There are few things I find more frustrating than the moments after a televised sporting event.
Of course, there is the dejection I’ve experienced as I watch the people who beat my team celebrate. There is the challenge of enduring the inane commentary from the play-by-play announcer and color commentator. The most frustrating moment of the post-game experience, however, is the on-field or on-court interview with the player of the game. It’s always the same: a person who is completely worn out is placed in front of a camera, reminded what a great game he or she had, and asked some obvious questions, inviting the regurgitation of some stock answers. It is an exercise in pointlessness. In fact, the only time in recent memory a post-game interview was remotely interesting, it stirred a controversy that lasted for weeks. We are much more comfortable with the tedious and predictable script, with the questions and responses we all expect.
We’ll see versions of this post-game interview a lot as March Madness continues over the next few weeks. And when interviewers ask players what it’s like to play in the NCAA Tournament, one of the responses we’ll hear most frequently is, “We’re playing like it’s just another game.” I’ve always found this particular response to be patently ridiculous. After all, when was the last time these players played games that were broadcast on national television? When was the last time every game they played could potentially end their season? The notion that they could play like it’s just another game in such stressful circumstances seems unlikely to me. But of course, this is because I’ve never played basketball (or any sport, for that matter) at the elite level. This is a crucial distinction. The men and women who are competing in the NCAA Tournament train on a daily basis; they practice until every move they make on the court is in their muscle memory. They have the capacity to play stressful games like any other game because they have put in the hard work to be ready for any possibility that will come their way. Every aspect of their game is grounded in all they have done to prepare.
It occurs to me that this is, ideally, how we should operate in our spiritual lives. We are encouraged to pray on a daily basis, not because God will be mad if we don’t, not because it’s the only way God will do what we ask God to do, but because prayer is the equivalent of athletic training and practice. Prayer is meant to help ground us in our relationship with God, to help us root our identity in the God who loves us. When we are grounded in this way, when we put in the hard work of spiritual discipline, we will be better equipped to deal with challenges when they come our way. Instead of being overwhelmed by stressful situations, we can rely on our spiritual practice and place our trust in the God whom we have come to know in our prayer lives. Lent is a way of engaging this training and practice, an opportunity to begin rooting our identity in God so that we will be ready for whatever comes our way.