March 2011 Lessons Learned Jill Ewert

It’s hard to decide what Kara Lawson is most known for.

 
Lawson played for the Lady Vols from 1999-2003.

SEC fans remember her as the All-American from the University of Tennessee who led the Lady Vols to three Final Four appearances between 2000 and 2003. Followers of the WNBA know her as a key member of the 2005 league champion Sacramento Monarchs and now as the starting point guard for the Connecticut Sun. Still more recognize her as a member of the ESPN college basketball broadcasting team through which Lawson serves both as a studio analyst for the NCAA women’s tournament and a color commentator for men’s games. And fans of the Summer Olympics would most likely know her for the gold medal she won with Team USA in 2008.

With four major outlets of fame all stemming from the hardwood, the name Kara Lawson means something different to almost every basketball fan. But to a different group of spectators, Lawson has become famous for something bigger than basketball: her faith in Jesus Christ.

After growing up attending church with her family, Lawson fully surrendered her life to Christ during her freshman year at Tennessee. This winter, we asked the WNBA All-Star to reflect on her time as a Lady Vol and share some of the lessons God taught her through her college experience. As it turns out, those are the ones she still carries with her today—no matter what basketball label she happens to be wearing at the time.

STV: Can you describe what it was like to be a Lady Vol?
KL:
It was a great experience. It was amazing to have the opportunity to play at the University of Tennessee for Coach (Pat) Summitt, who is a legend.

I was like a lot of young girls in this country who grew up wanting to have the opportunity to play basketball at the highest level. As I got into high school and started to hone in on different schools, Tennessee certainly caught my eye. I loved Coach Summitt’s intensity and passion, and I loved her ability to push players to the limit. I was, and still am, the type of player who wants to compete against the best. I place great value on competition— what it can teach you and what you can gain from it. I knew that by going to Tennessee there would be great competition both in practice and in games.

It was also a great atmosphere at a university that values women’s sports. To play in front of 20,000 people is not something a lot of female college athletes
get the opportunity to do, so I was really blessed.

STV: With that kind of following, did you feel an enormousamount of pressure to succeed?
KL:
The biggest adjustment for me was actually the spotlight. The people in the city of Knoxville and across the state are huge Tennessee fans. The athletes get recognized everywhere—in classes, in the grocery store, everywhere. You’ll just get stopped in every aisle and asked about the game or the upcoming season. That took some getting used to.

 
Kara Lawson - #20

Team: Connecticut Sun
Born: Feb. 14, 1981
Height: 5-9
College: University of Tennessee
Years Pro: 8
Side Gig: ESPN College Basketball Analyst
Family: Married Sacramento radio broadcaster Damien Barling in 2008.
Highlights:
•2003 Kodak All-American
•2005 WNBA Champion (Sacramento Monarchs)
•2007 WNBA All-Star
•2008 Olympic Gold Medalist

But I was fortunate enough to have a great foundation from my parents who instilled in me from an early age that people are always watching you. There is always somebody watching how you behave, how you conduct yourself, how you perform. You have to understand that and then try to do things that you would want others to aspire to do.

So, from that point, I don’t think I had to drastically change my behavior regarding the pressure. I just had to focus on what I was doing and then do the right things.

STV: You’ve said that your faith in Christ really took off during your freshman year at Tennessee, which gave you four years to walk with the Lord in college. What were some of the main lessons God taught you as a college athlete?
KL:
One of the main things I learned was to be still more.

When you get to college, being still is a struggle. You have practices, classes, study halls, weights, and then you add to that the pressure to perform and the pressure you put on yourself to do well. There’s not a lot of time where you are just quiet and your mind is still.

Anyone who knows me knows that it is hard for me when it’s quiet and it’s hard for me to be still. I’m just active, and I like doing things all the time. Learning to slow down, be still and focus my thoughts was probably the biggest lesson I learned in college. Because in those moments when I was able to find stillness—whether in my car or walking to class—I gained great peace. I started to understand that those moments wouldn’t always come when I was in my room with my light turned off. I had to learn to be able to find moments of stillness amid chaos.

That’s something I think is very important for Christians because that’s part of who God is. God is stillness; He is peace in a chaotic world. So we have to be able to figure out how to channel that and find those moments. And, when we do, we begin to find them sporadically throughout the day. Eventually we string those moments together and find we are connecting with God in everything we are doing that day.

STV: How do those still moments help you stay connected with Him?
KL:
I feel closer to Him. I make better decisions. I have less of a temper and am more tolerant.

