November 2009 Fearless Clay Meyer

It's the typical driveway basketball scenario: Your team is down by two with three seconds left on the clock. You get the pass at the top of the key and square up to take the game-winning shot. It's one of the most heart-pounding moments in your imaginary career, and, once the shot goes down (even if it's on the second or third try), you rejoice with the thousands of invisible spectators.

As athletes, we dream of being in those pressure-packed, crunch-time situations. The fourth quarters, ninth innings and final sets. When it comes to actual games, however, those visualizations take on a new reality. The entire season rests on our shoulders, and the eyes of our teammates, coaches, fans, friends and family are all fixed on us. Those situations carry a bit more pressure than the ones in our driveways.

All of us have felt pressure, fear and anxiety in sports. But as Christians, we have the unique opportunity to use those situations to learn important spiritual lessons and grow deeper in our faith. We can begin to understand the truth of God's Word in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9: "We are pressured in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed."

"We won't have confidence because we have a good batting average or because we played a good game last week; we'll have confidence because we stand with God."
David Cook

Even though we'll face pressure, God won't allow us to be completely ruined. If we remain in tune with His Spirit and seek Him even when we are scared or facing incredible odds, we can uncover more of His strength and wisdom in ways we wouldn't find any other way. And, lest we forget that it's not all about us, we also, through these late-game heroics, have the chance to reveal God's glory through Christ-like actions and reactions.

It's time to learn how to handle pressure. That way, in those times when we are "hard pressed on every side," we'll be able to respond in a God-honoring way. After all, our Father is the One who put us there for both His and our triumph — whether the shot falls or not.

Before we can learn how to handle pressure, we have to understand how much of it actually comes from our own minds. It may sound cliché, but athletes who believe they will succeed actually do succeed more often than those who fear failure, expectations, letting down their teams or even showing weakness.

Sports psychologist Dr. David Cook has worked with many professional athletes, including the 1999 and 2003 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs, regarding how to improve athletic performance through the power of the mind. Throughout his career, he's amassed powerful evidence to pinpoint the source of internal pressure.

"All pressure can be summed up in one word: fear; and I think that is the No. 1 tool Satan uses in a man or woman's life," said Cook, who, as a Christian, also speaks at ministry conferences around the country. "And ultimately for an athlete it comes down to, 'Who am I playing for? Am I playing for an audience of One, or am I playing for all of these outside influences?'"

If we take a moment to really look inside, we must ask ourselves if we are afraid, and, if so, what we fear and why. Several questions we can ask ourselves include:

"What would really happen if I didn't make the basket or split the uprights?"
"How much of my identity and worth is wrapped up in on-the-field success?"
"Am I afraid of failing?"

Once we answer those questions and expose any hidden fear, we can turn to Christ and allow Him to overcome the devil's "No. 1" weapon in our hearts.

One truth we must embrace in order to handle pressure and our internal fears is the fact that there is a God and that He has a plan for our lives. He intends to use the talents He gave us in order to carry out His game plan in every situation. According to Jeremiah 29:11, God knows the plans He has for us, and they include a future filled with hope. Psalm 139 (NIV) also reveals God's love for us and His orchestration of our days "before one of them came to be" (v.16).

Understanding this reality allows us to trust that we were put in any situation to simply glorify God, regardless of the outcome. Once that sets in, the Holy Spirit will replace our fears with God-centered confidence.

"We won't have confidence because we have a good batting average or because we played a good game last week; we'll have confidence because we stand with God," Cook said. "God may not promise us victory, but He promises the opportunity to glorify Him and draw people to Himself."

"Whether the shot falls or not, we will know that we have a Father who is still pleased with us and has set us up to bring glory to Him in the way we react to the outcome."

On a deeper level, we also must learn that God's plan for us is driven out of His unconditional love for us. Again, we must examine our hearts with questions:

"Am I convinced that He loves me and has my best interest in mind?"
"Do I believe that He loves me even when I fail?"
"Do I believe that failing can still be a blessing in His eyes?"

If we don't believe in His love for us and the truth of Romans 8:28 ("We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose."), fear and pressure will continue to plague us.

