By: Jason Robinson & Mark Possis
We all are enamored with those athletes who have that competitive, winning attitude. From Michael Jordan to Tiger Woods and all those in between, the drive to be the best is what separates them from the others. That drive requires intensity, strength, relentless resolve and sacrifice. That last requirement is probably the biggest and most challenging. What are you willing to sacrifice to become the best?
We recently saw the documentary “The Last Dance” where an intense, strong, relentlessly resolute Michael Jordan was followed as he pushed his team to their last championship. How he did it was questioned by many including myself. On one hand he got results and motivated his teammates to get the job done, but the way it was done was quite different from how most of us would choose to do it. MJ was at times abusive, antagonistic, petty, trifling and some would say just downright a “first class jerk”.
Many would say that he had to be to get the results he got. “He’s got that killer instinct” is what they say. They would say that to be a success you have to be a ruthless, cold-blooded individual. Michael was quoted as saying “Winning has a price. Leadership has a price. I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged”. He went on to talk about the costs which included broken relationships and being seen in a negative light just to name a couple. He basically said it was worth it to get where he is. Was it?
As athletes, we all know that feeling of wanting to be the best at what we do. In our last article, my friend and teammate Mark and I talked about what it takes to be a “real one” as an athlete. We talked about having a faith that leads us to being genuine in how we deal with people. MJ’s drive to win was stuff of legends. But as he said, it cost him. I’m reminded of what Jesus himself said in Mark 8:36 when he said “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” What are you willing to sacrifice to be successful? That is a question that many athletes have had to ask themselves. It’s a struggle, but what happens if you proclaim a faith in Christ, how do you have that ultra competitive drive without compromising your faith and your witness? Mark and I want to explore that question. Are there any professing Christian athletes out there that we can look to as an example. Mark shares a story of one such athlete.
Mark: With the quintessential mix of seasoned veterans and uber-talented freshmen, the 2008 Florida Gators were favorites for the BCS National Championship. Add to that the unparalleled talent of arguably the best college quarterback ever -- returning Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow -- and you’ve got a recipe for one of the greatest teams in the history of sports. With a roster this stacked, expectations were at an all time high, and anything other than absolute perfection for the ‘08 Gators would seem like a failure. They were well on their way to achieving that perfection, until, however, an unforeseen calamity suddenly struck.
In their fourth game of the season, the untouchable ‘08 Gators were stunned by a subpar Ole Miss team. Gator nation's unprecedentedly high hopes for a perfect season vanished into thin air as their final field goal attempt was blocked. The collective energy of the entire stadium evaporated all at once, and everyone sat in utter disbelief as their shattered dream began to trickle into effect.
No one took this stunning loss harder than the face of the dynasty, Tim Tebow. With his natural tenacity and unmatched optimism, the sense of failure hit him with force, and left him at an unfamiliar, extremely unwelcoming rock bottom. As the beloved heart and soul of the hundreds of thousands who comprised “Gator Nation”, he felt personally responsible for shattering the hopes of so many dedicated players and fans.
What happened immediately afterwards at the post-game press conference, however, was a moment so exceptionally monumental and unforgettable, that it would eventually be commemorated with an eternal shrine outside the Gators’ stadium: “The Promise”. Tebow, through teary eyes, took to the press conference podium and proceeded with conviction:
“I just want to say one thing.
To the fans and everybody in Gator Nation, I’m sorry, extremely sorry.
I promise you one thing, a lot of good will come out of this.
You will never see any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season, and you will never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as I will push everybody the rest of the season, and you will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season.
And with that single statement, he left the press-conference with haste.
With pristine foresight and conviction, Tim basically promised a perfect rest of the season. And boy, was what happened next magical.
The Florida Gators were a steam-roller. For the rest of the regular season, every single opponent they played was at their complete and utter mercy. A 51-21 blowout over fourth ranked LSU. A 49-10 embarrassment of the #8 Georgia Bulldogs. A 56-6 domination of 24th ranked South Carolina. The ‘08 Gators were no longer just playing football; they had a prophecy to fulfill.
