Obstacles Christian Coaches face

     In July of 2008, eight varsity football coaches at a high school in Raleigh, NC participated in a one-day coaching seminar hosted by “A COACHING REVOLUTION.” Our time together revealed some of the obstacles Christian coaches face as they attempt to incorporate their Christian beliefs into the coaching profession. What follows is a brief description of the obstacles that emerged and a few suggestions on how to overcome them.
     It’s important to note that during the seminar these coaches, many of whom for the first time were introduced to a set of biblical values and practices that specifically target the coaching community, were challenged to think about their role as a coach in an entirely different light. Following our time together, they were encouraged to contemplate what they had heard and then implement the values and practices we had discussed. It’s also important to note that following the seminar series ten weekly meetings were held with the head coach to discuss how these values and practices could best be instilled into the football program. The weekly meetings took place during the season and functioned as a time of review regarding the content of the seminar.
     Eight coaches participated in the seminar. Seven of the eight indicated beforehand that they were Christians. Interestingly, in conversations that took place during the one-day seminar, none of the seven coaches considered the connection between their Christian faith and coaching beforehand. This fact reflected an all too present reality in the coaching profession.
     The coaches indicated at the outset that they believed their Christian faith applied in some capacity to life, but that it was not necessarily applicable to the coaching profession. This particular understanding was consistent with what my previous research had uncovered. What was clear was that there was a disconnect between what this group of coaches believed (as Christians) and how they conducted themselves as coaches.
     Early on, in our time together, the participating coaches stated that they tended to compartmentalize their faith and as result separated their faith from the coaching experience. Though they agreed that football functions as a good venue for teaching life skills, few understood the spiritual connection that existed between what they believed, how they behaved and what they taught. As a result, this disconnect frequently disrupted the opportunities that had to teach life lessons in the midst of the athletic experience. 
     The pre-season surveys I conducted with the staff helped confirm this disconnect. One assistant coach stated on more than one occasion that certain character traits/behaviors (like sacrifice, commitment, teamwork, etc.) are stressed within the program, but only “in the context of athletics”. The failure to make the connection between the game of football and life resulted in a breakdown in the transfer of these “character-based” lessons. So though they desired to teach life lessons, they failed to convey them because they never fully connected what they taught outside of the athletic experience. 
     Of the fourteen character traits discussed during the seminar (love, patience, selflessness, humility, commitment, celebration, forgiveness, service, sacrifice, submission, encouragement, responsibility, unity and excellence) only those which the athletic culture identified as valuable were considered relevant in the minds of the coaches. So while every coach agreed that sacrifice and commitment were essential to their team’s success, traits like love, patience, humility, and forgiveness were considered irrelevant, primarily because the general athletic culture considered them irrelevant. The coaches believed these traits were inconsistent with what was required to be successful on the field. As a result they dismissed them.
     They admitted that their values reflected what the football culture valued, not what their faith embraced. Though every coach agreed that each of the fourteen traits had worth, in their minds only a few of the traits merited value for the game of football and were thus deemed relevant to the experience.
     What became clear, through both the training and our informal interaction, was a confirmation of what had been discovered in earlier research. Most coaches fail to connect their faith with their position as a coach. It became clear that the reason for this is the influence the culture has in what coaches believe (versus what the Christian faith teaches). Consequently, coaches (as a whole) frequently forfeit opportunities to use the sport to teach biblically-grounded character traits because they are influenced more by the culture than they are by their Christian calling.
     The research established that the primary reason for the absence of this “biblically-oriented” teaching was a lack of Scriptural knowledge. The eight coaches involved in the pilot program admitted that they were not very well versed in Scripture and as a result felt inadequate to incorporate biblical teaching into what they were doing as coaches. Their lack of knowledge proved to be THE primary obstacle. This absence of biblical knowledge proved to be the source for each accompanying issue.
     This lack of Scriptural knowledge resulted in a failure to understand, first and foremost, their Christian identity and subsequently their Christian calling. Having failed to establish themselves in a biblical understanding of identity directly impacted this group’s ability to apply biblical truth to their coaching experience. This absence created a significant gap between understanding and action. Their lack of knowledge was not unique, in fact, in many ways it reflects the state of the Christian community as a whole. In this case the result was a theologically, ill-prepared group of Christian coaches who were attempting to fill their role as coaches, but unfortunately found themselves functioning no differently than their non-Christian counterparts. 
