Life lessons from coaching

I have had the privilege of being a coach most of my adult life.  It really allows you an amazing perspective on life, people, human nature and parenting.   Though each sport I have coached (soccer, tennis, baseball & volleyball) requires a slightly different approach, coaching is general enough to apply similar principles.  Currently, I am coaching a high school girls volleyball team.   As I lead drills in practice, shout from the bench, share nuggets of wisdom during the 60 second time-out huddle, interact with the referees and watch the team execute the plays I have created – many life lessons come to the surface.  Here are just a few:

  • Though we play to win, the score is probably the least important aspect of the game.   This is hard to admit as a coach, but there are many a day where I must remind myself of the more important aspects than winning; sportsmanship, teamwork, integrity, encouragement, etc.  These are life lessons that will travel far beyond any particular game.   In life, sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.  Though we should all have a plan of where we would like to go, we must not let reaching the destination stop us from enjoying (or learning from) the process of getting there.   It’s not about how much money you make, but rather did you accumulate it with integrity?   It’s not about how high up the corporate ladder you climbed, but did you do it without stepping on someone else to get there?  Though winning is a goal, winning isn’t everything – in spite of what coaching great Vince Lombardi thinks.  As Former NBA player and coach Pat Riley once said, “A champion needs a motivation above and beyond winning.”
  • There is always a referee or umpire officiating the game.   Human nature prevents us from governing ourselves successfully.  Because the human heart is what it is, we will always need someone overseeing our behaviors and actions.  As honest as we would like to be, we cannot keep our own score.  We simply are not gifted with an unbiased heart.  As a result, a referee/umpire is always required.  Someone is always watching our behaviors, “every move we make and every step we take.”  This is even more true when we are not on the playing field.   In life, we sometimes forget this.  What you do behind closed doors isn’t really private.  The door is never really closed.  The websites you visit, the text messages you send, the shows you watch – can all be seen by a Heavenly Referee.   Just as you cannot cheat during a game and expect to get away with it, so it is with life.  Cheaters always get caught, it’s just a matter of time.  Not only do you forfeit the game, you forfeit a piece of your integrity, if not all of it.
  • The referees make calls you disagree with – deal with it.   It’s really hard to play your heart out only to lose a  point because a referee didn’t make the call you wanted.  That’s life.  No one ever claimed it was fair.   Referees are part of the experience and when the calls go your way, be grateful.  When they do not, move on and work on the next point.   They can’t see every angle.  They sometimes miss “obvious” calls, even with instant replay.  Since they never change their mind, arguing is simply a waste of precious time.  Life is a harsh teacher and many days, things will not go your way.   Though God makes no mistakes, He often does things (or allows things) that upset us or seem to make our “game” harder.   There are reasons for it, perhaps even unseen.  Accept what He hands you and trust His decisions.  His perspective is different from ours (Isaiah 55:10) and He’s been refereeing longer than you’ve been playing.   Trust His calls – they are more accurate than you think.  You just have a limited, self-centered perspective.
  • The clock is always ticking.   Some of the sports I have coached have not been time sensitive (tennis, volleyball, baseball).   In those sports, the game is over when one team reaches a certain number of points or innings.   In many sports, however, the clock is ever-present and constantly running out.  If there is one truth about life – it is simply this: Life goes on.   In good times or bad, the clock is always ticking and you must accomplish your goal within the time frame allotted.  Though you may live to be 100, you could also die tomorrow.  Today is the only day we are promised and therefore it is imperative we take advantage of it.  After a disappointing recent loss, one of my players said to me, “We’ll do better tomorrow, Coach.”  I quickly shot back, “We aren’t promised tomorrow.  We have to take advantage of today.”   I have buried too many people in my life to not realize this truth.   Moses understood this as the Leader of Israel.   Having watched a generation of people die during his 40 year desert wandering, he penned the following words to the Lord, “Teach us to number our days that we may present to you a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)   YOUR clock is ticking.  Are you make the most of every play?