This brings us to the BCS national championship game, specifically halftime. The deafening energy in the Hard Rock stadium finally came to a simmer after a ruthless first half battle, and the two historically great teams retreated to their locker rooms with the score tied at seven a piece. As the fans anxiously ticked in the stands, and as the Gators sat nervously in their locker room, everyone’s collective mindset seemed to once again be waning on doubt. Could they fulfill their destiny, or would they fail again? Enter the very heartbeat of the entire operation, Tim Tebow.
Tim had had enough. Every emotion from the entire season must have surfaced at once, because with unabashed intensity and a visible fire raging within his eyes, Tim thrusted himself in the center of the circle that the players had formed, and began to scream.
“WE’VE GOT THIRTY MINUTES, FOR THE REST OF OUR LIVES…” he yelled with untamed ferocity. His competitive streak was in a frenzy, and for good reason. Destiny was at stake. His promise was on the line. Failure was unacceptable; It was simply not an option for Tim, and since everyone else in the locker room was on his team, it was not an option for them either. Solely from Tim’s leadership, everyone’s competitive streak was reinvigorated, and now overpowered its first-half suppression. Behind their fearless leader, the Gators took the field for the second half.
As you can probably imagine, the second half was not even close. The Gators dominated every single aspect of the rest of the game, and coasted to victory in the 2008 BCS national championship by a score of 24-10.
The most daring, historic prophecy in all of college football had actually been fulfilled. The monumental achievement undisputedly cemented Tebow as one of college football’s all-time greats, and as its first ever prophet.
Now, what does this narrative have to say about competition, and how does it relate to Christianity?
Jason: When most people think of a “Christian Athlete” they form an opinion of someone who is mild mannered, not aggressive and someone who will let others walk all over them. This didn’t describe Tim at all. Not only did he shatter the image of what a Christian Athlete is, he allowed his success to serve as an example of what hard work and faith can get you. He used that not for his own personal gain but he used it for a cause bigger than him. He became a role model for many.
What Tim understood was that he had a responsibility to those who chose to follow him. He knew that if he was to be credible, he had to put in the work, be real about who he was and be courageous enough to put it out there. He did it in a way that brought honor to God. So the question that we’re asking is simple, can a Christian athlete be competitive?
Mark: Y-E-S. I’ll say it louder, for the people in the back: YES!! We Christians not only can be competitive, but need to be in everything we do. We can not afford not to be. How else could we achieve the positive, loving influence that we are striving for? Contemplate this: Do you think that Tim Tebow could have ever delivered on such an insane, outrageously ambitious promise to hundreds of thousands of people, if he were not at all affected by the desire to win?
What if Tim Tebow was not absolutely certain that his inner motivation, willpower, and love for both his team and faith could alone accomplish something that had never been done before? What if he was not a natural born competitor? What if every decision he made on and off the field was not fueled by the all-consuming desire to succeed? Do you really think he would have been able to inspire his team to the degree that he did, and lead them to a victory so compelling, that it led to the immediate action of 93 million people? Me neither. Tim Tebow absolutely has the competitive gene, and frankly, it is what enabled his beautiful, exemplary Christian influence over so many people.
Unfortunately, we Christians are often vastly misperceived: people mistakenly correlate our intentional humility with “weakness”, or they assume “passivity” out of what is actually us being kind. This ineffably inaccurate stereotype has caused others to dismiss us as valid competitors, and view us as inherently feeble beings, which is outrageous!
Jason: If there is anything that gets me more heated is this assumption. I live to blow this thought out of the water! I would love to tell you that it is rooted in my deep love for God, but the truth is that I simply love when people doubt me or anyone else based on an assumption. When I perceive that people have made a negative assumption about an athlete, I immediately want to see that person prove them wrong. If you’re anything like me, when someone doubts you, that makes you want to win even more. You will put out the extra effort into every play, and don’t let them start talking some trash....GAME ON!!
