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Anatomy of an Outstanding Coach

Outstanding coaches each have different strengths, but one strength that they all seem to share is the quality of being an excellent role model and mentor for their athletes.Knute Rockne, athlete and coach for Notre Dame football, once said, “A coach’s greatest asset is his sense of responsibility— the reliance placed on him by his players.”1 As a Michigan fan, it was not easy to start an article with that quote, but it puts coaching into the perspective of mentorship and being a role model for athletes. I’ve been around the athletic world in many different capacities long enough to see my share of good coaches, terrible coaches, and outstanding coaches. The outstanding coaches each have different strengths, but one strength that they all seem to share is the quality of being an excellent role model and mentor for their athletes. This kind of excellence comes from being a God-fearing, neighbor-loving, person of integrity. They make it look very easy, and their influence on the players can last way beyond a season. What do these coaches have that separates them from the rest?

Perhaps it is because I’ve been in the LuthEd world for so long, but one thing that stands out is that these coaches have an understanding of Christian faith that runs deep. Consider the huge amount of hours that coaches are able to spend with athletes each season and the impact this can have. Christian coaches do not take for granted the grace that has been given to them, and they do not hesitate to pass this grace along to the players and parents. They understand law and Gospel and the appropriate time to use each. When a coach is interacting with those who do not know forgiveness, they share the gospel generously. Then, if discipline is required, they equip the athlete to accept it, knowing that forgiveness comes along with the consequence. Coaches who are positive role models stress the importance of personal time in the Word, prayer, and participation in the Divine Service to the families they interact with. Scripture and prayer are part of every practice and game. These coaches invite their players and parents to join them in worship and help them see the gifts that they receive each time they attend. They joyfully attend worship together with their team at weekend tournaments.

Take a few minutes to consider a person in your life whom you really admire. It can be a coach, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. As you think about that person, what would you say about their integrity? Chances are good that the person you are considering has a great deal of integrity. Athletes look to their coaches to be examples of what is expected on and off the court. For example, coaches can make speech after speech to their team about what good sportsmanship looks like and that bad attitudes will not be acceptable from any player. Most coaches will even have consequences for athletes who show disrespect during practices. But what happens when an athlete argues with a ref over a call or mouths-off to an opposing player on the court, and the officials simply give a warning? It’s easy for any coach to say, “I’d take him out.” But what if the next play or the outcome of the game depended on the ability of that player? Some (maybe many) coaches would justify the athlete’s actions and keep them in. A coach with strong integrity removes that player because he’s told the team that kind of behavior is not acceptable. That coach did not say, “Bad sportsmanship is unacceptable from any player, except that one.” Integrity often means making the hard decision with the short-term negative effect. The team might lose that game, but they will have gained a valuable lesson that will last.

Quality leadership involves taking time to develop relationships with their players. The position of “coach” itself demands respect from the players. At least that is what one would think. However, really great coaches respect the power they possess in their role and do not take advantage of it. They understand that quality leadership involves taking time to develop relationships with their players. The command to “love thy neighbor” is their way of life. These coaches make time to be around their athletes before and after practices or during their lunch break and at team dinners. Some of them can offer homework help after school. I’ve seen many of them host a team dinner, allowing the players to see them outside of the athletic world. Getting to know players outside of the sport and allowing the players to get to know them, can go a long way on the court or field. These coaches realize that their job is not only a responsibility but also an opportunity to get to know some amazing people and help shape many young lives in a positive way.

One of the people I credit for nourishing my faith and whom I look to as a mentor is my Uncle Paul. Many years ago, I overheard him tell someone that he believed good coaching wasn’t just about wins and losses. That was all I heard and I was stunned because a) I was still in high school and had only experienced mediocre, public school coaching up to that point, and b) I had made the assumption that everyone said he was a great coach because his teams performed so well ( I actually had no knowledge of how his teams performed). Not too many years ago, Uncle Paul retired from teaching and coaching after his high school girls’ basketball team had an extremely successful season. As retirement approached, there were probably hundreds of Facebook posts and comments from students and athletes alike who spoke of his compassion, love, and wisdom on a social media outlet that he wasn’t even part of. I do not remember seeing one comment about his overall record as a coach.

Can a coach be a positive role model or mentor without these qualities? I don’t know, but I doubt it. I’ve never seen it happen that way. There are many good coaches in our world, especially in the LuthEd world. But the outstanding coaches are full of integrity, they love their athletes, and they believe firmly in their Savior. I’m not sure if that is something that can be learned and developed, but I do know that I’ve learned a lot from observing it.

Jill Schmitzer, Trinity Lutheran School, Davenport, Iowa, dedicates this article to Paul Doerr, retired Lutheran high school teacher and coach. If you know Paul, you are blessed.

1. Knute Rockne Quotes. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved September 30, 2018, from BrainyQuote.com Web site: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/knute_rockne_231986

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