     A second reason for this disconnect proved to be the culture’s overvaluation of performance. The power of influence can be seen in the subtleties the athletic culture emphasizes, where all ideals worth pursuing build toward this one, winning. It’s the one ideal that trumps all others. The research showed on both a national and local level that the culture’s focus on performance and competition dominated the philosophical approach of both Christian and non-Christian coaches alike. In fact, six of the eight coaches that were involved in the pilot program indicated that their primary goal as a coach for the 2008 football season was to win games. Winning in and of itself is not a bad goal, in fact in the competitive arena it’s an ideal worthy to pursue. Unfortunately the distortion of its importance has put a whole culture in the unenviable position of attempting to rightly understand where this goal ought to be placed on its scale of what’s “most important.”
     What this particular group of Christian coaches indicated was an unhealthy emphasis on outcome-oriented performance. Some of the coaches’ other responses from the survey reiterated their priority on performance. Unfortunately, they associated the concepts of purpose and success solely within the context of winning football games.
     A fourth reason for the disconnect between this group of Christian coaches’ beliefs and their role as coach was their concern for remaining politically correct. On more than one occasion the head coach indicated that any activity that included the team could not possess an overtly Christian emphasis, if so it threatened his employment. One of the assistant coaches, in expressing his concern over what others may misconstrue as “too righteous,” said, “I do not want to overstep my authority or pretend to be more emphatically moral than anyone else.” Yet two other assistant coaches, who professed to be Christians and who had admitted that they had issues with anger, saw little problem with yelling at and/or cursing at the players.
     The coaches were consistent in their concern for being pegged as “Christian” yet not overly troubled at expressing behavior that was admittedly destructive. In a real way, what the culture expected and accepted from football coaches (verbally abusive interactions included) was considered okay, while what the culture sought to protect the players from (anything deemed religious) was viewed as damaging and potentially dangerous.
     A fifth reason for the disconnect between the Christian coaches’ beliefs and their role as a coach was the history of the individual coach and their experience as both a player and coach. The coaches in the pilot program admitted that they coached the way they had been coached. So, if they had been verbally abused by a coach then they tended to replicate that same behavior. While one coach admitted he yelled at players the way he had been yelled at, another coached acknowledged his propensity to “have all the answers,” because he had been coached by a man who “knew it all.” He stated, “I always appear as if I know what’s going on. I have answers and confidence in all situations.” What he expressed was a perspective that unfortunately marks many in a coaching profession where dysfunction often reproduces dysfunction. The reality is, humans typically model the behaviors they have observed and it’s no different in the athletic community.
     A sixth reason for the disconnect between the Christian coaches’ beliefs and their role as coaches was the lack of biblically-oriented coaching examples. The previously mentioned “reason” and this one go hand in hand. None of the coaches involved in the seminar were able to recall a single coach who promoted or employed a philosophy that was not performance-oriented. They admitted that they had neither experienced nor seen biblical values or practices in action on the field. They stated that the concept of biblically-based coaching was something they had never even considered, despite the fact that they professed to be followers of Christ.
     Fortunately the men that participated in the study were open to the idea of incorporating biblical values and practices into their coaching. As the season progressed the head coach admitted that he had seen an improvement, not only in his approach, but in the approach of his assistants as well. In fact, following a difficult loss to their cross-town rival, a game in which they surrendered a fourth quarter lead, the head coach took time to gather players from both teams after the game had concluded to pray and thank God for the evening they had experienced together. The athletic director of the cross-town rival later said that it was one of the highlights of the year for him. He was thrilled to see the head coach of the losing team helping lead the way, despite the circumstances.
     So where do we go from here. Let’s remember this is just a snap-shot, but it’s one that provides an interesting picture of where the Christian coaching community stands.
     How do we begin to address the issues presented? Well, further education is a must and admittedly a seminar is just the first step in this process of change. What I can say is that this particular experience proved to be an eye-opening one. I can also affirm that for the first time, we all understood how far we were from realizing the full impact a coach could make, both now and into the future. We all came away from our time together saying this, “Christian coaches have a much bigger role in athletics than just winning games. Our job is much more than that.”
     The future impact we make will depend largely on how we grow both spiritually and professionally. Growth and development will be a leading indicator of how effective we will be as leaders, mentors and coaches in the future. I’m convinced that if Christian coaches will choose to think biblically and arm themselves practically they will find themselves in a position to be used by God to help fulfill His eternal agenda.

Steven D Wright, DMin