As fired up as you can get, the reality is that not all of us are on 100 all the time. There is another side to the story that can be all too familiar for many. In my short 40 years of playing sports, I have seen this one played out on many levels. For this side of the story, Mark is going to take us there.
Mark: The very worst part about this stereotype is that, like all stereotypes, it has caused its subjects -- Christians -- to fall into the trap of believing these untrue things about themselves. In competition, we often diminish our self-worth because we think that, since we come from a place of love, we therefore cannot compete with tenacity, or with those who embody it. We ourselves might mistake our own humility as weakness, and then unknowingly attribute that believed weakness to our faith-orientated demeanor, like everyone else does. I myself am an example of someone who once wrongly beheld this detrimental mindset, and as a result, was traveling aimlessly through life.
Before I wholly committed to my faith, I saw myself at a cold, vacant rock bottom. At that point in my life, I would let my performance in basketball dictate my personal happiness and self-worth to an unhealthy extent. Without my recognition, I had let it become the epicenter of every decision I made, and thought that I had. It consumed my whole well-being.
The very foundation of my life was constantly fluctuating, because I had founded it upon something as circumstantial as a sport. The emotional toll of this constant fluctuation was both daunting, and exhausting. Whenever an inevitable bad game came along, I would naturally deem myself as “worthless” afterwards, because my success on the court was the only aspect of life that truly mattered; it carried the most weight in determining my happiness. This exacerbated sense of failure caused any shred of confidence I may have had to vanish, both on the court and in life.
After that, I had basically set myself up for failure, because I was trying to play a game that requires the utmost confidence without even a trace of any. I would play game after game overthinking every decision I made on the court, fearing that one minor slip-up may lead me back to my terrifying place of self-loathing. I felt debilitated, frustrated, betrayed by myself, and utterly stagnated by my enormous lack of self-confidence. Why couldn’t I do what I knew I could? I was playing beneath my abilities, deferring to lesser players, and watching them reap my results that I had worked so incredibly hard for. It emptied me; it drained me of my self-esteem, and led me on a downward, uprooting spiral of self-pity. It felt like I was watching my dreams vanish from the sidelines, when I knew I could be in the game living them. I was crushed.
The part that was by far the worst of all, was that I had absolutely no idea how to stop it from happening. I was losing to myself, and I did not know how to win. Stagnant. Clueless. Lifeless. That is what I was. Basketball -- my entire life -- was something that I was too naive to realize; just a game, always changing. It took my psyche hitting what I think was rock bottom for me to decide that I could not continue living this way: in a constant state of underachieving, operating on the mere margins of what I knew my life could be. I knew that I had to make a drastic change, or my life would look like this for the rest of time. At life’s lowest point, I had nowhere else to look but up, and boy am I glad that I did.
It is important to note that I had always been a Christian, but not as devoutly as I needed to be. I frequently attended Church services, said my prayers at night, and even attended church camp (when it didn’t conflict with basketball). Faith had always been a really important part of my life, but like I said earlier, it was not the foundation. It was a branch on the tree, but not the trunk. What made me realize that this was the most glaring deficiency in my life was that aforementioned feeling of powerlessness.
I kept failing, time and time again, and I could not for the life of me figure out why. It wasn’t until I hit rock bottom -- that necessary rude-awakening -- that I realized that I just could not do this by myself, no matter how hard I tried. Standards were too daunting, pressure was too crippling, and success was too impossible with my only tools being my weak willpower, and inherent naivety. I had experienced an adversity greater than I alone, and I knew my life could not keep going on like this forever. If I wanted to live the life I knew I could, I had no other option than to entirely repent from my current approach to life, and surrender to something much bigger than I. And as soon as I surrendered, I won.
Since I wholly committed to the process of knowing God, everything in my life has improved in ways I never could have anticipated. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was on the path I had always been looking for; I now really had a purpose. Now, I can not provide “scientific evidence” of my inner transformation, like most modern-day realists would need to see before committing to something like religion, because frankly, spiritual things are spiritually discerned, and not explicable through physical science. However, I am telling you, my life changed on a dime for the better.
