Finding Victory On The NCAA’s Spiritual Battleground

College athletics is a battleground. And, I’m not talking about battling it out on the racecourse, field or court. It is a battleground for our souls, and the opposing team is fierce.

If you look at some statistics about the NCAA, it looks as though we’re losing. The prevalence of anxiety and depression in college athletes is alarming. Just ask a group of student athletes how much joy and peace they are experiencing in their life. I would be willing to bet their answer would be not as much as they’d like.

“For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you. To fight for you. To give you victory against your enemies.” Deuteronomy 20:4

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

Throughout God’s word, we see a common theme of victory in Christ. God continually proclaims that we are more than conquerors. That we are victorious.

My personal favorite is the Greek word tetelestai, which means, “It is finished.” Christ said this with His final breath as He, the perfect and righteous one, died on the cross, bearing the burden and shame of our sins. He proclaimed that it was over. He won the victory for us. For this reason, the enemy has no authority over our hearts and lives when we chose to receive Christ’s gift of forgiveness and salvation. We are children of God.

So why does it look like were losing?

While rowing at The Ohio State University, I experienced a roller coaster of victory, defeat, joy and fear. My environment was constantly telling me to earn the respect and love of my teammates; to do everything I could to gain the approval of my coaches. The most important job I had was to perform, and my entire purpose was to help win a national championship. I spent a lot of time embracing the standards I was being taught, and I was definitely losing.

Chelsea Harpool on the podium with her teammates.
Chelsea Harpool (second from left) on the podium with her teammates // Credit: Ohio State Athletics

I spent a good chunk of my rowing career living in a pressure cooker of stress and fear. I struggled with anxiety and felt as though my best was never good enough. Exhausted from trying to be “perfect,” I was not experiencing victory, peace or joy.

It changed everything when I finally realized what God tells me in his word is way more important than what the world of college athletics tells me. I had to continually replace the lies of performance, earned approval and fleeting purpose, with the truth of the Gospel.

I was enough. Not because I had fulfilled a goal or met my coaches expectations, but because Christ gives me grace that fills the gap of my shortcomings. I earned the respect of my teammates by loving them as Christ first loved me.

Some days I earned the approval of my coaches and some days I didn’t, but it didn’t matter because I had the approval of the Creator and Ruler of heaven and earth. I started allowing the victory of the Gospel to be the reality in my rowing life, not just my church life.

It’s amazing how victory in Christ changes everything. I started competing from a state of freedom that I had never experienced before. The aspects of rowing that used to cause stress and fear were now challenges that I was empowered to take on, and I began experiencing joy whether I succeeded or failed. I fell in love with the sport of rowing again and as a result I was able to love, support and encourage my teammates more than ever before.

I still had big goals and fought hard to achieve them, allowing me to end my career on the podium at the NCAA championships. However, as a result of my victory in Christ, I was able to joyfully congratulate the two crews that finished first and second in the nation rather than be envious of their “greater success.”

As believers in the world of athletics, we are already victorious. Let’s make sure we live in that victory given to us as a gift because of Christ’s unconditional love and sacrifice on the cross.

Battlegrounds aren’t scary when you know the victory is already yours.

-Chelsea Harpool

Chelsea Harpool was a member of the Ohio State University Women’s Rowing team from 2015-2018, winning four Big Ten championships and one national championship. She is currently serving as a missionary in Puerto Rico with Athletes In Action.

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