Life lessons from overtime, extra innings and five-hour-53-minute matches

News of the record-breaking five-hour-53-minute Australian Open final match greeted me this morning as I checked email.  I still can’t wrap my mind around such an intense competition lasting that long.  Can you even imagine?

The marathon showdown delighted fans around the world, and rightfully earned descriptors such as “amazing” and “incredible”.  But tennis isn’t the only place we love to see drawn-out, hard-fought battles.  Who doesn’t relish in extra innings, overtime, tie-breaker shoot-outs and fifth-set games?  We love the excitement, anticipation and tension involved in games that come down to the wire, with final game-winning shots at the buzzer.  Or perfect performances like Shaun White’s 100.0 SuperPipe.

At least in sports.

But in “real life” away from the court, field and arena, we aren’t quite so eager to embrace extended engagements or challenging competition.  While we might like to battle it out on the field during the weekend, we recoil from opposition and trials during the week.

Why is it that we equate a “good life” with ease, yet easy victories in sports are boring?  What would happen if we attempted to apply our sport mindset to our work week, school schedules, personal growth plans, relationships or spiritual transformation?

Here are a few insights from sports that I think we could meaningfully implement to the rest of our lives….

  • Good opponents make you better.  Whether you are challenged at work, serve on a “super star” ministry team, or even face demanding criticism from a supervisor, the competition will enhance your skills far more than what we tend to long for – low expectations, no challenge and constant praise.  My husband coaches college volleyball, and occasionally his team will play against a team well-below their skill level.  While we tend to think such easy wins are fun chances to practice skills, in reality the team constantly struggles not to “play down” to the other team’s level.  The same is true off the volleyball court.  Seek out and appreciate good competition, and in so doing, you will surely discover that “as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)
  • Struggles don’t mean you’re failing.  Struggles and battles result not from failing, but succeeding.  If you were failing, there wouldn’t be a competition at all.  Had I played tennis against Novak Djokovic (laughable, I know!), the match would not have lasted five hours and 53 minutes.  It wouldn’t have even persisted five minutes and 53 seconds.  The mere fact that you are struggling demonstrates that you’re competing, growing, and yes, succeeding.
  • Overtime adds excitement.  When your battles and struggles persist, take heart.  This is precisely what life is about.  If everything was simple and straightforward, what else would you be doing?  How many movies on Netflix can you really watch?  How many hours can you channel surf?  Jesus promised, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)  Abundant living is a life filled with giving, living and building, all of which require effort – sometimes even during extra innings.
  • Losses aren’t the end.  No matter what sport you choose, every season ends with losses for all but one team or individual.  Even the second-best in the world faces loss.  But the successful competitors consider those losses as indicators of ways to improve.  No one, no matter how great, will always succeed and win.  Rejection letters, second place proposals, and failed promotions may register in the “loss” column today, but must inform our practice plan tomorrow.
  • Success requires time, commitment and patience.  Even athletes touted as “overnight wonders” truly aren’t.  In reality they have spent countless hours practicing skills long past the time less successful players gave up.  If that’s true on a sport’s court, it is just as true in the boardroom, publishing house and stage.

Finally, enjoy life!  Imagine how much more enjoyable work would be if we anticipated and celebrated it as much as we do the big sporting events.  Just think, next weekend millions of football-haters will gather around the TV just to watch the commercials!  What greatness would be achieved if we brought that same level of ingenuity and dedication to our work weeks?  When stressful times come, take a deep breath, picture yourself in the midst of the big play-off, Final Four, or World Series competition, and persevere – even if it lasts five hours and 53 minutes (or longer!).