I suddenly wanted to eat healthier, do better in school, and explore things other than basketball; I wanted to find this person who had been hiding under the veil of a sport, and actually achieve something instead of wallowing in my misfortune. My relational skills improved, I was a nicer person, and I no longer feared certain social interactions. I was on the path of spiritual purity, and it was transcendent. In this long process of truly discovering who I was (that is still very much happening), I stumbled upon countless aspects of my identity that I had been neglecting because I only cared about basketball.
Also, paradoxically, I finally found what I was looking for in basketball by looking to Christ. The way I viewed myself improved dramatically, therefore so did my performance and confidence. My competitive streak was reinvigorated, and burned 10 times brighter than before, because I now knew I was pursuing a life of purpose, and not an endeavor with an inevitable ending, like basketball. Christ became my epicenter, replacing the “thing” I wanted to have success in, and then, I had success in that “thing”.
I had finally felt that fiery, ultra-inspiring, conviction-invoking effect of hope and purpose that I imagine Tim Tebow felt when he made and delivered on “The Promise”; I suddenly wanted to win more than ever before. I still do, and now that I have discovered the abundant fruit on this path, no matter the inevitable hardships that will appear, I am not ever going back; because when you truly -- with your whole heart -- believe in something as big and unfathomable as God’s blueprint, you can never go back to thinking small. Above all else, Christ is my lamppost, and I know for certain that I will never be led astray; eventually, I will win!
Jason: It is all about knowing where your confidence comes from. For Mark, it wasn’t until he realized that the game itself is not enough that he was able to discover where his true confidence came from, his faith. Like Tim Tebow, he realized that putting confidence in his own ability to play the game was limited at best. It was all on him! Wins were on him and losses were on him. His emotional state was determined by his performance.
When you rely on circumstances to dictate your confidence, all it takes is a series of setbacks or losses to crush your spirit. In sports, nobody wins every game, losses happen. Nothing wrong with wanting to win every time you play, but that’s not realistic at all. Life has a way of bringing opponents that you will have trouble getting past.
For Tim Tebow, their perfect run was being challenged by a team that figured out how to get them. That halftime speech challenged Tim to make a choice, accept defeat or find a way to motivate his team to do what he knew they could do. He didn’t have to think long about it. He was fully confident that he and the team were there for a reason. He knew that no matter what happens in the game, he was going to go on, but he also knew that all the work and opportunities that got them to this point wasn’t for nothing. They needed to leave it all out there and not let the circumstances get the best of them. That is what they did, and we know how the story ended.
Your story hasn’t come close to ending. There are many more chapters to be written, but it is up to you to decide what direction that story will go. Mark was at the bottom and decided to look up. He made a decision that determined the direction of his story. He was on a slippery slope that we all find ourselves on at times in our lives, especially those of us that are performance driven. As soon as one thing we put all our stock in fails us, then we are lost as a goose.
He turned to the one thing that didn’t fail him...faith. What is that foundational thing that you can trust in that won’t fail you? Does it provide the motivation to keep going even when quitting seems like the move? Does it drive you so hard that others can visibly see your passion and catch on to it? Can it open up doors to opportunities beyond your imagination? These are questions that you need to ask of that thing you base your confidence in. For us, is not what, but who.
GOD! It’s that simple of an answer. The difference between an MJ and a Tim Tebow is a matter of faith. MJ put his confidence in his ability to work hard enough to get the job done. Tim put his confidence in God. Both had to put in the work, earn the right to be on top and to have their teammates follow them into battle. The difference is where you put your identity. One of the things that left me sad after watching “The Last Dance” is hearing MJ talk about what it cost him to have the success that he had. He was willing to pay whatever cost it took to be on top. It cost him relationships and some aspects of happiness and peace.
