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As a former elite athlete, Kim Anthony has lived with the burden of perfectionism. She shares her story, including the revelation of the unearnable love of God, and how it changed her life.
Michelle: I have a question for you: “Do you ever feel not good enough for God?” Well, my friend, Kim Anthony, national champion and six-time All-American gymnast, knows exactly how you feel. Here’s Kim.
Kim: I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that God loved me just the way I was. He wasn’t saying, “I will love you if…”; because a crowd will say, “I will applaud for you if you hit that routine.” I began to project that same type of demand on God.
Michelle: Moving from perfectionism to peace; I invited Kim Anthony to share her story on this edition of FamilyLife This Week.
Welcome to FamilyLife This Week. I’m Michelle Hill. Today, we’re going to talk about perfectionism/being perfect. You know, this is something that I have dealt with for years. I don’t know about you; but maybe you have, too? Recently, I was talking with a friend, who has also dealt with perfectionism. Her perfectionism tendencies—well, they come out in her chosen sport of gymnastics.
Now, let me just pull back the layers a little bit. I want you to know that I am a little bit jealous of my friend, and I am working on that; because I flunked gymnastics when I was in grade school. I couldn’t do a cartwheel then; I still can’t do a cartwheel now, let alone stand on a balance beam or anything.
You know, sports is one of the areas that being perfect helps your standings. Athletes struggle with perfectionism every day! You’ve got that perfect routine in order to get that perfect score. You don’t want to make mistakes, because even an eighth of an inch will cost you with the judges; and it takes a lot of practice.
My friend, Kim Anthony—she eventually became a six-time All-American and four-time National Champion gymnast. Kim, who is an African American—this was during a time when the sport of gymnastics was predominately white athletes. Many other sports had broken the color barrier by now, so to speak. You’ve got boxing, back in the ‘20s; track and field in the ‘30s; basketball in the ‘50s; but gymnastics was slow to catch up. It was in the ‘80s when Kim excelled in her sport and made history, but paid a price for it.
Here’s my interview with Kim Anthony. She takes us back to where it all began.
Kim: It wasn’t until Nadia competed in 1976 in the Olympics that I actually saw gymnastics for the first time. I realized: “Hey! Other people do what I’ve been doing.” I knew then and there that I wanted to be a gymnast, but I had no idea how to do that other than to flip around in the living room of my grandmother’s house; but I got kicked out because I was knocking over tables and lamps! [Laughter]
Michelle: —and breaking favorite crystal and all that kind of stuff!
Kim: Well, I didn’t grow up with crystal. [Laughter]
Kim: Well, I don’t think we had China either!
Kim: But we had some things that were breakable; and I was banging around the house, flipping around. I got kicked outside—they she said: “Hey! You need to take your little circus act outside.” I did, and I tried to take my grandmother’s pillows with me. She said: “Oh, no; [Laughter] you’re not taking those pillows.”
I lived on a busy street; and the sidewalks were made out of brick; the steps were concrete; there wasn’t a yard. Actually, there was this—I don’t know, maybe 8’x10’ section—that had a little grass in it; but it had this big metal pipe in the middle of it, so that was not a place conducive to gymnastics. I had to use the sidewalks, and I had to be smart so I wouldn’t hurt myself.
Michelle: Did you teach yourself by watching and seeing how others were doing it? How did the mechanics all come about?
Kim: I had only watched gymnastics that one time when I saw Nadia. Then, after that, I just started flipping around and teaching myself. I would learn later—years later—that the progression that I would use to teach myself a side aerial, which is a cartwheel with no hands, was the same progression that I would learn that coaches were teaching. I would start on a higher level—the stairs for me—
Kim: —the concrete stairs. I would flip onto the brick sidewalk. I would do it until I could do it with no hands. Then I would go on that flat surface and do the same thing.
My grandmother would take the bus home from work, and she would come down the street. I would run to her and I would yell: “Hey, Grandma! Look! Look! Look what I can do!” And she would say: “Girl! You gonna bust your head wide open.” [Laughter] So my mother and my grandmother were afraid that I would hurt myself—
Michelle: Oh, of course.
Kim: —but I was not. I was fearless at the time.
Michelle: You were fearless!
Kim: At the time, I was fearless.
My mother, after she continued to be afraid that I would hurt myself, took me to a recreational class across town. At the end of that practice—that rec class—the coach calls me over. I just knew he was going to kick me out and say, “Please don’t ever come back; you got into too much trouble.”