Just like anybody else, when we’re not connecting with the Lord, small things or certain people will irritate you. And that’s one of the key indicators in knowing whether or not it’s been a while since you’ve had a still moment to focus on Him.

I know that, for me, when I am having more of those moments, those frustrations tend to be a lot easier to deal with. Things that aren’t important kind of slide off my back and become less of an issue.

Sometimes the importance of certain events can overwhelm me. I’ll think I’ve got to do this, this and this, and that everything is so important. And that’s actually where Damien, my husband, really helps me. I can get worked up with how much I have to do and want to do it all at one time, but he helps me realize that it will all get done, just not all at once.

STV: I think everyone can identify with that struggle—especially college students who have so much going on. Based on your experience, what are some things you would encourage them to do in order to successfully navigate college as a Christian athlete?
KL:
I think it’s very important to have people you can talk to—both people who can mentor you and others who are at similar points in their relationship with God. Because you want to continue to grow, and, when we’re busy, we tend to become stagnant. We’re stagnant in our walk with Christ, our job or our sport, and we just kind of stay there and don’t progress. So, from the spiritual side, it’s important to keep growing and to surround yourself with people who will help you grow and who will challenge you.

It’s just like in sports. You have to challenge yourself to improve. You have to play against better people and work harder than others. You have to endure pain in
order to meet your potential. And the same thing is true spiritually. It’s not easy all the time. You have to endure pain; you have to be challenged both by yourself and others. When you do, that’s when you reach your full potential and can see the fruit of your spirituality as it is supposed to be.

BRING IT HOME

One of the most important lessons Kara Lawson has learned throughout her athletic career is that, despite what she may think, pain can be a blessing. Through her experiences, she’s realized that physical pain actually helps her stay focused during competition. When Lawson knows she’s weak, she concentrates on her actions in different ways than when she feels strong.

Outside of sports, we all experience pain, and rarely do we think of it as a good thing. More often than not, we look for the fastest and easiest way out of it. Sometimes, though, there just isn’t a quick exit. Often, all we can do is walk through the pain and let it pass. How we handle it, though, can make all the difference.

According to the Bible, pain serves a beneficial purpose. Through it, we become aware of our need for something greater than ourselves. We discover our limitations as humans and realize that we are finite beings who can only take so much before we break. We are not all-powerful, nor are we indestructible. But the good news is that, in this weakness, we have the opportunity to embrace a strength that is unmatched by any other: the strength of God displayed through His infinite love. In our hurt, we can learn to rely on Him to meet all of our needs, which He promises in His Word to do (Philippians 4:19).

Trusting Him, however, involves more than merely acknowledging Him as Creator. It involves surrendering to the lordship of His Son, Jesus Christ, whom He sent to earth to save us from our sins.

According to Romans 3, we all have fallen short of God’s holy perfection and, therefore, have a price to pay. But, in His great mercy, God paid the penalty of our sin for us by sacrificing His Son, Jesus, on the cross and nullifying our death sentence. By acknowledging His death and resurrection and beginning a daily personal relationship with Him, we can be saved from sin and death and given a place with Him in Heaven for eternity.

Today, if you are in pain, be it physical or emotional, know that there is a God who loves you and wants to offer you His healing. Turn to Him in prayer and ask Jesus to come into your life. Yes, you will continue to experience trials, but never again will you have to feel hopeless or alone.

If you have questions about salvation or a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, visit morethanwinning.com or call FCA’s National Support Center at 1-800-289-0909.

STV: How have challenges, pain and adversity helped you grow spiritually?
KL:
As an athlete, I always use sports analogies. They help me understand, or try to understand, what God is doing in my life.

So, in sports, sometimes the only thing that can get your attention or help you focus is pain. It’s funny to me how, when athletes are hurt but still playing, their mental focus is better. They know they have to be focused because they’re not at 100 percent. They try to over compensate by focusing mentally. Physical pain becomes
a tool that allows them to focus mentally and to look at situations and be able to process them quicker.

Now, if you look at that from a spiritual side, you see that pain allows you to focus more on your faith and on what God is doing in your life. If you focus on why the pain is there, you are able to understand it better.

I’ve noticed in my walk with God that, when I do endure pain or disappointment, I am able to zero in on something a lot quicker as to why it happened, what precipitated it and what I need to do as a result, whereas before I obviously wasn’t getting the point. God allowed the pain to come in and do that.

