Recently I read the autobiography of one of the most famous footballers of all time – Stanley Matthews. A man famed for his silky dribbling skills and ball control, the first ever ‘Footballer of the Year’. The one player everyone wanted to see play – a real legend of the game. But why write about a football star of a previous generation with no pretence of a Christian profession in a church bulletin?
Simply because as I read the book I realised that this man was an extraordinary example of something that all Christians need: single-mindedness. Matthews has been described as one of the greatest players of all time. How did he get to be so good? No doubt he had a real measure of natural talent but listen to his own description of how he spent his time as a lad:
When I wasn’t playing football on the waste ground with my pals, I’d play by myself at home. I had a small rubber ball that I spent hours kicking against the backyard wall. Even at eight or nine years of age I was determined to practice at every opportunity, in the hope that the more I did, the more I would become the ball’s master. I used to place kitchen chairs in the backyard and practice dribbling the small ball in and out of them. When I felt I had become adept at that, I’d run at the chairs with the ball at my feet and flick it over each chair, catching it on my foot on the other side before spinning round and shooting into an imaginary goal…. Any ball control I displayed later in life as a professional footballer can be traced back to those times spent playing with that small rubber ball.
Later, as a teenager now signed for Stoke City, he had exactly the same attitude:
The whole of the summer break was no holiday for me. I worked tirelessly every day to make myself as fit and as fast as possible. I continued to work hard in Stoke’s pre-season training, and when those daily sessions were over, I spent a couple of hours on my own working on my ball skills, practicing short sprints of two or three yards and turning, always with the ball at my feet. I practiced my body swerve and worked at variations on it. I read as many books about football as I could lay my hands on. I thought about the game incessantly, trying to think of ways of improving my technique.
It’s clear that whatever natural skill Matthews possessed, his mastery of the ball and exceptional talent were down to his total dedication to the game of football and to the fact that every spare moment he devoted to improving his play. This was the one desire that gripped him and shaped his whole life. And there is something admirable about it. I read about Stanley Matthews and it puts me to shame. Not because he was so much better at football then I could ever hope to be but because I know that I have something far more valuable than football; yet I don’t give the same whole-hearted, single-minded love and service to Christ that Matthews did to football. But I should:
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ Mk 12:30. ‘Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness’ Mt 6:33.
When we read about or meet people with such heartfelt dedication to a particular cause, it should stir us up to love God, the one great worthwhile cause, with all our hearts.
What lessons we can learn for our Christian lives from an example like this?
1) Single-mindedness means making sacrifices – actually giving things up
Loving Christ will not leave us with time and energy to do everything we would like to do. It may mean giving up the career we wanted to follow, or particular hobbies or pursuits that we don’t have time for, or remaining single rather than marrying (1 Cor 7:29-35). Here’s Stanley Matthews again:
I’d work and train at Stoke City, then go home and practice my ball skills until darkness fell. Other lads my age had started to go out at night, but I was single-minded in my desire to be a footballer and shunned a social life so I could train and practice. I never tired of it.
Matthews gave up everything else that the lads of his age were doing in order to pursue football – but notice his verdict: it was worth it. If that is true in order to become a great sportsman, how much more so to gain an eternal reward? As Paul puts it:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 1 Cor 9:24-25
2) Single-mindedness means paying attention to detail
Matthews knew that he had to get everything right: his ball-skills, his speed, his fitness, his food. He was a teetotaller, following a low-fat diet and fasting one day a week years before anyone else worried about what sportsmen ate. If he identified a weakness in his game, he would address it:
I wanted to bring my dribbling to perfection. I hammered wooden stakes into the ground and dribbled the ball in and out of them as quickly as I could. The better I got at this, the closer I put the stakes together, until there was just enough space to weave in and out of them. I practised this for hours upon end, day after day, and when I could finally dribble the ball in and out of those spaces at speed and at any direction, I felt I had improved that aspect of my game considerably. I even went as far as soaking the ground with water to simulate muddy conditions.
If we are to love God with all our hearts then we need to take the same care in every detail of our lives. Have I listed out and prayed for all the people and things that I should be praying for? Am I examining myself to root out my besetting sins with God’s grace? Do I think regularly about my brothers and sisters in the church – God’s children and how I can help them practically? Am I caring for my wife and family as I should?
3) Single-mindedness is for every day
Every morning Stanley Matthews was up at 6 am for a four mile run along the beach and a practice session. Even during the long years of the War, he practiced every day, before and after his RAF training sessions. In the same way, we cannot afford to have days off from loving God or holidays from being holy. We need to build the single-minded following of Christ into our routines of every day.