But instead, he asked me where I had taken gymnastics before. I told him: “I have never taken gymnastics before. I just do it on my grandma’s sidewalk.” He said, “Well, show me what you’ve taught yourself.” I started flipping around—doing side aerials and things like that—that I had taught myself. He invited me, that day, to join the team. That was my first exposure to real gymnastics.
Michelle: Wow! And how far did this real gymnastics take you?
Kim: It took me all the way to Olympic trials in 1984. I competed on the US National Team, traveled all around the world, and then went on to UCLA. I was the first African American to win an NCAA Championship in gymnastics.
Kim: Thank you.
Michelle: That’s exciting! That’s really exciting—
Kim: It is exciting.
Michelle: —when you think about starting off on a concrete sidewalk!—
Michelle: —and where God took you.
Michelle: So gymnastics seems like it’s a sport of the judge being very subjective.
Michelle: What’s the difference between how far you went and a young girl, who’s struggling in a gym, in maybe the suburbs of Chicago? When we’re talking about somebody’s, who’s training hard and working hard, what’s the difference?
Kim: That’s a hard question to answer other than the skill level. In terms of subjection—of the subjectivity of gymnastics—I was a judge.
Kim: I used to be a judge, and you’re trained to look at the different skills and the way it’s executed—
Kim: —and to deduct certain points. However, judges may see things differently. No judge is going to see the same routine, because they’re going to be sitting at different perspectives. Some judges are going to be harder than others.
Kim: For instance, I was at the elite level—the Olympic level. My standards may be a lot higher than a judge, who has not competed at that level, and who is impressed with the way a skill is performed. But I may say:“You know what? She could do a lot better!” I know it’s possible, so I may give her more of a deduction. Does that make sense?
Michelle: It does make sense! And it also seems like, when you’re playing basketball or you’re playing football, you know that, once the ball goes in the hoop or the ball goes in the goal, you have a point;—
Michelle: —whereas—it seems like in gymnastics or those other kind of subjective sports—you don’t really have this thing to aim for. I mean, you have your skills and how you have been working really hard for them, but you don’t have the perfect goal. Does that make sense?
Kim: I understand what you’re saying. We are trained to shoot for perfection.
Kim: However, there’s a lot of politics that is involved in gymnastics. You may be competing on your home turf—say, for collegiate gymnastics—and the judges there may want you to win. They may be in your favor; so they may be a little more lenient on your scores than on the other team, hypothetically speaking.
Kim: I’ve been in situations where that has been the case. Sometimes, you go to an away meet and it’s their judges—judges from their region. They want that team to win. They may score a routine higher—that should have gotten more deductions—because they want their team to win. That’s where that subjectivity comes in, so it’s very hard.
Michelle: It’s almost like you’re playing two games—
Kim: You’re trying to win the favor of the judges.
Michelle: —or a mind game also.
Kim: It is! You’re trying to win the favor of the judges; but in the back of your mind, you know: “Ah, we’re on their home turf. These judges are usually more favorable towards that team.” What you do is—go out there and perform the very best you can and try to give them very little opportunity to deduct from your score.
Michelle: Now, it seems like God has given you this natural ability/this natural skill—
Michelle: —taking you from the sidewalks all the way to the Olympic try-outs. Was there a time in there that you kept having to say: “I could do better. I could do better”?
Kim: My goodness—
Michelle: “I have to try harder! I have to try harder!”
Kim: —every single day! Every single day. Not only are you, as a gymnast, trying to get to that goal of perfection, but you have coaches, who are telling you, “You need to try harder.” There are times when you’re thinking, “Oh! I just gave it my all!” And your coach is like: “Your all is not good enough. You need to get back up there and do it again.”
One of the things we used to have to do—as we trained balance beam when I was in club gymnastics in Richmond, Virginia—we had to do 15 “no-fall” beam routines in a row. If you fell on number 14, you had to start over.
Michelle: Oh, no! And are we talking like just half an inch or an eighth of an inch between falling and staying on?
Kim: Oh, yes! Yes! It doesn’t take much to fall off. All it takes is just being off a little to the side, or your foot slipping just a little, and you can fall off. It’s very difficult. But as a result of that, I got very good on beam when I was in club/when I was on the US National Team. I did well, but your coaches are always wanting the very best from you; because they know that the judges are going to be looking for the mistakes. That’s their job!
Kim: “We [coaches] look for mistakes; we start you—if your value is at a ten—now we figure out how many mistakes you make to cause us to bring that number down.” It’s part of their job.
