reflection, she realised she hadn’t let anyone down, except herself a little, but reported that the pressure had been huge. On Twitter, Emily wrote

When people start telling you you are going to win, maybe you start to believe it and I hadn’t even swum.

James Magnussen is another swimmer who has felt the huge pressure the athletes have been under. His failure to win a medal in the 4 x 100 metre relay was his first real experience of disappointment in his swimming career. He commented that

I have learnt more about life in the in the last 2 days than I have in the last 20 years.

His silver in the 100 metre freestyle, missing gold by only a finger-tip of 0.01 secs, gave him another tough learning experience.

Ever get disappointed with yourself?

The great challenge for athletes and all of us is basing our self-esteem on our performance, or what others think about us. This has been even more complicated as these have been known as the first social networking games. Some people have even said Australia hasn’t won more gold because they are spending too much time on Facebook and Twitter! Reading what people think about you before a race, or responding to comments after disappointment is enough to break down even the toughest athlete.

As someone who has played and coached sport, it is so easy to ride the wave of acceptance based on our performance. In Under 14's cricket, I scored my one and only century (100 runs), but the next week I was out for zero! Sport is like that – a champ one moment and a chump the next.

God’s coaching manual, The Bible, has some great words of wisdom about how we should see ourselves. What gives us value as people is:

  • We are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27)
  • We are uniquely formed and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:13-14)

Every person has great dignity and value because God made them – yes, even you!

Winning the greatest prize

The gospel message is that God does even more than this: it is by his achievement, not our own, that we are acceptable to Him.

Ephesians 2:8-9 speaks to people who like to work to achieve their own goals:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing: it is a gift from God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.

The title of Olympic gold medallist brings great pride and prestige, but it cannot bring us eternal life, or earn us the right to be called God’s children (John 1:12).

The Apostle Paul had won it all in his former life as a Jewish teacher. But when he became a Christian he wrote in Philippians 3:12-14:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Jesus Christ has made me his own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for what the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Olympic athletes and social sportspeople need to see that their identity is found in how God has made them and what he has done for them through Jesus. This knowledge will cause us to press on for the ultimate goal of eternal life, which God has already awarded us.

Surely this is worth more than gold!

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