Ice Cream and the Image of God: Coaching with the End in Mind
Updated: Jan 4
You will hear us at Incarnational Coaching talk a lot about “coaching with the end in mind.” Another word for “end” we may throw around is “telos” which just simply means the ultimate end or aim of our actions, our vocation, our life.
Whether we can articulate what it is or not, we all have an end -- a telos -- we are pursuing in our personal and professional lives. We are being drawn toward something that we believe is good. Sometimes our teleological pursuits lead to our flourishing; sometimes it doesn’t.
The telos that an Incarnational Coach always has in mind is this: what sort of team must I build, so my athletes are formed into the image of God?
I want to clarify something that took me a while as a coach -- and as a human being -- to learn. To be formed in the image of God doesn’t mean that you only do “spiritual” things like reading the bible, praying, going to church, being in community, etc. Those are all things followers of Jesus should do because they bring us closer to the heart of God, but God’s character -- the one we are to live out as an image bearer of Him -- is burning all around us and within us.
I love what one of my favorite authors, Marilynne Robinson, says through the pastor in her novel, Gilead:
“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance...Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”
Only, who can have the courage to see the image of God burning all around us? Within us?
We think our goal as coaches is to help our athletes see the world that is transfigured all around them and within them.
When I was a coach for a varsity girls’ soccer team a few years ago, I got to be a part of one of the best teams I had ever coached or played on. They loved each other; they served each other; they had fun; and they were good at soccer. The gray ember of creation shined in and through their lives -- in how they played, led, and loved. It was a joy to be their coach.
Yet, while they did so many things well, there was one area they really needed to grow: competing. They needed to learn how to compete against each other in practice, and they really needed to learn how to compete against all of their competition -- whether they were the best or worst team in the district.
In order to help them in the area of competition, we decided to merge the JV and Varsity teams and break them into 8 different “families.” Each family was led by a senior, and we gave the seniors freedom -- with our supervision and incessant, guiding questions -- to choose who would be in their families.
During practice, we would compete in different games. Some of them related to soccer; some of them not. We gave points to the teams that won each event and kept track of it, and after a few weeks, whichever team had the most post points were given an ice cream party after practice.
Before these competition drills, the girls really struggled to give their best against their teammates. Not because they didn’t want to give their best, but it seemed as if they were hesitant to do so because they loved their teammates so much. They didn’t want to hurt them or bring them any shame. But, these drills that took very little time out of practice instilled in them what it means to truly compete.
Similarly, when we would play teams that were weaker than our own, we would coerce them to compete without them knowing it. If they would score a goal in the first 5 minutes, they would get ice cream (this group of girls LOVED ice cream). If they scored 4 goals in the first half and did not give up any goals, they would get toppings for their ice cream. At first, they would be frantic and out of control on the field trying to reach their goal, but after doing this a few times, they began to be composed, realizing a cool heart and head will be the thing that allows them to enjoy the cookies and cream that was to follow.
Now, what does this have to do with the image of God -- our telos as Incarnational Coaches? How does increasing the competitive drive of your athletes reflect the God we are to follow?
In Luke 15, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep in response to the religious leaders who were appalled that he dined at the table with sinners and tax collectors. This beautiful story shows a God who competes -- not for Himself but for us. When one of the sheep from his flock gets separated from the fold, the shepherd leaves the flock to go find the one lost sheep. He searches until he finds it, and when he does, he rejoices.
In the story, we are all lost sheep. He searches us out until He finds us. He competes for our hearts, our souls, and our lives. This is the abundant mercy and grace of our Lord.
When an athlete(s) chooses not to compete in practice or in a game, the effect is not only on their own development as a player. His or her lack of drive impacts the entire team. They are a shepherd who chooses not to compete for the lost sheep but instead sticks to the easy and contented life of managing a flock who gives him or her no trouble.
To learn how to compete as Jesus competed for us will spark in them another aspect of what it means to reflect the image of God. This competition they learn needs to be framed in the sacrificial love of the shepherd -- that they compete for each other and the team and not for themselves. As you all know, it will also make the team better.
As you go throughout your week, consider the following:
What is the end, the telos, of your coaching? What would your athletes say it is?
When you are considering how to form your athletes in the image of God, what are the parts of His image they already reflect? What are they lacking? Think broadly as we did with the story about competing. In other words, what is the quality of a good team that they need to grow into, and how does it reflect the character of God?
Lastly, how can you help them live out the image of God better this coming season?