STV: OK, last topic for you. You had both FCA and Athletes in Action on your campus in college. How did those ministries help you stay close to Christ?
KL:
The biggest impact they had on my college experience was in helping me learn more. As a kid, I didn’t spend a lot of time reading the Bible or studying or praying. We did at church and in certain times at home, but I didn’t have that focused time during the day when I spent time praying or studying the Word.

The concept of needing to do that on a daily basis really hit home for me in college, and it really helped me grow in the knowledge of the Word itself—reading it more and having dialogue with other people about Scripture or concepts that we were learning. That all was really valuable to me in college.

Also, I think that real-life stuff starts to happen to you in college. In some people it happens earlier, but, for a lot of kids, it’s the first time you are on your own. You are paying bills and are basically in charge of yourself. You decide your bedtime, whether or not to go to class, if you’re going to study or not, and, all of a sudden, you’re making real-life decisions that impact your life. They don’t impact the severity of your parents’ punishment; they impact your life.

When I look back at the things I was learning and how I was growing and starting to make those decisions for myself, I’m thankful for campus ministry and for the people involved because they helped me make decisions the right way.

STV: Based on your experience, then, would you encourage college athletes to carve out time for FCA?
KL:
Yeah, because you are going to have a lot of likeminded people there who are competitive, passionate and love sports, so your ability to connect with them will be a little easier.

Also, the message is tailored toward you as an athlete. For me, it just seemed like having speakers who were ex-athletes or coaches who understood what we were going through at the time was reassuring. It helped me to hear people who had been through what I was going through and to know that they’d made it. That helped me realize that I’d make it too.



SCHOOL OF HARD KNOX
Past and present University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers share spiritual lessons they learned (or are still learning) during their stays in Knoxville.
 
 



Tamika Catchings
Current Team:
Indiana Fever
Played for Tennessee: 1997-01
• 1997-98 NCAA National Champions
Post-College Highlight:
• Two-time Olympic Gold Medalist (2004, 2008) and 6-time WNBA All-Star

“Every experience we go through is a teaching point in our lives. During my tenure at Tennessee, God showed me how He places people, opportunities and love around us at all times. I was blessed to play for the best coaches and with amazing players, and to be among some of the greatest fans and people. Everyone showered me with love and allowed me the opportunity to grow in my Christian principles and become the person I am today.”

 
 


Shanna Crossley
Current Team:
Tulsa Shock
Played for Tennessee: 2002-06
• NCAA single-season and career free-throw percentage record holder
Post-College Highlight:
• Ranks No. 1 in the WNBA for career 3-pointers per 40 minutes (3.57)

“There was little God didn’t teach me during my time at Tennessee. Each year was something different—from bringing my troubles to Him first and not to someone else, to developing my own true relationship with Christ. But perhaps the most important lesson I learned in college was how to set the right priorities.”

 
 

Sidney Spencer
Current Team:
New York Liberty
Played for Tennessee: 2003-07
• 2006-07 NCAA National Champions Post-College Highlight:
• Led the L.A. Sparks in total points her rookie season (2007)

“God taught me that He should always be my No. 1 priority. As a college athlete it was easy to become consumed by my sport because it took up so much time. Yet, every year, God had a way of bringing my focus back to Him when I got distracted. A simple way I learned to keep Him first was to give Him my time first thing in the morning.”


 
 


Angie Bjorklund
Year:
Senior
Played for Tennessee: 2007-Present
• 2007-08 NCAA National Champions
• 2007-08 SEC Rookie of the Year

“God has taught me so much through my four years here. One thing is that, no matter what, win or lose, it’s all about glorifying Him on and off the court. In the end, if we continue to do that, we’re going to be satisfied and happy. God has given me a greater purpose here than just basketball.”

 
 


Taber Spani
Year:
Sophomore
Played for Tennessee: 2009-Present
• Just the 13th freshman to start in her first game at Tennessee
• 2009 Gatorade High School Player of the Year in the state of Kansas

“The Lord Jesus Christ is my top priority and the basis for everything I do. Being a Lady Vol and playing under Coach Summitt is a great opportunity to spread the gospel, influence people and make an impact. Hopefully I can leave a legacy that goes beyond the basketball court. Being a part of FCA and meeting other athletes who have the same goals has really helped. It’s been an amazing opportunity and one that I would never change.”

--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.

Photos courtesy of Lady Vol Media Relations; Indiana Fever; Layne Murdoch/Getty Images/NBAE; Dave Saffran/MSG Photos; NBAE/Getty Images