One of the most dangerous lies which athletes believe is that achievement is excellence. I personally believed this lie for years.
At the beginning of my international sporting journey I made many breakthroughs for fencing in Singapore. Beyond sport, I was also accomplished in the fields of academics, music and leadership. I quickly gained the applause of my schools, the media and the people around me as an outstanding all-rounder. I was young and promising, defined by all my achievements.
As I progressed into the senior international stage, however, it grew increasingly difficult to win. Without enough achievements to define me, my identity and worth were constantly at risk. This made it very difficult to give my best.
If I was leading in a match, I would fear the possibility of failure, and I made many errors. If I was trailing in a match, I would also be anxious about being behind. Whichever way the match went, it was a great deal of stress and victory wasn’t joy, only momentary relief.
We cannot steward what we cannot control
I was entering the Olympic Qualification Cycle while carrying a worsening injury along with me. My psychologist pointed out that I was often miserable and very conditional in giving my best. This was a season that required all of me, and there I was crumbling.
In my desperation, God met me through the book of Ecclesiastes. King Solomon’s reflections through the book revealed that I cannot steward what I cannot control. God works in us in the present. The future and the past are His. Therefore, the only way for me to steward my life was to be focused on the present.
In the world of sport, the referee’s call, an opponent’s form or an unexpected injury are circumstances which do happen. Although they are outside an athlete’s control, they directly impact the results. What athletes are left to control is their choices, thoughts and actions.
Sport became a powerful discipleship journey. It changed my definition and pursuit of excellence.
Discipline brings freedom
Victories revealed little about the manner in which I fenced. For example, I could fence fearfully, avoiding all risks, passively waiting for time to run out and win. In contrast, I may have lost but could fence boldly, with a clear mind, trying out new skills. This is why I needed to choose excellence as a process, not a result.
It took a daily discipline to shift my goals from wins to progressing specific skills. Because I practiced specific skills in my game, I could identify the skills which helped me to improve. As a result, I became more consistent in my performances and it made me confident about what I was capable of.
I knew that I had reached another level in my own pursuit of the sport when I walked into the Olympic Qualifiers with nothing to prove or lose.
During the event, victories and challenges didn’t change my resolve and focus. I made comebacks which I had not seen myself do in years. I stayed in the game, whether up or down.
That freedom I felt was priceless. Despite the significance of the Olympic qualification, I experienced the most joy in years. It resembled the joy I had when I first began fencing. I was neither shaken by victory nor defeat. I knew it was not self-determination that was responsible for this step of my sporting journey, but being able to recognise God’s control over my past and future.
Excellence is the process
I wish I could tell you that I ended my journey as an Olympic Champion. Instead, my career ended with the headline “Fencer Ng misses Olympics by a whisker”. I was two points shy of my Olympic dream, a dream which I held for 16 years and made many sacrifices for.
I may have lost the Olympic Qualifier, but I won a greater prize. I found the joy of true excellence – doing what is within my control, and focusing on the process not the result.
Did you enjoy Ruth’s story? She shared it so as to encourage other athletes, and anyone involved in the world of sport (whether you are enthusiastic about sport, a coach, a PE teacher or even a parent of an athlete) to learn more about their identity in Christ and what shining the light of the Gospel looks like in the sporting arena – which they can do at Athletes in Action‘s upcoming Sports Conference.