In Tim’s case, because of his faith foundation he was able to keep things in perspective. Tim didn’t try to put on a false front that some do when they identify themselves as a Christian. They try to live up to that false image of being pious and never doing wrong. I’m pretty sure that Tim wasn’t always a calm, cool collected character. As he displayed in that locker room, he showed how passionate he could get.
In a recent conversation with a friend of mine who is a former NFL football player and is now a corporate executive and is coaching football at a Christian school. He says that Christian athletes should be among the most intense and competitive out there. We’re in complete agreement on this. God gave you the talent to play the game and the expectation is for you to work it as best you can.
Jesus in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 tells the story of the land owner who gave his servants property (talents) that he wanted them to take care of in his absence. He gave different amounts to the servants according to their abilities. When he returned, he asked each of them to give an account of how they took care of what they were given. Two of the three servants not only took care of what was there, but they turned a profit and were rewarded for it. The last servant did nothing with what he was given and that angered the owner. “You wicked and lazy servant…why didn’t you deposit my money in the bank? At least I could have gotten some interest on it.” The point of the story was that there was an expectation for at least the bare minimum but what he really wanted was for him to do his best with what he was given.
It has been said many times that God’s gift to us is our talents/abilities and our gift back to Him is how we use it. When you have confidence in the one who gave you the gift, the easier it should be to give it your all. When you put it all out on display in great ways, not only do you succeed, you proclaim how good the God you represent is too!
Mark: Aside from being one of the most dominant athletes in the country, Tim was also extremely well-known for his outspokenness on his faith. His faith was just as well-documented as his football. During every single game of the ‘08 season, Tebow could be seen with a Bible verse painted on his eye-black. It was a trend that swept the nation.
Staying true to form, Tebow had the Bible verse “John 3:16” legibly painted under his eyes for that magical championship game. That means that for every one of the countless times the camera panned to him, this verse was seen; It was seen on thousands of bar screens, the jumbo-tron in Dolphin-stadium, by millions of viewers at home, and in the YouTube video of his famous halftime speech. As history was being made, “John 3:16” was on full display. Now, what happened next was entirely unpredictable, and simply astounding.
Directly after the Gators completed their storybook season, over 93 MILLION people immediately took to google, and searched the verse “John 3:16”. That means that, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, and for those who believe in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life,” graced the screens of nearly three times the entire population of Canada that night, all because of Tim Tebow’s winning mentality. To him, this amazing, unanticipated reverberation of his success was as rewarding as winning the championship itself. A truly sensational, utterly inspiring story of Christian success.
Jason: Most of us are not going to have the mega platform that Tim had but the platforms that we have are the ones that God has provided for us. It’s all about reaching those that are around you with the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That good news is that you have a hope and a future that not only includes eternity, but the life you lead here on earth can be a rich and rewarding one. NO I am not saying we’re all supposed to be millionaires with no problems, that’s a false Gospel that unfortunately some try to preach. What I am saying is that God has a purpose for each of us to fulfill. A purpose that brings the hope and knowledge of a better situation than the one many of us found ourselves in. It’s not just about us succeeding, it is about helping everyone around us to succeed. You are simply the example and the teacher. How we spend eternity depends on how we live out this life in the present. If we truly believe what God says is true, then we can have the confidence to do what He has given each of us to do and we have the confidence to go after it with everything we got. Get that square and the world better watch out for a fiery, competitive, driven person who will conquer whatever they have set out to do! GO GET IT!
Stay Forever Strong!
About The Authors
Jason Robinson serves on the staff of The Navigators Collegiate Ministry at The Univ. Of Minnesota. Jason has emphasized the call of 2 Timothy 2:2 to empower others who reproduce themselves. He has 25 years of experience building leaders and multicultural organizations from the deep south to the upper midwest. He also has a mentoring/discipling ministry known as "The SportMentor" that has invested in athletes and leaders around the world both in person and online.
Mark Possis is an experienced basketball player, singer, and writer. He attends the University of Minnesota, where he is looking to pursue a marketing major paired with a creative writing minor. He practices an Orthodox Christian faith and beholds it as the most important aspect of his life”.