This story appears in FCA Magazine’s July/August 2016 issue.
“But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me.”
- 2 Corinthians 12:9
Christa Dietzen breathes in slowly, holding the air in her lungs before expelling fear and anxiety from her body and mind. The middle for USA Volleyball steps off the court before quickly crossing back and realigning her focus. God is welcomed to play beside her—or through her—as she sets her heart on His strength to calm the storm within.
It’s been an unyielding journey to combat the crippling performance anxiety that came in trying to master the art of serving. It’s a completely necessary skill for a world-class volleyball player, but it’s one that didn’t come easy for Dietzen. However, it ultimately led to a deeper relationship with and trust in God.
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Volleyball has been embedded in Dietzen’s DNA since seventh grade. It brought her to the USA Volleyball High Performance pipeline and the upper echelons of junior volleyball in high school. It then swept her to Penn State, where the All-American was a member of back-to-back national championship squads in 2007 and 2008. A year later, she moved to southern California to train with the U.S. National Team.
Making the ridiculously competitive 12-spot Olympic competition roster required proficiency in three main areas: high-efficiency attacking, reading international setters (to block well), and a good serve.
The first two had always come relatively easy for Dietzen, but she stalled on the third. Eight other middles—many with better serves—were breathing down her neck, fighting for available roster spots (only three for the Olympic Games).
Worry clouded Dietzen’s brain, and stress built as coaches evaluated her daily. She still couldn’t figure out her serve. As the errors built up, her identity became entangled with performance, leading to a complete mental disconnect and isolation in her spiritual life.
“I didn’t really understand what a relationship with God looked like,” she said. “I didn’t understand why I would let God into volleyball.”
For Dietzen, God was church on Sundays, being a good person, strong family values, all that “stuff.” When she met FCA Volleyball Director Daniel Rich in 2009 and he invited her to help with an FCA Camp, she was eager to spend time with young athletes teaching them skills of the game.
"I couldn’t explain anything about the Olympics or my entire career without including God." -Christa Dietzen
Instructing young volleyball players was one thing, but performing before the eyes of her scrutinizing coaches was another. As she struggled to find the rhythm of a good serve over the following year, her performance anxiety worsened. She struggled to fight through but remained paralyzed by her inability.
Soon, in the summer of 2010, Dietzen hit her breaking point. Right around that time, she volunteered at an FCA Night of Champions event, where the Spirit prodded her to open the door of her heart. It was there, with a few close friends nearby, that Dietzen began the journey to bring Christ into every aspect of life—including the anxiety about her serve.
What Dietzen wanted—a “quick fix” to solve her woes—isn’t typically how the Spirit works, and God wanted something deeper. The serving miseries got so bad that Dietzen considered quitting, wondering whether she was even in the right place since the pressure about her shortcomings was sapping her enjoyment of the sport she had always loved. But God dived deep into that performance anxiety and gave her the grace to get through. He wanted a new heart and a new mind. He wanted to teach His child about patience. Dietzen determined to keep God close and let Him move in those nervous moments.
Finally, in September 2011, she tried a new serving method. The jump float—a technique she had tried before with only mild success—fluttered naturally from her hand. It was a big turning point as God gave a long-awaited respite to her search, and Dietzen began to understand what it meant to bring Him into practices and games. She fused God’s strength into her weakness and continued to work all winter, taking a newfound tenacity to Europe for international training and competition.
Arriving back in the States in May 2012, a mere year later, Dietzen was a different person. Confident in her relationship with God and allowing Him to substitute tranquility for jitters, she kept plugging away, made the Olympic roster, and eventually earned a starting spot on the squad bound for London.
“It was amazing because I always thought volleyball and God were separate,” she said. “But I couldn’t explain anything about the Olympics or my entire career without including God. I would not have made that Olympic team without Him.”
Olympic competition, especially for first-timers, can be awe-inspiring and intimidating at the same time, but Dietzen’s revived mindset allowed her to remember it was simply another volleyball tournament.
“That moment walking out as Team USA was extremely special,” she said. “You’re not just representing yourself, you’re representing your family, your hometown, your country, and all the people who played a part on your journey to get on the Olympic stage.”
Helping lead the team to the silver medal in London, Dietzen is back as a team captain on the cusp of Rio 2016. This time around, she and other veterans on the team are redefining the team culture, putting one another first and tightening team dynamics.
The last four years have continued to forge and refine her character. She married Derek Dietzen in 2014. After much thought and prayer, she took a six-month professional season off to build a strong foundation for their marriage and rehab from a knee injury.
Knee injuries (three requiring surgery in her career) have taught her to surrender control to her timing and desires, leaving room for God to work.
“You learn a lot about yourself and how much you really do try to control things,” she said. “When I didn’t want to walk through the gym door to practice because I was so afraid to fail again, what kept me going in those moments was the belief that God has something bigger in mind.
“He was building my character and drawing me closer to Him.”
Derek has witnessed his wife’s perspective and trust in the Lord grow and develop over time.
“She knows God’s brought her this far,” he said. “As long as she continues to trust and hear His voice and listen, He’ll get her through it. That doesn’t mean it necessarily fits our picture of ‘good,’ but it ultimately works in our favor and brings glory to Him.”
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The Team USA captain is hardworking yet humble, and she can laugh just as easily as she can smash a volleyball over the net. God’s gifted her with unique talents for volleyball, but part of Dietzen’s confidence comes in acknowledging that while this sport is what she’s known for, there is more to her life.
“She loves competing at the highest level and wants that gold medal more than anything from a career standpoint,” Derek said. “But at the same time, she’s a loving sister and wife, a God-fearing woman who likes building Legos with her nephews, and truly cares about growing the game of volleyball.”
Christa and Derek Dietzen
It’s a continuous process, and while Dietzen still experiences bouts of performance anxiety, she’s found a sweet spot in her position as God’s own, something Rich noticed first meeting her back in 2009.
“Her life and her success flow out of her identity as a daughter,” he said. “She is the boldest and most joyful when she sees she’s a daughter of the King, and you see God use her the most whenever she is trusting and recognizing her identity.”
Over and over again, Dietzen comes back to God’s gentle yet reliable grasp.
“He’s shown me how trustworthy and faithful He is, how clear He’s been, and the deeper growth that is happening,” she said.
Being open about her struggles makes Dietzen a great role model for young girls, but she’s quick to admit it’s taken a lot of patience and surrender to constantly keep God in her mind during play. To boast in God’s transformation has brought new energy not only to her serve game, but to her heart.
Rich, a traveling companion on her faith journey, hopes that when Dietzen’s finished with her volleyball career, she continues to use her influence in the sports world.
“I really hope Christa turns into a coach or comes on staff with FCA, because we need more [people like her] to see the Kingdom grow,” he said.
With Rio right around the corner, Dietzen’s at the helm of Team USA. Could she still bout with uneasiness in Brazil? Potentially. But she’s not worried. Another breath of truth in, another fear pushed out. God’s got her gripped in grace.
“Freedom lies in me relying on God during those anxious moments,” she said.
Photos courtesy of Christa Dietzen