I came across an incredible quote a few days ago while scrolling through Twitter. The quote was from current Detroit Lion’s head coach, Jim Caldwell.
“The more you know about them, the better you can serve them. I’ve always believed coaching is a service business.”
"I want to grow as a servant-coach!"
I love that. I love that, despite a desire to win, coach Caldwell sees his primary role within his position as a calling to serve the people he has been entrusted with. What if all Christian coaches had a similar philosophy?
Let’s back up for a minute.
Listen, I know how hard it is for coaches. Before becoming a campus minister, I spent two and a half years as a volunteer coach at a Big Ten school. I saw first hand the struggles that coaches face. Their jobs often depend on boys and girls (notice I did not say men and women) between the ages of 18-22. If those individuals’ execution during competition does not result in a W, the coach’s job is on the line.
Most fans do not care about player development. They want to see their team succeed, year in and year out. When that does not happen, the coach gets the boot. This is especially prevalent at the collegiate level because you can’t fire the student-athletes! I can empathize with the coach whose default emotion when things do not his or her way is anger.
Despite this harsh reality, the Biblical mandate for Christians to love God and love others stretches across every profession—including coaching. This can be a scary. Oftentimes, replacing our way of doing this with God’s can force us to make radical changes. What I am about to suggest, however, will be a major perspective shift that will only take a few minor adjustments.
How can a Christian coach serve the players he or she is coaching without completely shifting their existing coaching philosophy?
Pray for them
How often do you pray for your players? Seriously, how many times—since they have been under your care—have you asked for things on their behalf before the Lord?
Here is a practical way you can incorporate this rhythm into your schedule as a coach. Get some note cards and write the names of your all your athletes on them. One name per card. Put them somewhere you will see them. Flip through the cards once or twice a day and make a commitment to pray for one of them every time you shuffle through.
Check in with them
How are you supposed to know what to pray for them? Great question! You need to know—at least at some level—what is going on in their lives so it will require you to talk to them about life beyond sport. These conversations are most effective outside of practice and within the confines of your office.
Don’t get overwhelmed by this! You do not need to meet with every athlete of yours in the next week. Schedule a 30-minute slot with each of them over the next month or two where they can meet up with you.
When he first joined the Lions, Caldwell took the players out to dinner by position groups and peppered each player with questions. From what their favorite books and movies were to other questions about them as people. He wanted to know them. So he could serve them better.
Coach, get to know your athletes. After they leave, write what they said on their note card so you can pray for them for effectively.
I still remembered our conference championship race my junior year in college. With about a mile to go in the race, I was fading—fast. Passing through a crowd of close to a hundred fans on either side I can still hear my coach’s voice above the rest.
“Brian! You’re. Killing. Us.”
To be fair, I was. It was not one of my better races and I don’t fault my coach for pointing that out to me during the race. The issue is that he critiqued more than he affirmed. Each critique, while helpful, is often experienced as a debit. There is a cost associated with it. The more debits (critiques) you give as a coach, the harder it is for an athlete to receive them.
The solution to this is the God-given gift of affirmation, the ability to find something good that someone is doing—or did—and to let them know about it. This means watching for what they are doing well and taking the time to tell them.
Words of affirmation are credits into the relational bank account of your athlete. Use them often. When it’s time to offer a timely critique, you won’t run the risk of over-drafting from their account.
This needs to be clear: By coaching them to get better, you are actively serving them. So coach!
Become excellent at finding your athlete's strengths and leveraging them in competition. Grow in your ability to help each athlete move from where they are to where you want them to be. Maybe you are already doing this. If you are, keep it up.
But let’s press a little further: Why are you doing it? Are you becoming or desiring to become a top level coach because you are motivated by serving your players?
During my brief stint as a volunteer coach I remember an ungodly motivation creeping to the service—the need to be admired and seen as great. It was very easy for my identity to become tied to how the athletes performed.
Ultimately, God is after our hearts. Coach your players with excellence. Pray for a motivation to coach them out of service to them, not yourself.
Let them know their value is not dependent on their performance
Just like your value before God is not determined by the win and losses, your athletes need to understand that their value to you is not dependent on that either. This can be tricky. Obviously, at some level, their value in regards to the amount of playing time they get or the amount of attention they receive is dependent on their ability and willingness to get better.
But they need to understand that their value to the team and their value as an individual are two separate categories.
And they need to hear that from you, Coach!
This starts when you are recruiting your athletes and ends when they have played their last game. What they need to hear from you, consistently, is some variation of this: “I am in your corner. I am for you. As your coach, I want you to develop athletically and as an individual. I care about who you are and who you are becoming. When I give corrective feedback or seem upset, hear what I am saying against the backdrop of knowing that I always want what is best for you.”
Advocate on behalf of campus ministries and the local church
Can I take some weight off your shoulders for a minute? Your athlete's development as a human being is not primarily dependent on you. It’s ok to take a deep breath and rest from that burden.
While you do have an opportunity to have a significant impact on them, your role is to serve them through coaching. There are limitations within your profession that make it impossible for you to be their primary agent of growth. You do, however, have a unique position of authority to point them towards the local church and relevant campus ministries.
You serve them by speaking highly of and pointing them towards organizations whose sole purpose is to serve the spiritual side of their life, an often undernourished aspect of their being.
As a campus minister, I often have the chance to get in front of different teams and explain to them who we are and what we do with Athletes in Action. We have had coaches who support what we do, some who tolerate what we do, and a few that are against what we do.
Those who support us usually say something like this: “Hey team, a couple friends of mine from Athletes in Action are here to share with you all about what they do. This group is a tremendous resource for you. I would not have them here if I didn’t believe that. Hopefully, you know that I care about each of you as an individual. This group is dedicated to helping you grow beyond the arena of sports. Please give them your attention, respect, and give serious thought to getting involved with them.”
Walk the talk
Perhaps an overlooked aspect of serving your team comes from how you carry yourself on a daily basis. Yes, what you say matters, but your players will also be impacted by the integrity of your character throughout their time on your team.
In an interview from 2014, coach Caldwell said, "You could walk into my parents' home right now and you would not see a bunch of Bibles — though you may find one — or a bunch of signs of them professing their faith. But if you're around them for 30 minutes, you'll get a sense of their character and deep faith. From them, I learned to live my life by example and not to just talk about it."
Coach, you serve your team well when the words you speak are consistently backed up by your actions on and off the field. Many of your athletes have no idea who Jesus is. Hopefully, after their time on your team, they will better understand him through watching you.