Thursday, July 30, 2009

Coaching Staff Transitions

Through my fourteen years of service as a sport chaplain with college football, basketball, volleyball, baseball and other teams, I’ve endured several staff transitions. Some were due to resignations to take new opportunities and some due to firings. Either way, they’re not easy do deal with for the staff or the chaplain. Below are some simple thoughts on how to make the transition and to maintain your relationship with the new coaching staff, the support staff and the players.

Related to the outgoing staff:
· If the staff was fired, understand that this feels like failure and a lot like death to them.
· Help the coaches to see this situation within the sovereignty of God. The Lord is not surprised by this.
· Understand that the transition is probably harder on the coach’s family than on the coach.
· Be available to them. They may not want much company, but if they welcome your presence, be there.
· Be prepared for the termination of some relationships. Some relationships will live beyond their tenure with your team, but others will cut off all ties to this place and you could be cut off as well.
· Communicate respect and thankfulness for their time with your team as well as hope for their future.
· Assure them of your prayers and availability to serve.
· Written communication is very good and can be an enduring encouragement to them. Send a card, an email and/or periodic text messages to stay in touch with them.

Related to the incoming staff:
· Pray for favor with the athletic administration and the new head coach.
· When a new head coach is announced, send a letter of congratulations immediately (keep it to one page).
· When the coach is settled into the office, get an appointment to welcome him/her and to offer your assistance.
· Bring a gift (a book) that is reflective of your desired relationship with the coaching staff and team.
· A wise attitude is reflected in offering to do, “as much or as little as the head coach believes appropriate.”
· When discussing a role with the team one can reference his/her role with past coaching staffs, but don’t lock into those methods or activities exclusively.
· Let the coach paint the parameters for your role and work to build trust and credibility from there.
· It is always wise to offer to serve with no strings attached. Guard your attitude from presumption.
· Come prepared to discern the coach’s perception of his/her, the staff and the team’s needs.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


What is it that most frustrates you when you compete? Is it when you fail to accomplish what you had expected? Is it when your teammates fail to hold up their end of the competition? Maybe it’s when your expectations exceed your abilities? It’s easy for people to say; “Don’t be frustrated,” but we who play our hearts out don’t find that so easy.

In my life of competition, I have found that my frustration is normally found in the situations where my expectations don’t match the results realized. For years I expected our football team to win championships, but we were mired in mediocrity. We finished 1 and 10 a couple of times. We were 3 and 8 several times and 5 and 6 twice before breaking through into success. I was constantly frustrated in those early years as my expectations were consistently unmet.

This frustration left me with a set of hard decisions to make. Should I continue in the same way and endure constant frustration? Should I lower my expectations and feel the internal betrayal I would have perceived toward our players and coaches? Should I find some other way to deal with this pain gnawing at my soul?

This process was neither easy nor quick. My commitment to the team would not allow me to expect any less from them than I ever had. I decided to take a lesson from them and to adopt their approach to goal setting. Rather than hanging all my expectations (and attitude) on the ultimate result (final record), I went with them in setting a number of goals which built toward an ultimate goal – a championship.

This approach allowed me to find joy and satisfaction in the incremental achievements which continually progressed toward the season’s summation. I could rejoice in each game’s successes and still feel the sting of each one’s failures. I found I could walk with them through the season fully engaged in each game, win or lose, with equal passion and commitment.

As you prepare to play your heart out this season, give some time to setting incremental goals which each one build toward the apex of being a champion. Allow the daily successes and failures to shape you into the competitor, coach or team which you have envisioned. Such planning and goal setting shapes one’s expectations and can keep the paralyzing effects of frustration at bay.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Coach Tuke

“Who’s speaking at chapel tomorrow?” That was the pivotal question in my relationship with Coach Tom Matukewicz of Southern Illinois University. We were walking off the football field after a Friday practice and I simply told Coach Tuke who our guest speaker would be. He continued, “I’m thinking I ought to pray.” I chuckled and thought to myself, “That’s a good idea, coach, you ought to pray.” I was suddenly shaken by the thought, “He means tomorrow at chapel.” I asked him if that’s what he meant and it was. I immediately assured him that I’d set him up to do that and began thinking about how to not let him fail. I knew this was probably the biggest spiritual risk he had taken in his lifetime.

The next day as chapel was wrapping up and I was having players and coaches to pray for various facets of our team, I asked for someone to pray for our defense and turned to Coach Tuke. He agreed, prayed and thereby catalyzed his continuing development as a Christian coach, husband and father.

Over the next few years I watched a marvelous transformation as I saw Tuke become a tremendous model of all that God means for a man to be. His growing faith permeated everything in his life. His coaching became even more dynamic. He was hungry to know God’s will. He was eager to serve and to grow. He demonstrated integrity and wisdom as he led his players.

