Today on the blog, I’m writing about one of my favorite subjects: basketball! Hope you enjoy.
Ball is life because basketball is like life. I’ve found the challenges I face on the court often mirror the challenges I face off of it. Because of that, basketball has often given me surprising insights into my life and walk with God. In particular, it has challenged me to examine my response to failure and adversity.
Basketball has shown me that my default response to failure and adversity is usually frustration. Sadly, the basketball court is often a sad display of Christian character. Instead of sportsmanship, you’ll often find flaring tempers and heated arguments. I’m no exception. I try not to show it outwardly, but my bad attitude often comes out in my scowling face and slouched body language.
Why do I get frustrated when I play basketball? It’s not the physical play or competition (I’ll come back to these later). I get most angry when I’m playing poorly–when I miss point-blank layups or have a string of bad turnovers. But its not the mistakes that make me upset per se, it’s that they make me feel like a loser. Mistakes damage my pride and I hate that feeling of wounded pride.
So what do I do instead? I project my wounded pride outward as frustration. I find another reason to be mad to avoid the truth that I’m angry at myself. So I’ll blame a hard foul, a sketchy call, or an arrogant player. I place the blame outside of myself and feel better.
Basketball often reminds me of this important lesson: we are most volatile and dangerous when we feel like failures. Why? Because we project that frustration with ourselves outward against others. When we’re frustrated with ourselves, we react in anger at even the smallest of annoyances. We snap back at innocent questions and friendly gestures. We seethe with anger when a small thing doesn’t go our way.
And the greater the provocation, the stronger our reaction will be. That’s why I think so many of us get particularly angry when we play basketball. In and of themselves, competition and physical play don’t make us angry, but when we’re already feeling frustrated, they sure do add fuel to the fire. Throw in other prideful, equally-frustrated players and it’s easy to see why the flames so often escalate out of control.
I wonder how much damage has been committed by people who lash out against others because they are unable to cope with feelings of failure. It’s a scary and humbling thought because I see those same roots of anger running deep in my own heart, hidden beneath the surface of respectability. We must learn to come to terms with our failure and deal with our frustration, or someday we will erupt in serious and hurtful ways.
Basketball has shown me that my second response to failure and adversity is often fear. Here I am in the middle of a game playing badly. As the mistakes pile up, I feel my confidence waning, even in my ability to make a simple layup or pass. Suddenly, it feels like everyone is watching, silently judging, and waiting for me to mess up again.
In that moment, there is a temptation to stop trying or to let my frustration take over. It’s easier to not try than to make a mistake. It’s easier to blame others than to face my own failures. But the game rages on and my team needs me.
It takes mental fortitude to continue competing hard in adversity. Competing hard means risking further failure. But that’s what good players do: they stay calm and remain aggressive, even after they’ve made countless mistakes.
Isn’t the same true of life? There are moments when our confidence wavers. After we bomb a job interview or after we’ve sent out countless applications and heard nothing in return. After we swore we would stand strong against a particular sin, yet find ourselves falling again and again. Our strength fails us. We lose courage to do even the simplest things, much less the daunting tasks in our lives. And yet, life goes on. Those same obstacles that terrify us remain before us. Our responsibilities don’t cease. People don’t stop depending on us. The Lord still requires us to be faithful.
How can we overcome frustration and fear on and off the court? There are practical steps to take. Hard work and practice will give us steadiness. Even when things go wrong, we are not easily derailed because we’ve put in the work a hundred times before. By continually exposing ourselves to adversity, we learn to be more comfortable in it. Over time, we learn that we can press on and that failure isn’t the end of the world.
These steps are good and there are countless athletes and individuals who succeed just by working hard and becoming mentally strong. And yet, for me, I’m reminded that I need grace both in life and to play the game. I am so weak that I need God’s grace to help me to practice and work hard. I am so timid that I need God’s grace to help me step out into the storms of adversity. I am so sinful that I need God’s grace to cover me when I fall into cycles of frustration and fear over and over again. I need God’s grace on and off the court.
Why Ball is not Life
Something rare happened last weekend: I missed basketball. I joke with people that my weekend basketball attendance is as good as my church attendance and that if I don’t play, I have a feeling akin to having missed church. I’m actually not really joking. My basketball attendance is nearly perfect and I feel strangely disoriented when I go a week without playing. That’s why, last Sunday, even though (1) I was at my church’s evening Christmas service and (2) was just recovering from the flu, I still agonized with my decision that it would probably be wise not to play.
You can probably tell from that anecdote and the first section that I’m somebody who thinks about basketball too much. It’s true. If I’m honest, I often idolize basketball by granting it too high a place in my thoughts and affections.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about why a trivial game like basketball, whether watched or played, can easily become such a huge idol for so many. Here’s a theory from my own experience: basketball offers excitement and purpose when life often feels mundane and aimless. Work can be tedious. We slog our way through the week. At times, church can feel mundane. We sleepwalk our way through fellowship and sermons. We feel tired. At the same time, we feel purposeless and aimless. What am I supposed to be doing? Why does it feel like nothing I do matters?
And then we step on to the court. We hear the sound of squeaking shoes and pounding basketballs and it’s as if we’re transported into a different world. Suddenly, there’s excitement. The rush of seeing your shot sweep through the net. The adrenaline of coming from behind to pull out a win. Suddenly, there’s purpose and direction. I know what I’m supposed to be doing! And it feels significant when I work hard and do it. Suddenly, there’s camaraderie as I work together with my team towards a common goal. Few things can provide us with excitement and purpose like sports so we can begin to depend on them for our day-to-day, week-to-week joy.
But, like all idols, basketball will disappoint us. It will disappoint us, first, because most of us just aren’t that good. Basketball is, to some extent, a performance-based joy. When you set your heart on playing well and winning, you will be disappointed because sometimes (or most of the time) you’ll play badly and lose . Even if you learn to just enjoy playing, we can’t play basketball all the time. Sometimes we’ll get sick like I did this past weekend. Other times we’ll be injured or we won’t be able to play because of other responsibilities. Eventually, our bodies will break down, our athleticism will fade, and playing won’t be the same.
Basketball is a gift, one I hope to enjoy and play for a long time. Basketball can also teach us important life lessons about self-control, teamwork, and resilience. But, in the grind of daily life, we must look to Jesus, not basketball, to be our life, joy, and strength.
He gives meaning and strength to our work, even in the mundane. He changes us through the preaching of his word. He empowers deep friendships in the church. He forgives our sins. He upholds and sustains us even when circumstances are hard and people fail us. In the great commission, he gives us a glorious cause worth living and dying for. In our restlessness and confusion, he guides our path and gives us true rest.