Since I was a wee little thing, my Uncle Guy has always been a huge part of my life. A fellow writer and an even deeper thinker, the two of us have never had a conversation that was under an hour. Of all the things I’ve learned from him over the years, his tactical and strategic mind from years of coaching has always garnered intensely helpful advice on being a Christian in a world that’s not on God’s side. In times of feeling weak and helpless, he has always been a resource for reminding me that God's not in the business of making us weak in the face of the enemy. In fact, just the opposite. So with that being said, I will get out of the way and let my uncle get to it! Enjoy!
Spiritual Lessons Learned From Coaching Football
In addition to being your regular hostess’s uncle, I have been blessed by being able to coach high school football for thirteen years (ten as a head coach). All of my jobs have been with small Christian high schools in California or Florida, where I also taught a variety of classes, mainly in history. In the classroom, we were expected to regularly tie our lessons in with Biblical truth, something that I thought would be so much easier than if I had been teaching a foreign language or mathematics -- my wife, incidentally, teaches mathematics and would tell me that I am mistaken. No one ever told me that I was expected to tie Biblical truth in with my football coaching, however.
Despite that, and I fervently hope that I am not alone in this, I found that my belief in God and the truths I have learned about Him over the years from studying the Word could not help but inform the way I coached. I’m sure that if I were a garbage collector, or a doctor, or a parent, God would direct me to do so in a way that honored Him and, while doing so, He would reveal truths about Himself to me as I surrendered to His will. Today, I will be sharing with you three of the many spiritual lessons coaching football taught me.
To begin, I stressed that every player do his job. I needed each young man to know his role at all times and to try his very best to execute his responsibilities to the best of his ability. And that’s all.
My first year as a head coach, I had a senior on the team, Mike, that really took to the job of defensive end. Without turning this essay into a treatise on football, a defensive end (in our system that year) was responsible was turning the opponent’s plays away from the sideline and in toward the center, where the rest of his teammates were waiting. I was trying to explain the job of defensive end to another player, Aaron, years later, as he was waiting at the school for his girlfriend’s parents to pick her up. He was having problems getting the concept, but his girlfriend helpfully suggested to him that it was like herding sheep. The young man shook his head at the ridiculous notion that she could possibly have any light to shed on the subject when I interrupted and said, “Aaron, it’s EXACTLY like herding sheep.”
And Mike was a ferocious herder of the opponent’s sheep week after week. Defensively, he was our only real standout player that year. It didn’t take long each game for the opposing coach to realize that running the ball toward Mike was a losing proposition and they would begin to focus on the other side of the field. As a result, Mike, through his diligence and mastery of his job, was involved less and less, or so he thought, with the team’s defensive efforts as the ball was constantly going away from him and at less skilled and disciplined players. This frustrated Mike to no end and, eventually, he decided to do his job AND someone else’s.
Now, it is the rare football coach who equally balances his passion for offensive football and defensive football (and don’t get me started on the freaks whose hearts belong to special teams football). I am an offensive coach, sadly in more ways than one; I love to move the ball and score. That’s where my passion is at. My favorite career stat is that I am 6-0 in games where my team scores seventy or more points (that’s a lot of points for a single game). I even won a game in which my opponent scored more than seventy, 74-72. I joke that defense is what we do when I am waiting for the ball. It makes defensive coaches sick. Anyway, one of the things I do to effectively move the ball is watching the opponent’s defensive ends, waiting for them to start getting antsy and start trying to do too much.
Mike got into the habit of making sure his sideline was protected and then race across the field to try to get in on a tackle on plays running away from him. The offensive coaches on the other teams would see this, and run a play designed to exploit this mistake. These plays are called counters. They initially look like they’re heading to one side and then break to the other side. If the play side defensive end is doing his job and ONLY his job, counters are disastrous. A disciplined end will make a counter look foolish. A defensive end, on the other hand, who decides to be something else, say a linebacker, is going to leave his side of the field completely unguarded and the counter will exploit that mistake nicely.
Mike made the mistake a lot of people make, especially folks in ministry where their co-laborers might often let them down. They take on too much and stop doing the job that God called them to do and has equipped them to do. Moses himself was guilty of this and his father-in-law Jethro had to pull him aside and suggest that he start delegating some responsibilities before he fell victim to burnout.
