Philippians 4:6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
No serious athlete ever wants to be called “a choker”. When the clock ticks down on the basketball court and the ball is in your hands and you throw a brick. Or you are standing over a two-foot putt to win the state championship and you pull it. Your personal high jump record is 20cm higher than your nearest competitor, but you “no height” the championship finishing last. The technical term for this phenomenon is “performance anxiety”. It is often described as a “decrease in athletic performance due to perceived stress from two primary factors: 1) an audience; and 2) extremely high expectations of success.”
In those moments of intense competition, muscle memory actions which you could perform in your sleep suddenly become enormous tasks. The effect of numerous eyes on you suddenly takes its toll. You try to concentrate on the task at hand, but your mind is wandering to your family in the stands, or perhaps the coach or scout who is recruiting you. You try to clear your mind but the voice you hear says: “I’ve got to make this shot, or this putt, or this jump. What if I miss? All these fans will be disappointed. It is my last chance to impress this coach. If I don’t impress him, I lose that scholarship opportunity, I miss the opportunity of a lifetime.” A poor performance is a certainty; it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Competent sports psychologists have developed many good techniques to overcome performance anxiety in sports, and it is wise for a Christian athlete to understand and practise some of them, however, I believe there is a far more valuable lesson that needs to be learned. For some Christians the biggest thing they need to tackle is the battle within themselves. If they are honest, they are not seeking to honor God with their sport but rather they seek honor for themselves. If this describes you, then do not ever expect to find peace because you were created to love, worship and honor God. Ephesians 2:10 says: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” If the Holy Spirit convicts you that you are seeking honor for yourself, repent and hand it all over to God.
For other Christians, anxiety actually comes from a desire to measure up to what they perceive God’s expectations are for them. For some reason they feel that God will only be pleased if they perform to the highest possible level. Yet I believe Moses got it right when he wrote: “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? He requires only that you fear the LORD your God, and live in a way that pleases him, and love him and serve him with all your heart and soul.” (Deuteronomy 10:12)
What pleases God is: Faith in Him (Hebrews 11:5-6, John 20:29); Obedience to Him (1 Kings 17:15) and most importantly Love for Him and His Word (Psalm 119:47-48). If we can truly embed this into our hearts and psyche as Christian athletes, then all anxiety leaves. We still honor God by training to the best of our abilities, we give our “all” in competitions, but we recognize that ultimately, we are only performing to the audience of one. And the one sitting in the stands is not critically evaluating you with his clipboard. He is a loving, gracious Father who ultimately isn’t concerned if that ball swishes, if it drops to the bottom of the cup, or if the bar stays on the standard. He is concerned about your heart. He desires to have all of it. Pursue your loving Father today, and hand over the outcomes of your chosen sport to him. The next time you find yourself in a place of sport induced anxiety, picture the smile of your heavenly Father in the stands – your audience of one!