This article is part of Rooted’s 2019 student series, where young Christians share their experiences of faith in high school and college. Lilly Gilbert is a rising junior at Mountain Brook High School in Birmingham, Alabama.
Growing up, I’ve always known who I am. Born the “athlete of the family,” I can’t remember a school year or a summer where I wasn’t playing a sport. I grew up a competitive gymnast, softball player, basketball player, and volleyball player. Sports became a very big part of my identity, and to be quite honest, I was happy about that. I was making people proud, and that was good enough for me.
Entering freshman year of high school, volleyball was the only sport I still played. I tried out for my high school’s team and was placed on varsity. I was the only freshman on the varsity team. While this scared me, my fear was drowned out by the thought of being “good enough.” I was good enough to make varsity. I was good enough to be the only freshman. I was good enough to make my parents and my peers proud. I walked into the season feeling confident, and I walked out feeling more miserable and hopeless than I had ever felt in my life.
As summer practices began, I struggled with being the only freshman. Not only was I at the bottom of the team “food chain”, but I was at the bottom by myself. I felt constant pressure to perform well and be exceptional for my teammates who expected perfection. I felt alone and insignificant. At times, I felt abandoned by God, wondering how He could let the sport I loved so much turn into such a source of misery for me.
Even as I became better friends with my teammates, my struggle to keep my composure in the midst of my anxiety was practically unbearable. I consistently woke up crying on the days that I had practice because the thought of walking into the gym made me break inside. I felt like no one truly understood what I was going through. Feeling defeated, prayer quickly became my lifeline and my only source of peace. I prayed for confidence and hope. I prayed that the Lord would help me to trust in his plan for me and stand firm in the faith even though I couldn’t understand why he was putting me through this.
By the time the season was over, my love for the game was in pieces. I had serious thoughts of quitting but never shared them with anyone. Even though I was miserable, I was making everyone else proud. Right? It didn’t matter if wasn’t having a good time. Volleyball was one of the biggest parts of me, and I wasn’t about to let everyone down.
Fast forward to sophomore year, and things were improving. I told myself that I wouldn’t let any mistakes or bad attitudes on the team get in my head this year. And to be honest, that worked for a while. I was enjoying myself. But you can only convince yourself that you’re fine for so long. Long story short, sophomore season came and ended, and I left the season feeling just a defeated as the year before. I still couldn’t truthfully say that I wanted to be on the team.
As I worked through off season workouts, there was this voice in the back of my head saying “What are you still doing here? What do you have to prove?” But I ignored it. That was just my self-doubt speaking, I told myself.
And then one day, I finally broke. In spring of my sophomore year, my coach released the schedule for the upcoming season. When I got the text containing our schedule, I burst into tears. Every emotion I had been concealing for the past two years came pouring out.
That was when it finally hit me. That “voice” that I was hearing in the back of my head was God. God was the one asking me what I was still doing on the team. There was a reason He had put me through the struggle of the past two seasons. He wasn’t just trying to build my character or teach me how to deal with difficult people; He was trying to get me to realize that I wasn’t playing volleyball because I loved it anymore. Every single reason I had for continuing to play was for somebody else. I played to help my teammates. To make my parents proud. To impress my classmates. To build my resume for college. To do what I thought everyone expected of me. And it was absolutely exhausting. I was solely playing and living for the approval of others.
I prayed for guidance as I thought about what my course of action should be for the upcoming season. It was a difficult decision that weighed heavy on my heart, but I ultimately decided to quit the team. I was scared to do it, but looking back, it is the most freeing thing I have ever done. It was only when I slowed down long enough to think about what I wanted, rather than what everyone expected from me, that I was finally able to find peace.
Chasing the approval of others day after day is tiring and unfulfilling. It took me so long to realize that, and I still struggle with it often. I constantly have to remind myself that the Lord is not calling us to worldly perfection. God is calling us to actively pursue him and pursue a relationship with him, but we cannot pursue both God and the approval of the world at the same time.
We are all chasing the approval of the world in one way or another, whether it be in sports, school, relationships, or activities. And the tricky thing is, those things make us feel really good sometimes. But that feeling goes away the second we inevitably begin to fall short in some other way. Pursuing God, on the other hand, brings an overwhelming sense of peace and fulfillment. He never leaves us or forsakes us, and he tells us that we are enough for him, even in our brokenness.
With that being said, the best way we can pursue the Father is through constant prayer. When I find myself searching for earthly fulfillment, that is one of the times I have to dive into prayer. Consistent, honest prayer is what truly connects us with our Heavenly Father. The mere fact that we have the ability to talk to God is such a gift, and I encourage you to take advantage of it because He has the power to use our prayer to do incredible things.
When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and take our shortcomings and struggles to Him, our relationship with Him strengthens. I can honestly say that I feel closer to God than I ever did before walking through this darker patch of my life. Through prayer, we are able to build a firm foundation for our lives and cling to the goodness and faithfulness of our God.
I am a very different person than I was before I quit volleyball. I thought that when I quit that I would feel incomplete, that this entire piece of my identity would be gone. But now, being the version of myself that I want to be, I have never felt more whole in my life. I am more content, less negative, and much less anxious. I still, however, experience times of struggle and pain. The difference is that now I know that I am never walking alone through these moments. I have learned how to cling to God through the hard times, but also that those hard times don’t have to last forever.