3 min read

Winning the emotional whole in elite sport

As the pressure builds at Wimbledon, Jonny Reid and Graham Daniels reflect on the psychology vulnerabilities sports stars face.

Johnny and Graham work for Christians in Sport. Graham, is the General Director, while Jonny is the Resources and Communications Team Leader.

A tennis player stands ready to return a shot, while a phalanx of photographers crowd round a court-side opening to take a picture of him.
Photo by Howard Bouchevereau on Unsplash.

“It’s tough to be happy in tennis because every single week, everyone loses apart from one person.”  
Taylor Fritz – American World Number 9 tennis player 

Wimbledon is one of the pinnacles of the tennis season as players long to win the prestigious tournament. Yet only a handful will experience success. The vast majority will fail in their goal and return to the treadmill of elite touring sport.  

These players were once the best in their town, state or country, yet now they face the relentless pressure of competing against hundreds of others who were ‘best-in-class.’ 

Former US Open champion Bianca Andreescu struggled to come to terms with this reality when she turned professional. Speaking in the Netflix documentary series Break Point, she said: 

 “When I started losing, I didn’t know what was happening in a way. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I was shocked, which was really weird because people are losing every single week in tennis.” 

The shame of losing 

Andre Agassi has written one of the most illuminating autobiographies of any sportsperson, where he recounts how by the age of seven, he associated winning tournaments with safety from the potential rage and disappointment of his highly driven father.  

However, having won Wimbledon at the age of 22, he discovered that even winning one of the biggest tournaments in his sport could not heal his wounds and the need to find satisfaction and worth in his performance. He said after his victory: 

“winning changes nothing. Now that I’ve won a slam, I know something that very few people on earth are permitted to know. A win doesn’t feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn’t last as long as the bad. Not even close.” 

Like all humans, elite athletes need to know they have value and significance not based on what they have done or will do in the future but on who they are. 

More recently Emma Raducanu, the British 2021 US Open Champion reflected on how she had become trapped in a similar view of her tennis. 

"I very much attach my self-worth to my achievements,"  

she said. 

"If I lost a match I would be really down, I would have a day of mourning, literally staring at the wall. I feel things so passionately and intensely." 

Ashley Null is an experienced sports chaplain who has worked with Olympians and high-level sportspeople for many years. In reflecting on the story of Agassi, he notes: 

“The first task of any chaplain to elite athletes is to help them learn to separate their personal identity from their athletic performance. Only love has the power to make human beings feel truly significant, not achievement. Only knowing that they are loved regardless of their current performance can make Olympians feel emotionally whole.” 

How to feel emotionally whole in elite sport 

 Current professional player Shelby Rogers has noted that in elite tennis:  

“Week to week, you’re walking around with your ranking plastered on your face.” 

They cannot seem to escape their performances. 

Like all humans, elite athletes need to know they have value and significance not based on what they have done or will do in the future but on who they are. Most of us do not have our work watched by millions and instantly ranked and analysed. But for elite athletes, these pressures mean they are especially vulnerable to insecurity and are much more likely to conflate identity with performance. Thus, a stable and secure identity is critical for the sportsperson. 

Sports psychology has begun to understand this need and now encourages athletes to think more broadly about how they find their worth and value. Rebecca Levett has worked in a number of high-performance environments and acknowledges that:  

“It is absolutely vital that we, as support staff and coaches encourage our athletes to consider who they are as a person as well as an athlete.” 

For most of us our ‘private identity,’ as Levett calls it, could be derived from our family and friends and how they see us. Several athletes reference their role as husband or wife or mother and father as key in their success. Meanwhile, others, recognising that not even family relationships are permanent or always fulfilling, have turned to Christian faith for this stability.   

Shelby Rogers recently spoke on a podcast about the difference understanding this has had on her tennis career.  

“As much as you try not to read the media, you still have that constant comparison, and so it is understanding within yourself that you do not have to prove yourself to God…that you do not have to perform for him…you just have to go out and enjoy yourself and use these gifts he’s given you.” 

The Christian message is that a secure identity can be found in God's assured, steadfast love, as a Father has for his children.   

Sport is a beautiful gift, but it is not stable enough to define us.  

5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?