Over the last few months, I've had the opportunity to watch the development of several hundred athletes. They've been training at a special place – the International Management Group (IMG) academies in Bradenton, Fla., where my son is a student.
Tennis champion Maria Sharapova (Wimbledon 2004, US Open 2006) and golfers Paula Creamer, Michelle Wie, and the up-and- coming Julieta Granada, all trained here. The list of men includes Andre Agassi (eight Grand Slam tennis titles); baseball players Gary Sheffield, Nomar Garciaparra, and Trot Nixon; and Ghanaian soccer sensation, Freddy Adu.
Although most of the 600 athletes studying and training at these sports facilities will never become household names, I've learned while observing them and chatting with them at IMG, that gaining fame is not their priority. Take, for example, Di Zhao, a 13-year-old tennis player from China. You can see on her face how much she's enjoying herself even when she's battling through her most grueling matches. Young people like Di recognize the value of professional coaching and supervision no matter where their sporting careers may take them.
However, when you're really training hard, it's easy to let things get out of proportion. The joy can evaporate if you're not careful. That's why, on top of the physical workouts every day at IMG, the athletes also participate in "mental conditioning." They are encouraged to look deep inside their thinking for motivation that is wholly good, and not primarily dependent on bulk or height or muscle fiber. And they soon realize that top athletes in the same playing positions – for example, in football – are similarly built. It's their way of thinking, their creative flair, their courage, that ultimately make the difference between winning or losing a game, signing or missing a contract.
It takes a long-term commitment and lots of practice to be able to think clearly and keep the enjoyment in place, especially, for instance, when a runner is required to complete a long, grueling set of sprints. You've got to learn to enjoy staying focused and disciplined – to appreciate that there's much to be gained from abandoning old ways of doing things and trying out new ones.
Sports are deeply satisfying when mental barriers come down. I found that this happens most easily when you start to see yourself as God sees you. Instead of viewing yourself as a physical being with some possibly serious limitations, you can rejoice in the fact that God sees you as wholly spiritual – created in and of Him to express His nature and power, and imbued with His limitless potential. And when you have an assignment in any field, you can take your cue from Jesus' words, "The Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works" (John 14:10).
We can all enjoy the benefit of a close, loving relationship with God, and be strengthened by His power and joy, which are part of our nature as His sons and daughters. Mary Baker Eddy, who founded Christian Science, wrote, "...whatever is possible to God, is possible to man as God's reflection" ("Miscellaneous Writings 1886-1893," p. 183).
Many of the young people I've observed at the IMG training facilities have shown evidence of this divine source of strength in their daily workouts, even if they don't speak openly about their dependence on God. I've been deeply touched as I've observed the spirit in which they pursue their goals; strive to improve their personal bests; and take delight in running, volleying, swimming, putting, dribbling, or pitching, with only a handful of people watching.
Adapted from the Christian Science Sentinel.