Readers Note: This article was first published in April 2020
Lessons That Last A Lifetime
Coaches—they can be inspiring, irritating, and impossible to please as they leave an indelible mark on our hearts. Why is it that the words of a coach have such a lasting impact? It is probably impossible to explain all the aspects, but there are several priorities in the Bible that are reflected in the actions of a coach.
God Is A Coach
Coaches guide their players to function at a higher level than they would if they simply operated on their own.
During the Exodus, “By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.” (Exodus 13:21). This is an amazing feat in the days before light bulbs. King David described God as one who “guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.” (Psalm 25:9).
Jesus demonstrated the priority of being a coach who guides His people when He said to His disciples, “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.” (John 16:13) In a practical sense, Jesus described the Holy Spirit as an “assistant coach” who helps us carry out the Creator’s game plan.
Life Is Competitive And Coaches Teach Us How To Be Winners
At times the apostle Paul was relaxed as he encouraged people to rest in their faith and forgiveness. At other times, however, he was profoundly aware that life is an intense competition that must be won.
Paul told a collection of teammates in Philippi, “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.” (Philippians 3:13-14) To the believers in Corinth who had grasped their freedom in Christ, he challenged them to remember, “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.” (1 Corinthians 9:24)
The writer of Hebrews describes our lives as a race that was run by others before us who are now cheering us on. “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
Coaches help us identify “our race” and the skills that will help us “run with endurance.”
Life Is A Team Sport
Coaches coordinate the actions of each member so the team can function efficiently. Coaches develop skills and stamina. Coaches assign positions based on abilities. Coaches lay out game plans so a team of athletes can operate as one. This is a reflection of God’s plan for the church.
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:5-7)
In other words, we are all one team and our coach has assigned us positions so we operate better together. I had the privilege of participating in a training project with John Wooden, the renowned coach of the UCLA Bruins. He was a quiet man who was significantly shorter than the men he directed. His presence, however, was larger than everyone in the room.
In the short amount of time I spent with him, I was exposed to the fact that great accomplishments are made up of a lot of little steps. Before he would teach us how to play basketball, he made sure we had the proper socks, our shoes were tied correctly, and we had warmed up effectively. We weren’t even allowed on the court until these “details” were right.
He summed it up with the words, “You can’t be great at a complex feat like an athletic competition if you aren’t first great at the preparation it takes to arrive at the game.”
Even today, when I have to exercise self-discipline to have regular devotions, develop a private prayer life, serve my wife and kids, as well as address all the little details it takes to run a church or business, I find motivation in the fact that coach Wooden would be proud.
Many of you have this same impact on others. You are a coach, and others look up to you. They gain confidence from your presence and evaluate decisions based on their experience with you. Your inspirational words, instructive guidance, and intense example form a constant influence that helps them be a better version of themselves.
I would venture to say that all of you can credit your success in some important aspect of your life to the impact of a coach. Find time to say, “thank you,” to him, and describe the way your life has been improved by his dedication. If you aren’t able to connect with this coach, thank God for putting him in your life at just the right time to make you a better competitor in the game of life.
Where Would I Be Without My Coach?
I asked a group of men recently, “What has another man said to you that had such an impact you’ve never forgotten it?” The responses amazed me at the theme they shared in common:
A coach in high school told me, “Hard work won’t take the place of your talent, but you will never enjoy the fullness of your talent if you are not willing to work hard.” I am sure my parents told me that my whole life, but it didn’t stick until my coach said it.
My fifth-grade teacher, who also coached college basketball prospects, said to me, “You have an unusual ability to focus as a fifth-grader. If you keep developing that ability, you are going to go far in life.” Until then, I wasn’t very confident. His words caused me to look at myself differently.
Don’t Be Afraid
My high school football coach told this to our team, but it felt like he was speaking directly at me. “Play free, men. Our coaching staff has chosen you for your position because we believe it is where you can make the biggest contribution. We believe in you and have you where we want you. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Just play fast, play hard, and trust your training.” I have sought to “play free” ever since.
Don’t Be Mediocre
Wow, my football coach gave a similar speech, but it was a little more raw: “Men, be good at what you do, or be bad at it. Just don’t be mediocre!” We all laughed, but it hit me at a place deep within. I knew I had just heard the theme of the rest of my life.
Compete Every Day
Finding glory in my own imperfection was energized by my coach, who used to say over and over, “It’s the way you play the day you play.” He taught me that I am going to be spectacular on some days and very average on other days, but I need to compete every day. When I have a bad day, I have learned to look forward because tomorrow may just be my best performance.