"The opposite of fear and the pressure that comes with it is not courage, but love," Cook said. "First John 4:18 (NIV) says, 'There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear...' And God is love. Perfect love from God removes all fear. It's a pretty simple formula."

There are several tangible steps we can take to begin grasping our value in the eyes of God. First, we must ask Him to reveal His love to us through the Holy Spirit. Then, we must fill our minds with the truth of His Word.

For example, when we read Scriptures like Isaiah 61:3 (NIV), we discover that God gives us the ability to become "oaks of righteousness." A look at Matthew 13:38 tells us that we are "sons of the kingdom." Ephesians 1:13 (NIV) encourages us that, as believers, we are "marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit."

Our confidence soars when we read Scriptures like that. And once we begin to understand the truth about our value as children of God, we can embrace the confidence to, as Cook put it, "walk onto the field with our heads up and our chest out as though we are absolutely, completely 100-percent bulletproof because of the authority God has given us — because He has called us to be there at a moment in time, and He is with us."

Whether the shot falls or not, we will know that we have a Father who is still pleased with us and has set us up to bring glory to Him in the way we react to the outcome.

When working with athletes, Cook continually turns to the Word of God for his soundest advice. One of the examples he shares most often is from 2 Samuel 23. It's the story of Shammah, who was one of a group of Israelites who banded together in order to take on the Philistines. However, when the group of Israelites actually saw the Philistines, they all fled in fear. Except for Shammah. He walked out into the middle of the field and defended the land from the Philistines on his own.

Second Samuel 23:12 says, "…but Shammah took his stand in the middle of the field, defended it, and struck down the Philistines. So the LORD brought about a great victory."

Cook shares that story in hopes that it resonates with athletes, especially when the pressure to perform becomes overwhelming. Clearly, Shammah embraced the confidence that God made available to him. And not only did Shammah, through the power of God, defeat the entire Philistine army alone, he also embraced his calling to be a brave warrior for the Lord and achieve a great victory.

The same can be true for us. At the end of the day, we can stand on the field completely free of fear. Galatians 5:1 (NIV) says, "It is for freedom that Christ came to set us free." That means that once we understand the love of our Father, we can, with nerves of steel, square up and take the winning shot with confidence.

ATHLETE-TO-ATHLETE ... How to handle the stress!
By Clay Meyer and Whitney Bruce

Cross Country/Track & Field
University of Kansas
Mackenzie Abernathy quietly packs her sports bag and leaves the sorority house early in the morning. Most of the other girls are still asleep. Her eyes are tired from a late night of studying. Despite the grueling schedule of a Division I athlete, she loves the challenge. Abernathy balances cross country, track, school and student government. All these obligations, at times, overwhelm her with pressure. But, in these moments, she knows the only place to turn is to the cross.

The pressure of cross country and track:
"It's a huge stress to wake up early for classes, have three- to four-hour practices, mandatory tutoring sessions and then still find time to get my homework done. Sometimes, even when I'm not working out, I'll stress about workouts, which can take a toll on my mental and physical health.

"The pressure placed on D-I athletes is hard to deal with sometimes because we have certain expectations we are required to reach and maintain in order to compete. It's hard to keep in mind that I'm a student-athlete, not an athlete-student, which means my studies come before running. And I have to remind myself that, before that, I am a servant of God."

How faith helps her handle the pressure: "I constantly have to rely on God to keep myself in check and not let my worries get out of hand. Although I was blessed with athletic ability, I wasn't put on this earth for the sole purpose of being an athlete; I was put here to perform God's will and live out my life for Him. I've always tried to run and live my life by knowing that if God brings me to it, He will bring me through it, which is so comforting in my times of

"Prayer is a huge part of my life, as well, and it's what I turn to most when I start feeling like I can't handle the pressure."

Her advice to athletes under pressure: "Keep things in perspective and try to not do everything on your own. God is with us in all that we do, so anytime that you start to struggle or feel overwhelmed, turn to Him. Remember that whatever you are competing in or struggling with at this time will pass, and that it's not the worries or the struggles of this world that we should be concerned with; it is whether or not we are living out His will."