Michelle: That’s Kim Anthony, talking about how she got into gymnastics. That’s got to be hard, you know, to spend over ten years in the sport—when you’re a young, impressionable woman—and hearing: “You could do better.” “Nope, try again.” “One more time.” “No, fifteen more times.” It really does set you up for a life of perfectionism.
We’re going to take a break; but when we come back, Kim is going to talk about the costs of perfectionism in her life. Stay tuned.
[Radio Station Spot Break]
Michelle: Welcome back to FamilyLife This Week. I'm Michelle Hill. We are in the middle of a conversation with gymnast, Kim Anthony. We’re talking about perfectionism. That is something that a lot of people deal with, perhaps even you. Here’s Part Two of my conversation with Kim.
Kim: It turns you into someone who is never satisfied. You continue to strive for this mark that you will never reach, and it bleeds over into everyday life.
I was at a national competition earlier this year with a bunch of gymnasts—elite, former Olympians—and we were all watching the meet together.
Kim: If you could have heard the level of criticism coming from the stands from these former athletes, it would give you a great picture of what perfectionism does. It’s not something that is easily left on the floor; it crosses over into everyday life, and then it turns you into this critical person if you’re not careful.
Kim: You start to look at other people and judge their imperfections. You start to do what we’ve been trained to do—figure out: “What are we doing wrong?” So we look at other people and say: “Okay, this is wrong,” “This is out of place.”
But in terms of the personal effects that perfectionism has, I think it really does damage to a person being able to truly allow themselves to be all that God created them to be; because you end up creating these circumstances, where you have to live up to other people’s expectation. You’re always wondering what other people are thinking about you: “Do they approve of me?” when all we need to be concerned with is: “Is God approving of me?
Kim: “What does God think about me?” Not that we have to perform for God!—no, no, no—
Kim: —that’s not what I’m talking about—but when perfectionism is a part of your everyday life, it really wreaks havoc on your security in life: the ability for you to understand and know your identity in Christ and your ability to abide—
Kim: —abide. We’re always striving!
Michelle: Right; and believing lies.
Kim: —and believing lies.
Michelle: I’ve heard it said that perfectionism is really false holiness.
Michelle: And that it’s the oldest lie in the world.
Kim: I haven’t heard that, but it’s good! [Laughter] It’s spot on! It really is.
Michelle: So it affected your walk with God?
Kim: Well, I had been trying to earn the approval of my coaches, and judges, and the other athletes around me, and the fans. I felt like I needed to earn the approval of God. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that God loved me just the way I was. He wasn’t saying, “I will love you if…”; because a crowd will say: “I will applaud for you if you hit that routine.”
Kim: “I will support you if you hit that routine.” Your coach is telling you, “I will say something nice to you”/“I will pay attention to you if you do well.”
I began to project that same type of demand on God. For far too long, I believe, I lived like that; but the Lord in His grace and mercy just continued to speak to my heart—through Scripture, through others, through healthy relationships—to let me know: “Kim, I love you! There’s nothing you can do; there’s nothing that you’ve done to earn My love. I will never leave you nor forsake you. When you fail, I’m still here. When you fall off the beam, I’m still here.” That was not something that I had been used to.
Michelle: Right. You know, I was in my early twenties, and was listening to a sermon. The pastor said that 1 Peter 2: 9 should be our job description: “…to proclaim the excellences of Him who called you.” When I heard this sermon, I thought, “Okay, I’ve got to proclaim His excellences;but that means I need to be excellent.” I twisted it. Really, my definition of “excellent” was probably really flawed; because God is the only One who can be “excellent.”
There is someone, who is hearing our conversation and saying: “Yep! That’s me, too.” Kim, as a life coach—that’s part of your job—is to be a coach—can you coach us on how to fight this feeling and perfectionism?
Michelle: Help someone, who is struggling where I was, back in my twenties; and I’m still there in many ways.
Kim: Yes, yes. And it’s something that I wrestle with daily. I have to remind myself, “Hey, it’s okay to not be perfect.”
When I think about God, I think about that level of perfection—He’s perfect! There’s nothing about Him that is flawed; there’s nothing about Him that is wrong. That is something that is not attainable to us, as humans, in this earth suit/this body that we have.
But I want to say something that may sound contradictory to what you’re saying, but I think we’re meaning the same thing. I believe that God desires us to be excellent in what we do, but He’s not demanding that we be perfect—
Kim: —it’s unattainable.
Kim: By “excellent,” I mean: “Are you utilizing God’s gifts in a way that is glorifying to Him?” I think, in the verse that you mentioned, did you say “proclaim His excellence?”
Michelle: And that’s it! That’s what I twisted.
