You are currently viewing Christian Coach, Help Athletes Cultivate Rightly Ordered Loves

Christian Coach, Help Athletes Cultivate Rightly Ordered Loves

Track and field athletes want to run fast, jump high, and throw far. I’m a varsity coach at a small Christian school, and I want this for our athletes too. I even want them to win.

This may sound strange, but I hope other schools want to win against us too.

I don’t say this because rivalry draws out better performances, though often it does. I want to coach in a way that cultivates intensity because our effort to win is part of what it means to glorify God in athletics.

Trying to win, however, is only part of glorifying God in sports. And not the biggest part either.

Whether coaches have full-time jobs in athletics or are parent volunteers, they have a wonderful opportunity to cultivate Christian maturity.

A coach can help an athlete rejoice with her teammate even though that teammate beat her in a close race. He can draw out respect for opponents, encouraging harmony with those an athlete is competing against. A coach can cultivate an athlete’s identity in Christ such that she could win the state championship and not become haughty, or tear an ACL and not be devastated.

We could simply call these lessons “coaching,” but this kind of coaching is an opportunity to cultivate what Augustine called “rightly ordered loves.”

Disordered Loves

In Making Sense of God, Tim Keller said this about rightly ordered loves:

Augustine taught that we are most fundamentally shaped not as much by what we believe, or think, or even do, but by what we love. . . . He also observed that the heart’s loves have an order to them, and that we often love less important things more and the more important things less. Therefore, the unhappiness and disorder of our lives are caused by the disorder of our loves.

Though at the time I wouldn’t have had this language of disordered loves, in college I experienced what Keller describes. “Unhappiness,” however, may not be a strong enough word. My disordered loves had depressing consequences.

I competed as a decathlete for a Division I university. I “walked on” and didn’t receive a scholarship, but over my years of competing in college, I did have exceptional teammates, including three Olympians. Their exceptional skill always challenged me to improve—and it caused me crushing anxiety. I’d stress out before every competition and even began to feel this way about key practices.

My self-worth would yo-yo. If I did well in a competition, I’d feel like life was worth living. But if I did poorly—or even failed to improve—I wondered, What’s the point of it all? I loved training and athletic success far too much, and God far too little. My loves were disordered.

Amid this despair, Jesus drew me back to himself. He used Christian coaches, teammates, and mentors to show me the beauty of the gospel and how to rightly order my loves for God, sports, and everything else.

Rightly Ordered Loves

The notion of rightly ordered loves is helpful for athletes because it pushes in several directions at once. Our various loves fall into place when they are done out of ultimate love for God—with thanksgiving for his good gift of athletics, submission to his will for the outcome of our games, and a desire to please him in all our attitudes and conduct. In this way, Christian coaches can help athletes learn to love sports and even to love winning—but only as much as winning should be loved.

Christian coaches can help athletes learn to love sports and even to love winning—but only as much as winning should be loved.

Last spring, one of our athletes added five inches to our school high jump record, and I certainly cheered loudly. When I walk into the gym, I smile at the championship banners earned by teams I’ve helped coach. Paul spoke of physical training as having “some value” (1 Tim. 4:8). Behind these records and banners lies a ton of training, discipline, perseverance, teamwork, character development, and a ton of joy—all valuable. But as a Christian, I’m wary of times when excellence is loved too much. For Paul to say physical training has some value implies there are also limits to its value. Physical training can’t forgive our sins, be our savior, or give us ultimate purpose in this life and the life to come—the very things Paul says hope in Christ and training in godliness can give (1 Tim. 4:7, 9–10).

We know we’re asking too much from sports and winning when we are devastated not merely disappointed after a loss, when we struggle to shake the hands of our opponents after a game, when we regularly sacrifice time with God and gathering on the Lord’s Day in order to practice or compete, or when we feel envy toward teammates who excel beyond us rather than thanksgiving.

As a coach, I don’t pit effort and excellence against sportsmanship and character. This dichotomy is unnecessary. Instead, I help the students on the teams I coach understand that when we love God most, there’s room for both playing hard and playing fair. Indeed, we love our competitors best when we grow in our ability to do both.

But How?

Parents know that often “more is caught than taught.” The same goes for coaching. Athletes learn more from reading their coach’s countenance after a big win or loss than they do from what the coach says in the locker room. Coaches, we can undermine our lessons about the necessity of both hard work and rest if all we do is grind. We should consider what it communicates if we discipline athletes with extra sprints for missing free throws but not for being selfish teammates.

To help athletes rightly order their loves, we must first rightly order our own. We should pursue accountability from others, which means regular check-ins with other coaches, our athletic director, and other godly Christians who see us coach.

To help athletes rightly order their loves, coaches must first rightly order their own.

There are many ways to go about cultivating rightly ordered loves among a team. My college coach led a time called “Monday mindset” where he talked about virtue in sports and how to become a great teammate. Without saying it, these weekly meetings established a culture where it was clear there was more to sport than winning. Similarly, my wife begins her varsity basketball practices with a discussion question that help the girls on her team consider their hearts as they play. And when teams name captains, coaches should consider players with high character and not just the most skilled athletes.

Some of the best progress is made through one-on-one conversations (or confrontations) with athletes. By addressing rather than ignoring an athlete’s tantrum or apathy, I’ve been able to uncover and help them see some of their disordered loves that lay beneath their behavior.

Lessons for All of Life

An exceedingly small number of athletes will make a living by playing sports. But the lessons learned on the field aren’t lost when competitions end. When an athlete learns to love sports and God in proper proportion, it carries over to the rest of life. The best employees, citizens, business leaders, husbands and wives, parents, friends, and church members have rightly ordered loves.

I’m thankful for all the opportunities in the past that the Lord gave me to play sports. I also thank God for the opportunity in the present to coach sports in a way that cultivates love for God and love for others. The young men and women on our teams need practice at this, and so do I.


Leave a Reply