Home > Devotional > When Performance Leaves Us Empty

Allison Schmitt won six medals as a swimmer in two Olympics (one in 2008, five in 2012). At the London Olympics in 2012, she was magnificent, winning an individual gold in the 200 meter freestyle, silver in the 400 meter freestyle and three more medals in the relays with her US team. She has been described by teammates and fellow competitors to be fun loving and upbeat. In a recent article by AP columnist Paul Newberry a noticeable shift occurred in her demeanor. “But after her starring role at the 2012 London Games, the swimmer realized something wasn’t right. She felt depressed. She really didn’t like herself but wasn’t sure why. Reluctant at first, she decided to share her experience with other elite athletes. “I didn’t like myself,” she said. “I didn’t like that I was feeling like that. I thought if I suppressed it, it would go away. But it was something where I needed help from outside sources.”  Schmitt failed to qualify for the 2013 American team that competed in the world championships and she did not qualify for this summer’s world competition in Russia.  “Maybe the post-Olympic blues started it and it kept crashing down from there.”

I don’t want to speculate on Allison Schmitt’s individual life journey. I want to use some of the facts, however, about her tremendous success and subsequent struggle as a springboard to a bigger discussion about the human heart. Performance is the default mode of the human heart. We learn to perform for acceptance within groups (family, team, military unit, band) and to gain personal validation (gold medals, all star teams, MVP honors or a simple game appearance like Rudy) from an early age. Acceptance and validation are close cousins but they are not the same thing. Acceptance in the group is most often conditional to some minimum standard of behavior or performance. Validation is gained when the individual excels far beyond that minimum standard with a specific gift and they are personally exalted for it. In the case of world class athletes, even idolized.  At the world championship level in swimming, as in all professional sports, real acceptance is not extended without continued high-level personal achievement.

Consider what Allison Schmitt’s coach, Bob Bowman, said about her current level of performance. “I’m not concerned at all. I have no doubt she can get back to where she once was.” It seems like an encouraging comment. Reading a little deeper though, isn’t he affirming that regaining her 2012 Olympic form the most important thing? What if she doesn’t regain that high level of performance? Will she still be accepted? Is the place of Olympic legend, where she once was, who she is? Perhaps the emptiness of building our sense of value on our performance in any area of our lives is the real issue. Does Allison Schmitt’s story point to a performance treadmill and a resulting identity crisis for all of us to consider? What if there is an unchanging foundation of acceptance and validation that we can build our lives upon?

I played professional football for the Baltimore and Indianapolis Colts in the 1982-1984 seasons. I was a starting noseguard on the defensive line for those three seasons after being drafted 28th overall in the 1982 draft. I enjoyed some real success in that time frame (2nd in tackles one year, team leading 7 sacks another), but I struggled with knee injuries. After my ACL reconstruction in August of 1985 I was placed on injured reserve for the year and worked to get back in the lineup. I was unable to bring back that knee to an acceptable strength and performance level to pass a physical. It could have been time for an identity crisis. The new head coach for Indianapolis called me to say they didn’t want me back. He also said some things that were meant to kill the desire to return to play with them. That could have gone right to the heart. It could have been the finishing blow on my NFL career. As an athlete, coaches can have that power over us. Joe Ehrmann calls it “the power of the whistle.”  That could have been a crash point at age 26. For me however, I waited my turn to respond then said simply, “You don’t know me coach. You don’t know my heart as a man or my commitment to the game. You are wrong about me.” I announced my retirement the next day with a positive expectation of the next chapter of my life.

As I reflected on that conversation, I thanked the Lord that he knows my heart. He knows my name. He knows every failure and shortcoming, yet he loves me. I am accepted in the cross because he was forsaken, taking the penalty for sins that was rightfully mine. I am a son of God by my adoption through faith in Christ. I am accepted into his family by grace through faith unconditionally. He determines my destiny, not my performance. He is the unchanging foundation of my self worth and identity. I am learning too that I need my band of brothers to walk with me on this journey. They accept me as spiritual brothers, in all my failures, and call me up to become the man I could never be on my own. “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”   (Romans 15:7) They provide a deep personal validation as well, not in performing, but as I am faithful. They motivate me to be faithful to Christ’s command to love my brother as He has loved us (John 13:34-35) and faithful to proclaim his great love in the gospel to the world (Matthew 28:18-20).

Leo Wisniewksi
Director Locking Arms Men