Why Incarnational Coaching Exists
Updated: May 16, 2020
I've been in the Christian school environment for much of my life. I've dabbled elsewhere, but my formation -- as human being, coach, and teacher -- all took place in that setting. For me, it has been a blessing; it is a world I understand. Its flaws and fruit are clearly discernible. Through the grace of God, I have been able to choose this world, and in doing so, I have realized the need to embrace both the light and the shadow side of it.
As I began to dream up Incarnational Coaching, the totality of my experience began to crystallize, and I began to see areas where God was so gracious in using me and my gifts for the glory of Him and the edification of his people. I also began to see where I failed -- where I didn't measure up to the sacred call of developing the hearts, minds, and loves of my students within the context of athletics. I've also seen how my fellow coaches embodied this Incarnational Coaching and when they haven't. All of this has been instructive for me as have put together the resources and structures that I have here at IC.
Below is a litany of observations -- areas where I succeeded and areas where I failed in being an Incarnational Coach. But in each of these things, the end is for athletes to grow in the knowledge and grace of Christ through the cultures and experiences built for them on on our teams, and I have been blessed to have seen these things positively in action.
What amazed me as a coach was when these items were realized, emphasized, and massaged into existence, our teams and athletic departments were successful. Sometimes that success lead to district or state championships. Sometimes it didn't. Yet, those who bought into it grew athletically, spiritually, emotionally, and relationally because of the Incarnational Culture that was formed. Most importantly, their lives were forever changed.
Christian schools have a unique call that is set a part from public schools -- to educate the heart, minds, and souls of their athletes and students.
Christian schools struggle to find coaches because of this call. Many are part-time staff members who coach but work off-campus. They are unfamiliar with the unique call of the school and need guidance on how to coach in this setting.
The culture in private schools is oftentimes different than other settings -- whether it be public schools or club environments. The desires and motivations of the athletes and the expectations of the parents can differ -- even when the stated expectation sounds like other environments. The vast majority of athletes and parents are not looking to play beyond high school. While they want to win, at their core, they want a memorable experience where they feel loved and poured into; they want to encounter the love of Christ in the culture you build. This does not water down anything a coach does because once athletes sense this care from them, they will run through walls for the coach and their teammates. Yet, coaches sometimes immediately expect athletes to desire what they desire, and it can cause frustration. Therefore, coaches need to be trained on the culture they are stepping into because, if their methodology and expectations differ from the expectations of the culture, then there can be trouble -- for the coach, the school, and the athletes.
It is human nature to parcel out our identities. Our faith and relationship with God is in one box while our job, hobbies, etc. are in other boxes. In reality, though, our call in following Jesus should centralize our faith in the midst of all the different things we participate in, and it should emanate into every sphere of our lives. The odd thing about this in relation to coaching is that the very nature of sports can seem contradictory to the words and life of Jesus. The violence, the competition, the rivalry don't seem to correlate with the thing that guides our lives. This perceived gap between our loves leads to the functional division of our lives between sport and God. But, this is merely a false dichotomy -- one constructed by subtle false narratives. All of this causes coaches who, on occasion, develop their programs and players in ways that are antithetical to the gospel when in reality, leaning into the gospel will help them achieve the goals they truly desire for their athletes.
If you were to ask a coach about what he or she desires for his or her athletes in a Christian school, you will most likely hear answers in line with the mission of the institution they serve and the call Christ has on their lives. But, they don't always know how to do this practically, or they don't see the value of pursuing this directly when it seems as if the bottom line -- winning -- may be negatively affected. There needs to be a new imagination given to coaches in the Christian school context that when cultures are built around with-ness, success is achieved in a myriad of ways -- practical (wins), spiritual, emotional, and relational.
Kids see right through inauthenticity. Coaches who do not know who they are in Christ, coaches who strive to be like others instead of themselves, coaches who only know how to coach like they were coached, are eaten alive by their athletes and parents. Coaches need encouragement, guidance, and support in helping them understand who they are at their best, and who God has made them to be -- all within the context of their relationship with God.
My prayer for us is to see that at the heart of these observations is the need for us, as coaches and athletic directors, to seek relationship and with-ness with our athletes, and that this with-ness may force us to re-imagine how we interact with the people we are called to shepherd. At the end of the day, if we show them that we care, if we focus on developing the talent and hearts of our athletes, if we are competent in our craft, and if we are true to who God has made us to be, they will respond. They will follow you, and they will follow each other, wherever you feel like God is calling them to go!