My senior season of collegiate volleyball was supposed to be the best for the program in school history. We had swept the conference the year before, had advanced further in the NCAA tournament than ever before, and we were returning the majority of our starting lineup.
Yet, come late October, I found myself standing behind the old wooden bleachers inside an old, dingy gym, quietly breaking down. My family, along with most of my teammates’ families, were all gathered on the other side of those bleachers after the game we had just played waiting for my teammates and me to get out of the locker room, but I stood alone in the shadows sobbing, and I didn’t really know why.
Coming to realize the tension
My team had just lost our match against one of the worst teams in the conference, and it was the culmination of our underperformance throughout a season that had been highly anticipated. Instead of winning our conference, we had one of the worst records in our program’s history.
But I wasn’t crying because we lost, and had been losing, or at least I thought that couldn’t be the reason... The summer before my senior season I had gone through a 10-week internship with FCA Volleyball (which, full disclosure, I now work for) where I had spent the majority of my time experiencing God restore my view of the sport, teach me all about my identity not being in how I performed on the court or elsewhere, and give me vision and dreams for my team that went far beyond volleyball. I had spent time letting Him redefine success for me to not be wins and personal performance, but rather getting to know Him more and let others in on who He was. I even told God that if we didn’t win one game that season, but one of my teammates got to know who He was more, that would be enough for me.
And so, I couldn’t possibly be crying because we had underachieved... Right? I knew where my identity was and I had committed this entire season to joining God in changing culture on my team—to loving my teammates well, speaking truth into their lives, and building up a community that was about a vision bigger than volleyball—not winning a championship. Even more, I was seeing it happen before my eyes. Discipleship and culture change and a shift in how people on the team were interacting with one another, it was all happening, God was moving and doing exactly what I had asked Him to.
None of that however changed the fact that I was crying alone behind some wooden bleachers. The tears, I came to realize, were a breaking point in a pattern of trying to convince my own heart that I was okay with under-competing as a team. My goal was to love my teammates well and join God in what He was doing in their hearts, everything after that didn’t matter, therefore it didn’t affect me. My breakdown was proof my heart didn’t buy it.
This process brought me to the point where I started asking some big questions I have heard myself and many other college athletes ask since: How do I balance the tension of competing well and keeping the main thing the main thing? Is it okay to want to compete? Is it okay to feel terrible after a loss? How do I not sacrifice one side of the spectrum for the other?
I am going to be up front in saying these are questions I’m still asking consistently. I don’t have the answer for you because I think it might be something God is asking us to all seek Him on together, but I have come to some conclusions in taking these things to the Father.
Something I feel sure of...
First, I DO think competing is good and it is even after God’s own character. If we are created in God’s image and, therefore, all good characteristics I see in myself and others are a reflection of His character, then I believe a competitive spirit is one of the qualities I have inherited from Him.
The underlying question to this suggestion then is what about competitive nature is good? Can it even contribute to, let alone advance, the kingdom? I believe the very familiar 1 Corinthians 9:24 addresses these questions.
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” (NIV Translation)
I believe here Paul is talking about competition as a driving force to be your personal best in anything you do so as to honor the way God has designed you. For example, if we are all “competing” to get to know God more, seeking to be in relationship with Him, and learn more about His character whole-heartedly according to the peak of our ability, then even if we don’t know Him THE most, we still better our relationship with Him in the pursuit. I believe this is success to God, it could even be the prize to which Paul is referring.
With this view of competition, may I emphasize that it seems there is a difference in Godly competition and earthly competition. I believe earthly competition is wanting to win or be better than an opponent just to know you are superior to them. Godly competition on the other hand, is competing to be better than you personally were the day before in order to honor and excel in the skills He has given you. I actually think this kind of competition can be a form of worshipping God for the way He’s designed you.
With this being said, for me personally, I think it is okay to not be okay with under-competing IF it is from a place of feeling like you or your team had more to give that better honors the skills God has given you. I feel it is not okay if it is making a comment on your identity or because you wanted to be better than the person next to you that day.
Now to the things I don’t know...
I don’t know the balance between competing well and loving my teammates well. In my experience, I have pendulum swung hard one way or the other. My senior year was a consistent see-saw between either competing well while sacrificing playing with God at the center or loving well while sacrificing competitive standards and expectations to play in such a way as to go after the prize and honor the way God has designed me.
Shortly after my crying behind the bleachers incident, I remember sitting at my desk in my dorm room talking to God, asking the question of how do I balance the tension of competing and loving well? As I thought to myself that this is a tension I don’t know if I had ever seen anyone hold, He gently reminded me that if I am ever asking a question about how to balance any complimenting characteristics, then I need to look no further than Jesus. Jesus held perfect tensions of all things; strength and gentleness, challenge and relationship, discipline and grace, mercy and expectations, guiding and empowering, and on and on.
As this question keeps coming up, that’s where I keep trying to bring it back to, how did Jesus “compete” (though admittedly what He competed in probably looks different than what you or I do) and love his team (disciples) well? I believe we are allowed to ask this question together and I also believe the Father wants to let us in on it as His daughters competing with Him on a day to day basis. Will you join me in seeking Him on it?
If God gives you insight, would you share in the comments below?
Hi guys! My name is Sierra and I’m originally from Spokane, Washington but went to school and played volleyball at Adelphi University in New York. I now work for Fellowship of Christian Athletes Volleyball in Huntington Beach, California where I get to pretty much spend my time at or near the beach and hang out with rad college volleyball players. More than anything I care about people getting to experience who God is and how much He radically loves and enjoys them. I consistently consume more than the daily recommended amount of coffee, am a below terrible (albeit enthusiastic) surfer, love standing in wonder of God’s creation, and believe in always celebrating Fridays with doughnuts. I am so honored to be on this journey with y’all!