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Authenticity: Tenant #1 of Incarnational Coaching

Updated: May 19, 2020

At Incarnational Coaching we believe there are 3 primary tenants that guide us all as coaches: authenticity, with-ness, and freedom.


Over the next few days, we are going to flesh out these 3 tenants for you, so you can understand a bit more about who we are and what God has called us to share with other coaches.


Today, authenticity…


During this quarantine, I have been watching the recently released documentary about the '90s Chicago Bulls titled, The Last Dance. The film focuses on the 1998 Bulls when they are on their quest to win their 6th championship. Spliced in between the chronicling of that season are moments, scenes, and stories – generally related to Michael Jordan – going all the way back to the mid ‘80s. There are a handful of nuggets we could discuss related to being Incarnational Coach, but the one that caught my eye was maybe the one that made us as coaches the most uncomfortable.


Each episode generally zeroes in on one person who was intimately involved in the Bulls teams from that era. You get to know a bit more about the lives and backgrounds of Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, and General Manager, Jerry Krause. You also get to see and hear from the coach of those legendary teams – Phil Jackson.


Episode 4 dives into the philosophy of coach Jackson – both on and off the court. What struck me more than anything else were the opening minutes where the film makers weave together the relationship between Jackson and his star defender, Dennis Rodman, and the worldview that guides Jackson’s life.


As a student and observer of Native American histories and traditions, Jackson litters his office with indigenous artifacts. Rodman comes into the office one day, notices it all, and proceeds to pull out a necklace from the Ponca Indians. Jackson sees a moment to connect with his player who is considered an outcast by many. As common with the tradition of many Native Americans, Jackson gives Rodman a name based on his eccentric personality – the name that is applied to people like him within the Ponca tradition: backward walking person.


Rodman goes on to talk about Jackson as if he was a father figure. He believes that Jackson sees him, understands him. Because of this bond formed over the indigenous artifacts, what does Rodman do? Nearly anything that Jackson asks of him. There is this reciprocal bond between the two of them based upon a common system of beliefs. These beliefs not only resonate with Rodman, but they are also embodied by Jackson. The embodiment of them connects both coach and player.


As coaches, and as Christian coaches, we may be reading this with a cocked head and a confused look – either because we are uncomfortable with Jackson’s beliefs OR because we just can’t believe that he would root his basketball culture, and the choices he makes to build it, around Native American traditions.


While his content may cause us to dismiss him, his method shouldn’t.


Jackson was authentically himself. He didn’t hide the parts of him that seemed embarrassing considering his context; he didn’t shield his beliefs thinking they would make him lack credibility. Instead, he instilled his true self and deeply held beliefs into the culture of the team. In doing so, he eventually led his teams to 11 NBA championships and even more importantly, provided a safe place for a “backward walking person” to flourish.


My favorite educator, Parker Palmer, states in his fantastic book, The Courage to Teach, that…


…we teach who we are. Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together.

The same applies for coaching. Whoever we are – in our very souls – this will be offered to our teams and our athletes.


Who are we as Christian coaches? If we project ourselves to our athletes, then what should we be projecting?


1. We are loved by a gracious God.


Our goodness is the goodness He gave us through his Holy Spirit. No championships we can win; no jobs we can obtain; no accolades we can receive can change the way God views us. The unmerited love of God is the primary thing we desire to project to our athletes. When we can remember this and know it, our athletes will catch a glimpse of His goodness through our lives and hopefully be transformed.


2. God has made you in his very image.


You have qualities, gifts, and desires that God himself has. You living into them allows you to be who you are truly meant to be. It also frees your athletes to do the same.


3. He has made us all different.


Your gifts are different from mine. Your loves are different from mine. These gifts and loves are the make-up of the soul that you have been given by God. When we embrace them all – the ones we love, the ones we think fit in the context of athletics AND the ones we don’t think fit – we are living into that “positive inwardness” Palmer hints at above. This is what Phil Jackson did by bringing in Native American traditions and yoga to an NBA team. Jackson knew certain practices brought him life, so he wanted to give that same life to his athletes. Can you imagine if we did the same in our team with the savior of the world? What sort of impact would we have?

4. Lastly, accepting these God-given gifts and instilling them in your cultures allow for your athletes to see your true self. In seeing who you actually are – the good, bad, and weird – they will trust you. They will follow you. They will go with you wherever you want to go. Similarly, they will model your behavior, and you will learn who they truly are. Relationships will be built on authenticity and trust, empathy will be formed, and the Holy Spirit will be working in ways you would have never imagined possible.


And who knows? Maybe you will win 11 NBA championships!


As you think about your authenticity and how it intersects with you as a coach, reflect upon the following questions:


1. Who do you believe you are in Christ?

2. If we coach who we are, who are you currently? What then are you currently giving to your athletes? Staff? Department? What do you want to give them?

3. What gifts do you have that you are offering your athletes? What gifts are you hiding from your athletes -- even though you know God uses them in your own life for your good and His glory?

4. What do you want to instill in your culture from your own life that you have been hiding? What would that look like? What sort of impact would it have on your team culture and the lives of your athletes?

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