Give it your all … but stop trying so hard

Soccer practice had just ended and I was ready to head for home. But the coach had a different idea. As the other boys trickled off to their cars and awaiting dinners, the coach pulled Matthias aside. The coach wanted to work on something with him one-on-one.

I love to compete. The word compete has my name in it. (Com – Pete. Get it?) But in our family, the fiercest competitor of all is Matthias. But where I enjoy winning, he hates losing. For him, the pain of losing is greater than the thrill of winning. So, even though he can be an aggressive goal-scorer, he is far more defensive in his playing. And the ultimate defensive position in soccer is goalkeeper.

So, Matthias’ coach was working with him on playing keeper. And they were working on one particular aspect — the drop-kick after the keeper collects the ball. Matthias could kick the ball fairly far, but he wasn’t very consistent or accurate. But after just one single minute with the coach, he was kicking it 50% further and far more accurately than he’d done before. What had changed? What had the coach told him? He’d told him to not kick it so hard.

Trying too hard is the enemy in all sports. It ruins a golf swing. It ruins the toss of a bowling ball. It ruins the swing of a baseball bat, the throw of a football, the spike of a volleyball. When I learned to waterski, it took me longer than others to get up for the first time, because I tried too hard. Instead of letting the boat pull me up, I tried to pull myself up (which usually meant I had to pull my shorts up after getting dragged through the water behind the boat).

I’ve been told that when we try too hard, our bodies tense up and are not able to react quickly or smoothly when we need them to. When we were talking about this, my friend Greg Verbeck mentioned that a baserunner in baseball will never be able to dive back to first base or kick off to steal second base unless his upper body is relaxed. A tense, stiff baserunner is a sitting duck for a pick off. And how many quarterbacks throw interceptions in the beginning of football games because they are so amped up and tense?

Excellence requires two seemingly contradictory things. A passionate, give-it-all-you’ve-got attention and a relaxed leisureliness. Having the intensity without the relaxation leads to tensed-up trying too hard. Having leisureliness without giving it all you’ve got leads to dropping out of the game completely.

All of the greatest athletes make it look easy. When he was in his prime, Michael Jordan would blast past three guys on the court, but he was so relaxed as he did it that he almost seemed slow. This is true of all of life and especially in the life of following Jesus.

There are some who get so intent that they get tense and wound-up. They’re simply trying too hard. And when it doesn’t work out for them, they just try harder still, with diminishing results. They’re so focused on what they’re doing, so overly self-aware that there’s no way that they’re going to do things well.

If you’re one of these folks, take a chill pill. Really. Settle down. Stop taking yourself so seriously. In fact, just stop thinking about yourself at all for a bit. Not only will it be nicer for you, but it’ll be nicer for everyone else, too. You’re so tense that you’re making everyone else around you tense, too.

In Isaiah 30:15, we read — This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it.” 

The people of God were so wound up in their attempts to protect and preserve themselves that they ceased trusting in God. The Lord wanted them to stop trying so hard, to take a deep breath, to turn to him, to trust in him, to rest in him. That’s what would save them — that’s Who would save them — not their political maneuverings. But they had none of it. Is that a passage you need to heed?

On the other hand, there are some who look like they’re resting because, well, they’re sitting on the bench or in the bleachers or in front of the TV at home. They’re not in the game because they haven’t given themselves to it.

If Michael Jordan hadn’t given himself to the game of basketball after being cut from the team early in his high school years, we wouldn’t know his name today. The relaxedness of his technique is an aspect of his passion for the game, not the opposite of it. It’s only by going all in and giving yourself over to it that you are able to relax into it.  Again, it seems like a contradiction, but it’s the only way it works.

It’s only when we give our lives over to Jesus completely that we are able to rest in him. It’s only when we immerse ourselves fully in him, are baptized into him, are clothed in him (to use a few of the Bible’s favorite images) that we are able to stop our frantic self-saving and self-securing, our trying to get it right and be right. It’s only then that we find our peace. If that’s you, maybe it’s time to go all in with God.

The only way is to go all the way. And then to stop trying so hard.