Learning from the Lionesses

25 July 2022

Oh my goodness, football might just be coming home! The Lionesses are safely through to the final of the World Cup, the nation's holding its breath and everything's on hold for Sunday's final against Spain.

There’s lots we can learn from sport and it can prompt some helpful conversations as we help our kids see how God works in the everyday parts of their life. How does being a Christian affect us as supporters and players?

We all love a good match, but it can be a small step from healthy competition to unhealthy rivalry, either on the pitch or in the stands – or even at home in front of the TV. I have been a passionate netballer since childhood, and I know that in the heat of competition, I haven’t always been as honourable about the other team as I should have been.

But sport is something most of our children will take part in or follow and it’s not always easy to work out how to coach them to do this well. When your team has lost, or you’ve been unfairly tackled, or the umpire’s decision has gone against you, feelings can run high and our responses are not always ideal.

So what might help us coach our children to be great competitors or supporters, seeing sport as something to build people up, rather than knock them down, and learning to manage their successes and failures well?

These are things we’ve talked about in our family which you might find helpful:

Sport is good and to be celebrated and part of who God’s created us to be.

Christians in Sport put it like this:

It may be a surprise to you, but sport is part of God’s good gift of creation. Sure, human beings are the ones who invent sports, but where does our playfulness come from? The creativity, the desire for human relationship, and the instinctive desire to play that all people, of all ages, across all cultures have, are all part of what it means to be made in the image of God.

Being a passionate spectator, or taking part in sport, and the competition that often goes with that, is okay – in fact, it’s more than okay!  There are many Christians in sport – these England footballers, for example, and these Olympic athletes.

God created laughter and fun and he loves to see his people using their passions and skills well, enjoying themselves and bringing joy to others. When we watch the Euros, we see some of the very best football in the world – moves that make us gasp at the brilliance and incredible skill, and giving us moments we will celebrate and remember for a lifetime.  So as we support our team we can celebrate seeing God’s handiwork at its footballing best, and for a brief few weeks, we can feel like we are in footballing heaven.

But sport – however good we are at it, and however big a part of our life it plays – is not the wholeness of who we are, nor is it meant to be. This is what Paul says to Timothy:

For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (I Timothy 4:8)

However much we love our sport, there is One who is greater, more exciting and far more enduring than even a Euros win!

Respecting our competition.

If God is number one in our lives, then the way we play sport and our attitudes to sport need to mirror his values – and that can be particularly true for the way we treat our opposition.

God designed the world to work best when we are in communities such as friendship groups, families, tribes, nations or sports teams – places where we find identity, significance and support.  But it can be a very small step from loving your own community to hating another, and we see that in sport – fans deriding the opposition, angry responses on the pitch, derogatory chants, or bad-mouthing the umpire because the decision didn’t go your way. But sport only works because there is competition – one group pitched against another, in mutual agreement about a set of rules that enable them to play well.

Although God created the concept of communities, he never meant that to mean we close in on ourselves and fear or hate others. Right from the beginning of the nation of Israel, God made provision for foreigners to join the community and ensured that they were treated well and fairly (Leviticus 19:34); we know that everyone is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and therefore has intrinsic value and is worthy of respect; and that all people are equal in his eyes and have equal access to his love, justice and salvation (Romans 3:22-23). Jesus’ summary of the ten commandments gives us the easiest way to remember how God wants us to treat others – even those in a different strip!

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’   The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’  (Mark 12:30-31)

Coping with losing

Losing – whether it’s you and your team or watching the team you love – can be oh, so very hard! But realistically, sometimes the opposition are just better than you are. It’s part of sport.  As soon as you walk onto the pitch or pick up your racquet, you are risking losing because without that risk there can be no game.

I know that sometimes when I’ve lost a match, I’ve been angry, tried to find excuses, and even chosen to dislike the team that’s beaten me simply because I lost. And as a supporter, it can feel even harder to watch your team lose! And although it’s not wrong to be disappointed when we lose, what we can get wrong is how we understand losing and how we respond to that disappointment.

So very often we see losing in black and white terms – winning is good, losing is bad.  But is that true?

We once had a season where we won every match easily – but after the excitement of the first few matches, we found the matches just weren’t that fun, and actually, because it was all so easy we didn’t get stretched or learn anything new. A tight match, even one that you lose, can be really exciting and draw the best out of the players.  Losing can also be a great opportunity for learning. Why did we lose? What could we do differently next time? What have we learned? It builds resilience and can spur us on to train harder.  And sometimes, even though you have lost, you played really well or demonstrated a great response to the skill and the pressure the other team showed, so gaining lots in the process.

Realistically though, even though we know we played well, that we learned lots and so on, losing can just be very very hard.  And when you are in that place, remember that God understands how frail we sometimes can be, how hard it can be to do or feel the right thing:

As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:13-14)

And he doesn’t just know how hard losing can be – he promises us the strength to cope with it, as Paul knew – “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13), and of course, forgiveness and a fresh start when we do mess up.

Coping with winning

We also need to think about how we win. It can be a fantastic feeling – and we should celebrate! But in the heat of victory, it can be easy to forget that for every winner there is a loser – how are your opponents feeling – again, how do we treat them as we’d like to be treated?  Another important thing to consider is who has enabled you to be a winner.  Paul gives us a useful reminder of how to handle success in Romans 12:3-6:

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.

And actually, although I sometimes forget this, winning or losing that match is not the most important thing in the world! It can be helpful to have a sense of perspective.  Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 4:18 that ‘we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal’.  Sport is a part of our lives, but shouldn’t be the most important part.

Ways you can explore this further:

  • If you are a sports fan, how could you create opportunities to create windows into or frame some of these ideas or values for your child? (For more about creating windows and framing, see sessions 1 and 2 of the course)
  • Share a story about a time you lost a big game, or you reacted badly to something in sport, and how you felt about it and what you did.
  • Find out more about some Christian sports people.  What difference does their faith make to their sport and their lives?
  • Reflect together on the way sport brings people together; share stories of people you might have met through sport, or consider how many different nationalities are represented in some of our top football teams – people who might never otherwise have met now are linked in friendship.  How might that reflect God’s intention for humanity?
  • Questions can be a great way to help children think further about these things.  For example:
  1. How do you think football is played in heaven?
  2. How can we ‘love the other team as ourselves’?
  3. Would you support your team or train or play differently if you thought God was standing there watching you?
  4. What helps you when you lose?
  5. Can the way people play sport bring honour to God?

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