Competitive Cheer
Oklahoma State University
Competitive cheer is an often-overlooked sport, but it can be one filled with intense pressure to perform. For months, a team of athletes will work to prepare a routine that will be performed twice for judges. If one thing goes wrong during that 2.5-minute performance, months of preparation is lost.

Oklahoma State competitive cheer athlete Kara Williams has been competing for 15 years. In that span, she's learned that, while the outside pressure may never lighten, it's a load she doesn't have to carry on her own.

The pressure of competitive cheer: "In competitive cheer, there are 19 other people on the mat with you during a two-and-a-half-minute routine. Everyone is counting on each other to hit all of their skills. If one person falls, it could move the team from first to last place. Everyone has to trust each other, so, as a team, we have to step up and hit our routine when it counts. It puts a lot of pressure on you to think that you've practiced for 10 months to compete this short routine that only counts the two times you compete in front of the judges. Even though I'm in my fifteenth year of competing, I still feel the same pressure and nervousness as I did when I was in kindergarten."

How faith helps her handle pressure:
"Knowing that God has everything under control helps me handle the pressure. I know that He has a plan for everything, so whatever happens is His will, and it will be done. It's hard to understand why or how things happen sometimes, but trusting in the Lord has helped me get through an injury and all other bumps in the road that we have throughout the year."

Advice to other athletes on handling pressure: "One of the key ingredients of a successful team is trust. Without trust among the group of individuals on a team, it will be like playing tug-of-war with one another. Trust is built through the time and energy invested in practice and hard work. It is very similar to your relationship with the Lord. You grow daily in your relationship with Him through the time and energy you invest reading His Word and living a life that is pleasing to Him.

"The advice I would give to other athletes is to always put God first, others second and yourself third. God gave each of us the talent we have for the sport we are in. No matter the outcome, our attitude and character should always exemplify the love Christ has for all of us because we know that all things work together for the good of those who are called according to His plan."

University of Tennessee
University of Tennessee senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton has felt the pressure to perform before. After the Volunteers struggled to a 5-7 record a season ago, he received threatening e-mails and messages from overzealous fans. The Waynesville, N.C., native explained how tough it is to deal with the pressure of being a quarterback at a top college football program and how his faith is what gets him through.

Self-imposed pressure: "It was tough to handle how the fans reacted last season, but, honestly, that part didn't affect me as much compared to the pressure I put on myself. I expect so much out of myself to be able to succeed and help this team succeed."

Turning to the Lord in every situation: "In my opinion, nobody has ever done anything on their own. It may be one person competing by themselves, but God has put them in that situation and will help guide them through it because He has a plan and knows what He is doing."

Teamwork and pressure: "It helps to understand that football is a team game. You can't do anything on your own, no matter how good you are. You may be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but you can't do it on your own because it takes 11 men on the field. If one man messes up, it affects the whole team, offensively and defensively."

University of Tennessee

Junior kicker Daniel Lincoln experiences the gridiron pressure in a different way than teammate Jonathan Crompton. One of his main responsibilities as a field-goal kicker is to take the field with the game on the line. A good kick can win a game, and an errant one will devastate the team and an entire fan base. But Lincoln, a 2007 Lou Groza Award semifinalist, counts on Christ to help him take that pressure in stride.

The pressure of being a kicker: "Being a kicker, I am only playing in pressure situations when all eyes are on me. It's been a learning process, but I pray that I am able to use those pressure situations to bring glory to the Lord for all the right reasons."

Ignoring outside influences: "The outside factors only affect you as much as you allow them to. Anybody playing sports puts the most pressure on themselves. For me, I feel like I've been blessed with the ability to deal with that, and I actually look forward to those moments."

Keeping perspective: "No matter how many people are in the stands or how many people you think you have to please, you only have to glorify God. He has given you everything that you have, and He has enabled you to be in that situation. When I go out there, I know I'm not playing for fans or even for myself. I'm playing and competing in a way that is pleasing to God. That makes things a lot easier and gives me peace."

Photos courtesy of Jeff Jacobsen/KU Athletics; Jamie Christian Photography; UT Media Relations.

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