4) Single-mindedness must be sustained through a lifetime
Lots of boys want to become footballers – how many of them are still as keen 30 years later? Matthews played professional football for 35 years before finally retiring at the age of 50. His final game was at the age of seventy, when he sustained a leg injury in a competitive match. And even after retirement he was coaching, watching, advising – he never lost his delight in the game. By contrast, how many Christians set out full of zeal and love for Christ but then get distracted by other things? If a man can be taken up with football for his whole life, how much more should we be taken up our whole lives with the infinite God who created us, who made it possible for us to live and breath, to play sport, to enjoy life. I’m glad that there are so many examples of believers who have persevered and stayed zealous throughout their lives: Daniel in Babylon, Anna in the temple, John on the lonely island of Patmos, Paul himself who can say at the end of his life:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 2 Tim 4:7.
Let’s strive to follow their example.
5) Single-mindedness requires the humble attitude of never being satisfied with self
A Christian who thinks he has made it is liable for a fall. We are always being put by God into new situations and trials in order to develop our faith – partly to teach us that we are far from perfect and need to completely rely on him. Matthews was humble enough to realise that, gifted as he was, there was always something new to learn and new situations to cope with. For instance, when teams started to mark him with more than one player:
Confronted with this tight marking, I made a conscious effort to work on my ball skills in a confined space. I often asked defenders to stay behind after training to help me out. The constant practice of playing one against three helped me enormously to hone my close ball skills and technique.
The apostle Paul had the same attitude:
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Phil 3:12-14
We can learn positive lessons from a Stanley Matthews but there were also negatives about his life which we mustn’t ignore
1) Stanley Matthews was single-minded about the wrong thing
I enjoy playing football myself but is it really something worth devoting every moment of your life too? On the Day of Judgement, what good will it do to have been one of the world’s greatest footballers if you didn’t love God himself? Paul’s words, yet again, are so wise:
Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. 1 Tim 4:7-8.
In the end you need to be clear what the over-riding priority of your life is:
No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. Matthew 6:24.
2) Single-mindedness is not always about perfecting one area
Matthews was not so much a footballer, but a real specialist – a winger. His game was all about attacking, running at defenders and beating them to make space to get crosses over to his forwards. When there were tackles to be made, or last-ditch saves on the goal-line, Matthews wasn’t your man. In all his 35 year career he was never once sent off or even booked. In one sense that’s a testimony to the fairness with which he played the game but equally it’s impossible to imagine the fairest defender in the world never once overstretching, clipping someone’s heels and being booked for it if they played whole-heartedly for 35 years.
There was a place for a Stanley Matthews in a team but he also needed hard-grafting midfielders and defenders who will run for miles, win endless tackles and put their bodies on the line for the sake of the team. The same is true in churches – there are only a few people who can give all their time and energy to just one area of church life. For every John Wesley giving his whole life to preaching there are hundreds of ‘ordinary’ Christians who put chairs out, teach Sunday School, clean their homes, love their wives, care for their children, witness to colleagues by their consistency at work, and so on. For most of us single-mindedness is about applying ourselves to a whole range of different things and giving ourselves whole-heartedly to all of them. That means that most of us will never be experts, or world-famous preachers or authors. Yet we must still be whole-hearted servants of Jesus Christ.
3) Single-mindedness must not lead to neglect of the things we should be doing
A tragic part of Stanley Matthews’ story is that a year or two after retiring from professional football he fell in love with another woman and left his wife to marry her. He doesn’t go into the details… For a Christian there can be the same temptations – working so hard within the church that you neglect your family. The well-known preacher so often away that the problems in his own church aren’t being addressed. Some people naturally have a one-track personality which helps them to be single-minded but that has dangers as well as advantages. John Wesley was rightly single-minded in his preaching but his marriage was a disaster – he should never have married. We must make sure we give proper attention to all the responsibilities that we’ve been given – otherwise single-mindedness simply becomes selfishness.
In the end, while we can learn lessons from other people – whether Christians or unbelievers, thank God for the perfect example of the Lord Jesus. The one man who was perfectly single-minded in loving and serving his Father: whether in the carpenter’s workshop or asleep in a boat. Who gave up everything in order to serve his Father; who lived a holy life every day for his whole lifetime. The man who learnt perfection through his suffering, who was never distracted from whole-hearted service, who perfectly balanced private prayer and public preaching, healing the sick and rebuking the proud, caring for individuals and shepherding the crowds. Look at others but then look back at the perfect man, Jesus – our best motive of all for single-mindedness.