There is a problem in contemporary athletics that is played out in our homes, highs schools, colleges, with our idols of the game, and in plenty of movies. Many young men and women derive their self-worth from their success or failure in sport.
Oftentimes well-meaning Catholics attribute this problem to the connection between a person’s identity and sport: i.e. the problem is an attachment between who they are and their athletic endeavors. This is an incorrect diagnosis for two reasons: the first is its ambiguity toward the heart of the issue and the second is that it ignores the necessary link between identity and investment on the part of a person.
Talking about this issue in terms of “identity and sport” is too ambiguous and fails to identify the real problem that many Catholics see in athletes who take their sport “too seriously.” At its heart, the problem of identity wrapped up in sport has to do with a perceived link between self-worth and results. No athlete should connect his or her self-worth to athletic performance. When “identity” and “sport” are replaced with “self-worth” and “result” there is much less room for ambiguous interpretations. As Catholics, we understand that our dignity and self-worth exist because we are loved by God, and that doesn’t change when we perform poorly (more on that here).
If we continue to use ambiguous “identity and sport” language to articulate the problem, we will likely find ourselves with people less invested in their sport. There is a strong link between identity and investment; who we are is not easily separable from what we do. While some may think that less investment in sport is exactly what we need, from a perspective of sport as a vocational calling, that bridge is a dangerous one to cross.
When sport is placed in its proper context (that it is a gift/that it is a particular vocation/that it can help us grow in virtue), how athletes practice, compete, and treat teammates is of the utmost importance. It’s through those actions that God will reveal himself and give them the ability to glorify him, living a life of service. If identity and investment are related, if who we are becoming is connected to what we are doing, then we want athletes to identify who they are with their sport.
This model isn’t as foreign as it might seem. In our Sacramental life, for example, our self-worth does not depend on us going to Mass. However, it would likely cause a lot of problems if we reminded ourselves that who we are has nothing to do with the Eucharistic celebration. We’d likely invest significantly less into it, and that is the primary event where we have the opportunity to be transformed by God. With regards to our faith, we expect what we are doing to have a relationship with who we are becoming. As Catholics, we want to identify who we are with celebrating the Mass; it’s a great way for us to keep pouring ourselves into it and allowing God to transform us through it.
In another example, many who are likely to read this article are Varsity Catholic or Focus Missionaries. The dynamic with identity and sport is paralleled in your own ministry. Knowing that your self-worth is not linked to the results of your missionary work is very important, just like it is for an athlete. However, asking you not to attach who you are with your ministry is ambiguous and problematic. It could lead to an unfocused and lifeless ministry. From a vocational view, you are called to pour yourselves completely into life and work of a missionary. Understood properly, we want you to identify yourself with your missionary work; it’s a great way to continually empty yourself to it and allow God to transform you through it.
Both our Sacramental life and particular vocational callings require a relationship between identity and investment. There is a bridge between who we are and what we do. If that bridge is strong, we are more inclined to allow God to transform us through our actions. If that bridge is destroyed, it will be more difficult for us to be transformed by God, whether it be Himself in the Eucharist or through our particular vocation.
The problem we see with many athletes is less a problem of identity and more a problem of the perceived link between self-worth and result.
From a vocational viewpoint, we want our athletes to identify who they are with sport and pour themselves tremendously into it because it is through athletics that God will reveal himself, teach and form them. If He is going to transform the hearts of young men and women through sport, it can only happen if there is a link between who they are and their vocation in athletics. While they need to understand that their self-worth is not linked to their success or failure, there also needs to be a bridge between sport and identity, between what they are doing and who God is asking them to become.