It has been my privilege to watch his love for his wife, Lenna, mature and to have participated in a vows renewal service for the couple. A few weeks later, on Super Bowl Sunday, they welcomed Georgia to their home; a beautiful little girl with a lovely smile and a warm heart.

Sadly for me and for Southern Illinois, Coach Tuke, Lenna, Georgia and most of Coach Jerry Kill’s staff left SIU after our NCAA Division I FCS semifinal appearance in 2007 and moved to DeKalb and Northern Illinois University. I am pleased to report that Tuke’s growth and development continues. People like Tuke, those who play their hearts out, who love their teammates and families, are those who inspire our souls and lead us to becoming all we were created to be.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Lessons from Tragedy

This week the USA Sports world grieved the tragic loss of a high profile, recently retired professional football player. He was shot several times in his sleep by his mistress, 16 years his junior, who in turn killed herself. It was a horrible tragedy and a too common occurrence. The media jumped on the story and they have danced all around the issues related to the killing, but have not really dealt with the central question, “Why does this kind of thing happen?” The statistics related to divorce and bankruptcies among recently retired sports professionals are staggering. Education, brochures, presentations by former players, therapy sessions and professional consultations are having little effect on this issue.

I have pondered this a great deal this week and have had conversations with a wide range of players, coaches and friends. I believe a strongly contributing factor is what the sport world does to the highest achieving among us. The culture of sport squeezes them for all they have and force them to identify themselves solely by how they perform on the field of competition. From the time they’re 8 or 10 years old they are judged, rewarded, punished, acclaimed, criticized, valued or derided for their performance in sport. Beyond that, they derive most of their values, structure, discipline and sense of purpose from those who direct their sporting life. Many times that comes from the coaching staff, the club, agent or organization for which they compete. Suddenly, at the end of the player’s career, all that ceases and the player is cast adrift. Years or even decades of structure and organization, provided externally by their life in sport, is removed and many players have no internal structure or guiding values to provide discipline for even the simplest aspects of life.

Imagine you were the recently murdered football player. Since his boyhood, he lived in the highly structured world of high school, college and then professional American Football. Suddenly at age 35, that’s all gone and he’s adrift in an ocean of leisure time, directionless passion, adrenaline with no outlet and a lack of identity since he is no longer a football player. All of these factors are only amplified by millions of dollars, a lifetime of having been indulged and an expectation of preferential treatment.

My aim is not to minimize the tragedy, to diminish the gravity of his series of foolish decisions, or to excuse his behavior. Rather I’m trying to understand what happened here and to discern what we should learn from such situations. How shall we as sport chaplains, sport mentors and character coaches guard those whom we serve from similar fates? How can we help them build an identity, in Christ Jesus, which respects and understands their strong identity in the sport world, but also helps them see beyond that world to who they are in relation to their families, their community, the Church, and the Kingdom of God?

The answer is surely not simply a matter of education. It will certainly take a transformed heart to deal with these issues. The process outlined in Romans 12:1-3 must be applied to our lives and in turn with the coaches and competitors we serve. Let’s help them resist the temptation to be conformed to the world’s way and let’s challenge them to trust Christ for transformation of life which permeates their entire beings. Such life transformation will have effect on and off the field of competition. It will impact them during and after their careers in sport. It will change their relationships with teammates, coaches, friends and family. It will certainly save their lives in a spiritual sense, but may also save them from tragic consequences related to foolish decisions made by a deluded mind, driven by a poorly developed heart.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Emotions of Sport

Sport brings with it a series of risks. We regularly risk injury, misunderstanding, disappointment, frustration, failure, loss and more. If you play your heart out, the risks are even greater, especially the emotional ones. Trust me; it’s worth the risk to taste the wide variety of emotions which bring richness to life.

I love it when I feel:
· The momentum swing from the opponent’s sideline to ours when an athlete makes a big play.
· The breathless excitement of a victorious locker room after a last-second win.
· The gut-wrenching grief of a comeback that came up one point short.
· The flush of emotion I feel when a coach reveals the ache in his heart.
· The calm assurance of having done our best when a game, match, season or career is completed.
· The heart-in-throat, watery eyed emotion I feel when I see a player press through his fears or her frustration and into satisfaction.
· The warm sense of well-being I have when I see my wife outside the locker room after a victorious afternoon.

Not all these emotions are pleasant and some of them are filled with real pain. They all are full of the stuff of life. They bring richness to the emotional fabric of our lives and are the direct result of our playing our hearts out. Compete with all your ability and feel life richly and deeply.