Michelle: It’s supposed to be proclaim His—
Kim: —His excellence.
Michelle: —and not proclaim mine through Him—but proclaim His.
Kim: Yes, and part of our job is to find out: “Okay, what are these gifts that God has given us? How does He want me to operate in these gifts?” Realize the fact that we are not going to operate in those gifts at this level of excellence that, perhaps, God desires for us, right away. We’re going to gradually grow in the grace of the Lord. He’s going to help us to develop those gifts/those strengths and the things that He desires us to do.
I think, if you’re wrestling with perfection, one of the things you can do is surround yourself with people, who do not demand perfection. Surround yourself with people, who are going to love you when you fail—those people when you blow it—
There was a time when I was on live television, covering the NBA. I was doing my opening stand-up; I went blank! What I needed to be able to do was to go back to a group of safe people and say, “Oh! I blew it on live television!” and have them say: “But you’re still loved! So you blew it that one time. Hey, let’s get back up; keep going.”
Kim: People who will support you, and who will say, “My love for you/my care for you is not based on your performance.”
The most successful people in life tend to be those who surround themselves with safe people, so that they’re able to take more risks; because, when you take a risk, you’re going to fail at some point; right?
Kim: You’re not always going to be successful; but when you have people in your court, who love you and who don’t base their relationship with you on your performance, it is very helpful in assisting you in overcoming perfectionism. For me, that was my mom; she was the one. She was my cheerleader; she would watch me go out there and try all these things, and she gave me permission to fail.
I went back home, and was with a group of my family members. I had just been inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame the night before, and my family gathered together the following day. It was that Tuesday before that I had had a memorial service for my mom. I wanted people to know about her. I wanted them to know that she was my cheerleader; she was that safe person for me.
During that time with my family, the very day after I was honored, I had a family member start talking about how horrible of a violinist I was as a child. I was looking/I looked at my husband. He was looking at me like, “Where’s this coming from?” It lasted for a long time! She used the word “horrible” thirty or so times; and she said, “But your mother stood up and applauded for you; and she said, ‘That’s my baby!’” That family member couldn’t understand why she was cheering me on, because I was horrible.
When I left that conversation, I was just like: “Lord, what was that about? I don’t understand!” The more I prayed about it—the more I realized that I don’t know the intention of that person, whether it was negative intention or not—but the Lord showed me that she had actually given me a gift; because she helped me to understand that, throughout my life, my mother never demanded perfection. All she wanted me to do was to try those things that I was interested in. Whether I failed or whether I succeeded, she stood to her feet and said, “That’s my baby!” That’s what God does for us every single time!
Michelle: Just as you were sharing about your mom, I kept thinking exactly what you just said, “That’s what God does for us.” He stands and He cheers, and He says: “That’s my child! That’s my baby! They failed this one time, but they’re not the next time”; or “They might fail again, but I still love them.”
Michelle: I think that’s what we need to always be thinking about and keeping in mind.
Kim: Yes; and He knows who He has created us to be. He knows that those steps of failure may be the very stair steps that we need to get to that place He wants us to be. He uses everything we do to help us grow if we allow Him to; right?
Michelle: Yes; Kim, thanks for sharing with us today.
Kim: Michelle, it’s been an honor.
Michelle: My conversation with Kim Anthony—oh!! She shared from her heart—the wealth of all that God has taught her over the last how many years that she has been this gymnast—and how she has come to the point where God is enough. It’s not about what she can do to perform and make those standards. It’s about God!
Just a reminder from Kim; as she said: “We should always have life in the proper balance. If you set impossible expectations on your life, maybe take some time and put some friends around you, who will encourage you to be you, and not have those unrealistic expectations of you. Take your expectations to the cross, and lay them down at the feet of Jesus. There is grace that you’ve never experienced, there at the foot of the cross: grace to cover those mistakes; grace to cover those unmet expectations and those failures. You’ll find grace there.
Hey, you’ve probably heard this old saying: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” So when life hands you something sour—like a family that falls apart or a hard health diagnosis—how are we supposed to find the positive side in that? Well, next week, we’re going to talk about struggling through the hard and difficult journeys of life, and just how to keep life in the proper balance, and to see God as our loving heavenly Father and as our ultimate Provider. I hope you can join us for that next week.
Hey, thanks for listening! I want to thank the president of FamilyLife®, David Robbins, along with our station partners around the country. A big “Thank you!” to our engineer today, Keith Lynch. Thanks to our producer, Marques Holt. Justin Adams is our mastering engineer, and Megan Martin is our production coordinator.
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