(This Blog is originally posted at www.athletesinaction.org)
Ronda Rousey’s admission to Ellen DeGeneres that she felt like killing herself after her loss to Holly Holm got everyone’s attention last week.
Her six-minute interview presents insights into the sport culture as it currently exists and offers some specific ways athletes tend to respond when confronted with an emotional loss. It also left me yearning for a different response that was difficult to find, even among several Christian channels that could have provided it.
We’ve Created a Sport Culture that Produces Despair
Isn’t her testimony exactly what we should expect against the backdrop of a sport culture that puts four-year-olds in competitive environments and teaches them not only that winning matters most, but also that identity and acceptance are tightly bound to performance?
She spoke for millions of athletes in America when she said, “What am I anymore if I’m not this…I’m nothing. What do I do anymore? No one gives a s— about me anymore without this.”
It’s a crass way of thinking about it, but she’s right. Without ever having to hear it from anyone directly, the athlete already knows it’s true: “We will love you and esteem you as long as you win and remain worthy in our eyes. When that changes, so does our attention toward you—so you better stay on top.”
Horribly pessimistic, yes, but it’s the sport culture we’ve created for her and other athletes to compete in. The surprise isn’t that a high-level athlete feels this way; rather, the surprise is that we have the audacity to be surprised.
We create sport perfectionists from an early age then self-righteously marvel at the results when the wheels start to come off after they fail. While her suicide talk may sound unstable, fanatical or disturbed, it actually represents the rational end-game for anyone steeped in high-level sport culture, longing to be loved and accepted through their performance.
Ways to Handle Losing that Never Work
With this culture implied as a backdrop, she offered a few sentences that reflect ways of dealing with the rejection of our identity that comes with losing, all of which fail to satisfy in the end.
We Can Play Mind Games to Ease the Pain “I really do believe I’m still undefeated, because being defeated is a choice.”
The power of positive thinking is a happy alternative, but still just an illusion, an avoidance of the truth.
You’re not undefeated. You lost, and you know it. And guess what? That’s okay, even if almost no one will tell you that. It doesn’t make you a loser. It doesn’t make you less of a person than you were before.
The loss just burst the bubble of perfectionism that you lived in, dissolved the illusion of invincibility that inevitably crumbles around EVERY champion—really, every athlete—throughout history.
It humbled the tough talk and swag that we celebrate and promote but it doesn’t make you a loser. You can embrace the loss and move on, and that’s really the best way forward.
But no matter what, the mind game ultimately won’t work to satisfy the real emptiness.
We Can Attach Our Identity to a Different Idol “To be honest, I looked up and saw that my man Travis was standing there and I looked up at him and was just like, ‘I need to have his babies. I need to stay alive.’”
Attaching to and seeking stability in human relationships is definitely more substantive than seeking the praise and applause of fans and media, but relationships are still an unstable idol.
Romantic relationships or maternal bonds are shaky places from which to derive identity, and when we try to make them our reason for living, they often spur co-dependent weirdness that is hard to shake.
What will we do if/when the relationship doesn’t work out or isn’t satisfying in the way you’d hoped?
What will happen when the kids refuse to be controlled or give back, when these relationships that promised to give life—and maybe even did a better job than sports for awhile—don’t fulfill in the end?
Turning to human relationships, while certainly helpful, ultimately won’t work to satisfy the identity problem.
We Can Sign Back Up for More of the Same “Of course I want to fight Holly. I want to beat her and make everything right again.”
Why not just return to what we know? Maybe if I can go back and beat her it will make up for what just happened, it will erase the media and public shame that came from the last beating.
Maybe it will, at least temporarily. Maybe you win, and people across the world cheer and it feels good again, but the hole in your soul remains, the inevitable emptiness that comes with reaching the goal and realizing it still won’t be enough.
Or maybe you get pounded again. Then what?
Harder training and re-setting of goals doesn’t fill the void or fix the identity problem.
The Scandalous but Best Answer: God’s Love and Grace
I don’t expect anyone in the mainstream media to suggest that a healing God may actually be what an athlete most needs in their moment of competitive suffering. But the truth of the gospel is exactly what any of us needs—perhaps especially an athlete—in this very moment.
Superficial alternatives fail to cover the hole created by loss. Anesthetizing the ache through mind games, grabbing onto a slightly different idol, re-commitment to the cause, or stimulants of various kinds will only deepen the despair later.
They may dissolve at different rates but all disappear eventually and leave the vacuum in our heart unfilled.
Isn’t it at least worth considering that superficial antidotes will never penetrate the depth of any loss, whether in competition or in life, whether temporary or permanent, and that the promises of finding identity in Christ might actually be the only substantive answer?
God’s love and grace provide an anchor that won’t disappoint because He offers identity and acceptance completely apart from performance, a completely scandalous idea in the sports world and one we cannot begin to embrace until we first recognize that it represents the exact opposite of everything we’ve ever been taught as athletes.
What a message! That God loves you and offers a more wonderful plan for your life trajectory than anything you’ve ever been offered before, and it’s not based on anything you do or don’t do. Our identity and acceptance become rooted in a declaration from God that cannot be shaken or altered on the basis of our ability to live up to it.
The answer doesn’t lie in being less identified with or committed to your sport, but in understanding enough of God’s love for you to receive it and to allow that love to put everything else in second place. Grace doesn’t replace hard work and personal drive in our life—it simply transcends them.
Can anyone deny that a genuine acceptance of God’s grace through Christ offers an identity anchor that transcends understanding after listening to Monty Williams speak at his wife’s funeral the same week of the interview? That God’s love becomes most substantive in the midst of crisis?
The competitive athlete needs what everybody needs, only perhaps even more deeply—a confidence that God’s love is sufficient. I hope someone offered that to Ronda Rousey last week, and to every athlete seeking to get beyond the smothering climate of our sport culture.