Gut-Check Time for Catholic Coaches

September is a big month for coaches. It’s the last full month of the regular season for Major League Baseball, the first for the National Football League and the only one for the finals of the U.S. Open in tennis. Thanks to the confluence of these events, it’s a perfect time to consider coaching as a calling according to the teachings of the Church. Of particular interest to Catholics is the coaching of kids.

Most American youngsters who play sports will never find themselves on the battlefield. This fact, though, does not deter a good number of youth coaches from impersonating drill sergeants, barking out orders and insults at their charges as if their very lives depended upon the proper execution of a double play. To be fair, these coaches take their cues from many collegiate and professional coaches who seem to pride themselves on berating their players, cursing out referees and throwing colorful temper tantrums. In fact, at these high levels, such behavior is excused and even celebrated — as long as the coach wins.

Given that major collegiate and professional sports are big businesses, it is not surprising that winning on this stage can cover a multitude of sins. Winning coaches are celebrated as “great” coaches regardless of how they might treat their players or conduct themselves in public. This overemphasis on winning leads many youth coaches to the erroneous conclusion that as long as they win they are doing a great job.

In most of these cases, nothing could be further from the truth.

Coaches who only care about their win-loss record will never be good coaches, let alone happy ones. As former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll once quipped, “A life of frustration is inevitable for any coach whose main enjoyment is winning.”

Great coaches recognize this reality and understand that what really matters in coaching, what really has lasting impact, is the fostering of good relationships. This is particularly true when it comes to coaching youths. The coach-athlete relationship can be one of the most influential relationships in a young man’s or young woman’s life. Depending upon his actions, a coach can trigger a lifetime of resentment and cynicism in an athlete or he can inspire a lifetime of achievement.

Given the impact a coach can have on young people, it is important that Christians see coaching as a vocation — a call to build young men and women of virtue. Unfortunately, virtue is not something we normally associate with sports today. But sports present an excellent opportunity to develop virtue in young people.

As Pope Pius XII wrote in the middle of the 20th century, “Sport, properly directed, develops character, makes a man courageous, a generous loser and a gracious victor; it refines the senses, gives us intellectual penetration, steels the will to endurance. … It also makes the mind itself a more refined instrument of the search and communication of truth and helps to achieve that end to which all others must be subservient, the service and praise of the Creator.”

It is unlikely that sport will live up to this potential if a kid has a coach who only smiles when he is winning and whose only reference to the Creator comes when he is swearing at an umpire. For sports to be what Pope Pius XII called “the school of loyalty, of courage, of fortitude, of resolution and universal brotherhood,” a different kind of coach is needed.

What is needed is a coach who values each athlete as a person and sees each as an individual who has different needs and gifts. What is not needed is a coach who sees an athlete as a means to an end. What is needed is a coach who asks, “How can I develop this athlete as a whole person?” What is not needed is a coach who asks, “How can I use this athlete’s talents for my own gratification?”

Young athletes in particular need a coach who is there to console them when they lose, to challenge them when they slack, to encourage them when they tire and to lead them forward in life. A coach who never remembers an athlete’s name or could not care less what the athlete has going on in his life off of the playing field is hardly the person to do this.

This is not to say that coaches should be content to pat everyone on the back, tell everybody they are doing fine and hand out participation ribbons. Just like the priest who tells his congregation week after week that they are all just doing great, a coach who fails to correct, to challenge and to motivate is hardly a coach worth having. Still, while it is critical that a coach corrects, challenges and motivates, the manner by which this is done is equally important. Certainly there is a variety of motivational methods a coach can employ, but one can usually distill all these various methods to two general approaches.

The first type can be referred to as the “Red Army” approach. It uses fear as its primary motivational tactic. One of the reasons the Soviet soldiers fought so bravely during World War II, in addition to the need to defend their homeland, was the fact that Soviet officers often stood behind their lines armed and ready to shoot any soldier who dared retreat.

Not only is fear useful for motivating people, it is easy for a coach to generate. Anyone with a mouth and a temper can do it. It doesn’t take any skill or nuanced understanding of athletes to scream at players like a drunken sailor. Yet the fear of being ridiculed by a coach or the fear of punishment for making a mistake can be enough to motivate athletes to achieve. In this case, performing well or winning becomes a means of avoiding punishment or simply a means of stopping the coach from having a conniption. As a result, coaches who motivate primarily out of fear may produce winning teams, but they seldom help produce young men and women of virtue.

The other approach is to motivate out of love. Most athletes can look back at their coaches through the years and point to one who made a lasting, positive impact. Maybe it was a coach who stood by an athlete when he was struggling, maybe it was a coach who had the patience to work with a troubled kid, or maybe it was a coach who through his own sacrifice quietly taught the meaning of hard work and dedication. Whatever the particulars, great coaches all selflessly and lovingly give their time, not to satisfy their own ego, but to guide and teach young people within the school of sport. And the athletes usually respond both on and off the field.

This is not to say that such coaches did not occasionally instill fear in their athletes. Any good coach will light a fire under an athlete who is not working up to his potential. Even Christ did this from time to time in the Gospels with his “Woe to you” admonitions. However, Christ changed lives primarily via his example of divine love. In a similar fashion, a great coach draws the best out of his athletes — perseverance, discipline, sacrifice, loyalty, humility — by being a loving example of these virtues.

This, then, is the vocation of coaching: fostering in young athletes all of these natural virtues that, according to Pope Pius XII, “form for the supernatural virtues a sound foundation and prepare man to carry without weakness the weight of the greatest responsibilities.”

The great coach helps prepare athletes to live out whatever Christian vocation God entrusts to them. In this sense, sport can still be seen as preparation for battle. Only in this case it is preparation for a spiritual battle — a battle that lies at the heart of every true vocation.

Daniel Kuebler is an associate professor of biology and the cross-country coach

at Franciscan University of Steubenville.