A second lesson, often times tied to the first, is to know when you’re beaten or outmatched. Sometimes, your opponent lines up and you’re faced with someone much bigger, or much faster, than you. I and my staff used to stress to our young men that they are only responsible for the things that they can control – things like knowing their assignments, knowing the rules of the game, being properly equipped, having had a good breakfast, etc. They were not to worry about things they could not control, like the weather, the referees, or the skill/size/speed of the opponent.
In football, as in our Christian walk, there will inevitably be times when we find ourselves truly up against it. Nothing that we can do seems to make a difference in this kind of predicament. In football, a player can, for a time, try to hide the fact that he is getting beat and this almost always is detrimental to the team effort. Alternatively, and this is how my staff coached our young men, that outmatched player can let the team know so that the coaching staff can make an adjustment to get that player the help he needs, whether it be double-teaming his opponent or redirecting offensive plays away from that area.
We’re not expected to be able to handle every situation life throws at us all by ourselves, and we don’t have to. Seeking help, whether it be praying to God for strength or clarity, seeking wise counsel from a pastor or friends, or seeking prayer coverage from fellow believers may seem to some to be a sign of weakness, but a Christian is never more dangerous to our enemy than when we’re on our knees, not bowed in defeat but in prayer. Some problems, like depression or addiction, require serious hands-on help by people qualified to respond to these crises. As in football, you can try to hide the fact that you’re in over you’re head but, even if the game ends before you’re found out, the game film never lies. God never expects us to be able to handle everything – He sent His Son to us as our Savior, after all – and I would have been crazy to think that each of my players were going to line up against inferior opponents at each position in each game. We needed to have a plan for those times when we had a mismatch, and that plan was open communication without recrimination for those seeking help.
Finally, as an offensive coach who was constantly looking for ways to exploit my opponent’s weaknesses to move the ball down the field, I would like to offer you – or some of you, I suppose – some encouragement. There are twenty-two players on a football field at a time, eleven to a side. If I’m trying to move the ball, someone has to carry it, obviously, or throw it to someone else for them to carry it. That leaves me with ten players that I can use to block for the ball carrier and ease his way downfield. Do the math – ten blockers tasked with blocking eleven defenders means, even if every one of my blockers successfully blocks his man, a defender will still be free to make the tackle and end my play. So, the question is: “who do we NOT block?” Who do we leave alone, free to affect our play as best he can?
Well, it’s pretty simple. We look at blockers as valuable resources (especially since I blocked in college and I want to be appreciated as much as the next guy) and we aren’t going to squander a blocker on a player who can’t make the play, or at least can’t make the play until we’ve gotten so far downfield that we’ve made a big play.
The Bible never tells us that Satan, like God, is omniscient, knowing everything. His wisdom is finite. But Satan is crafty and very, very, dangerous. He’s not omnipotent; he is limited in what he can do and he has limited, albeit formidable, resources. I’m betting that Satan, like me, is not stupid enough to squander resources. He’s not going to waste a blocker on a player that can’t make the play.
If you find yourself under attack, may I gently suggest to you that perhaps this is precisely because God has, as the ultimate and all-knowing Coach, placed you in a position to ruin the enemy’s plan? Check yourself now. If you know you’ve been doing the wrong thing, if you know that you’ve been acting outside of God’s will for your life, then the “attacks” you are under may simply be the logical outcomes of rebellious, selfish, or sinful behavior. But sometimes we, as Christians, can come under attack or feel opposition when we’re doing pretty well in our day to day Christian walks. We’re not perfect, but we’re striving to follow Christ, and still, there’s the sense of oppression.
A pastor friend of mine taught me that Satan seeks to isolate and neutralize Christians – he can’t take them to Hell with him – so that he can keep as many unbelievers from coming to a saving knowledge of Christ and an eternity in Heaven. If you’re in a position to foul up the enemy’s designs, if you’re an effective witness to the truth that Christ changes lives and offers hope to a dying world, you can expect that the enemy will attempt to block or neutralize you.
When those times come, do your job, don’t try to do everything. If you need help, speak up and get people to come alongside you to assist in whatever way is needed. In those times, recognize that you are exactly where God wants you to be and that the enemy, because of the God that resides within you and the Holy Spirit who empowers you, needs to take you into account.
Because you’re dangerous.