  • Time-outs.  A good coach will not only call time out but do so at the right time.  A well planned time out can make all the difference in the game.  Ask any football coach who is losing with less than two minutes left.   His ability to call time out can literally make the difference between a win and a loss.   In life, though the clock keeps ticking – we still have the ability to call some time outs.   How many  marriages would still be together today if one or both people called “time-out” and got the counseling they needed?  How many children would have avoided some painful life experiences had the parents simply called “time out” and took the time to parent.  If life isn’t going where you want it to go, call time out.  Take some time away from the game and figure out what is missing.  What are you doing wrong?   How can you change the score?  It can literally make the difference between the life you want and the life you accept.
  • Practice, practice, practice.  The beauty of practice is that it prepares you for the game.  The beauty of a game is that it reveals what you need to practice.  At the end of every game, a coach normally has no shortage of things to improve upon at the next practice.   Things come out during the game that make it painfully obvious (to the coach) where his team is “missing it.”  Life is unusual in that – at the same time – the practice is the game.   Every day is a dress rehearsal.  Every day is also the play.   Just as a coach must make constant adjustments as he goes, so do we all in life.  Continually evaluate your game and performance and figure out what needs to be changed to improve your score.   The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”   You only have one shot at this game called “life.”  Make the most of it.  Take notes.  Make adjustments along the way so that when your time finally expires, you can have the satisfaction of knowing you did everything you could to be a winner.
  • Trust the coach.  Coaching is difficult on a number of levels.  For starters, you have to know the game inside and out.  You also have to know each individual player, their strengths, weaknesses and how to take them to the next level of play.  You have to know how far you can push an athlete towards maximum performance without breaking their spirit.  You have to come up with motivational, inspirational “Remember the Titan” type speeches when you are losing and they feel like giving up.  And if that wasn’t hard enough, you then have to choose a starting line up that you think gives your team the best advantage over your opponent.   Every decision you make is questioned by the athlete.  Every decision you make is scrutinized by someone’s parent who thinks their child is the best on the team.   Regardless, the coach is the coach and in the position to make the big decisions, even if you don’t like them.  Because they know the game better than you do, you should listen.  Because they see things you cannot see, you should heed their words.  Because they have a “big picture” perspective, it may be hard for an individual to understand because of their self-centered viewpoint.  Whereas an athlete looks at himself or a particular player, the coach sees a team.   Whereas a player sees one piece, the coach sees the whole puzzle and where each individual piece must go to make sense of it all.
  • The bench.   From time to time, every player spends time on the bench.  Some spend more time there than others.  A true athlete hates his time there while a lesser player may be grateful to sit on the bench reasoning “at least they made the team.”   Some end up on the bench because of an injury.  Others because of attitude or actions.  Most “ride the pine” because of lack of ability.   In Volleyball, even good players spend a few minutes on the bench because of how a team rotates on the court.   Like it or not, the bench is part of every game.  It’s also a part of every life.  We all have seasons where we are forced to sit out and watch.   Sometimes we all need just a few minutes to rest or re-group or to hear a word from the Coach before we can get back into action.  Throughout the Bible, God benched many star players.  Moses was benched because of his temper.  David was benched because of his libido.  Joseph was benched because of pride.  Peter was benched because of cowardice.  They all were reinstated back into the game and they all made some big plays for God after their time on the bench.

In a strange way, coaching brings me closer to God.   When my players ignore my instruction, it makes me think of the many times I refuse to listen to the instructions I’ve been given.   In my prideful moments, I join my players and think I know what’s best.  Like them, I tire quickly of practice.  I don’t want to practice (do the monotonous behind the scenes boring daily grind of routine).  I would rather perform under the lights and make the big plays.  When will I realize that those “Top 10 ESPY moments” only occur after hours and hours of mundane practice?

Why do I so quickly forget about the ever-present Referee that oversees all of life?  The earthly referee blows a loud whistle.  It’s annoyingly hard to miss.   God’s whistle is a gentle whisper often found in the pages of a dust-covered Book.  Why am I so willing to submit to a human umpire’s judgment on the field but argue with the Righteous Referee’s call off the court?

When I bench my players for any reason – I stop and think back to the times I’ve been benched myself – for even worse infractions.   When will a player come to the bench with a smile, recognizing the value of their time there?   When will I appreciate the sweet smell of pine for the times that God places me there?

After last night’s loss, it’s obvious that my team requires a lot more work to get where they need to be.  After writing this blog, it’s obvious that their coach needs a lot more work to get where he needs to be too.

Practice – here we come!