Each new school year begins with a set of goals. Administrators, teachers, athletic directors, coaches, and support staff work diligently to set their objectives and plans for how to meet those goals. As this new year begins, I want to challenge us to think about specific goals for athletics in our Christian schools.
Objectives such as participation, physical development, character development, team building, and winning often find their way to the top of the list. What should be near the top of every Christian school’s list of goals for its athletic program is building community. If done properly, a team that has built authentic community will flourish as coaches and athletes look forward to practicing, competing, and generally spending time together. The team culture will be such that student-athletes look forward to the next season, and the end of a season becomes more than an exercise in counting wins, losses, and post-season awards. Rather, it becomes a time of reflection for a collective job well done and a sadness over the fact that the community, which has been so carefully built, is ending.
After twenty-five years spent coaching and administrating athletics, I still get excited about the potential that educational athletics has to provide a unique “laboratory” to explore and practice what it truly means to live and play in community.
The Goal of Competition
Before digging deeper into the concept and practice of developing a successful community or team culture, I want to remind those of us leading interscholastic athletic programs that we must not stray from the core concept of competition. At the heart of athletic competition should be the desire to win. Too often this core goal is forgotten in the attempt to connect the students’ athletic experiences to the educational mission of the school. Sometimes it is set aside as administrators and coaches focus mainly on secondary outcomes, such as character development, participation, values education, and even community building. When we forget or deny that at the athletic core is the desire and attempt to win, we are building our team community on a false narrative.
But while winning the race, game, or match is the core goal, secondary goals are extremely important and essential to the student-athlete’s experience. If we keep this in mind as we gather to compete, we have the best chance to develop authentic Christian community within the framework of athletics.
I would like to propose that at the core of authentic community building are three things: sacrifice, grace, and truth. All require looking past ourselves to the needs of others. Sacrifice in community requires constantly thinking of others’ needs and acting to meet those needs. It requires putting aside personal gratification or the need for recognition and taking a team-first attitude even when it doesn’t produce the best personal results.
In his book Incarnate Leadership, Bill Robinson offers wonderful advice to Christian leaders. He states that we can only lead from “among” not from “atop.” He tells the true story of Father Damien de Veuster who, in 1873, went to minister to a colony of lepers in Hawaii. As Robinson tells it, Father Damien did everything he could for the lepers, except to reach out his hand and touch them. He knew to do that would mean choosing to become one of them and risking his life. In the end, he made that choice, and it plunged him headfirst into their culture at every level. Ultimately this decision led to Father Damien’s early death. Father Damien “built buildings, improved health conditions, attracted funding, and raised awareness for this colony of outcasts. But the single greatest act credited for burning the gospel of Christ into the hearts of his people came when Father Damien gathered together the whole colony, stood up to speak, and said ‘We lepers . . .’” (Incarnate Leadership, 29).
Thankfully, we are not asking our coaches or student-athletes to sacrifice their health, but we should ask them to intentionally engage in a sacrificial mindset for the betterment of the team. They should be challenged to see past stats and playing time. As long as the team is working toward its core goal of winning, each and every member of that team should have a sacrificial mindset.
Grace and Truth
Along with sacrifice, authentic team building requires grace and truth. This means giving all those involved in your season—athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators—true grace. In the athletic setting, it means thinking of others’ viewpoints and listening carefully to their needs. It means giving them the benefit of the doubt, whether you think they “deserve” it or not. It means truly believing that each and every member of your community has a place and a right to hear the truth in a loving way. This works in all directions. Sometimes grace taken to the extreme becomes inauthentic communication. To quote Bill Robinson again, “Grace and truth need each other. Grace ceases to be grace if it lacks truth. And truth loses its power if it lacks grace” (Incarnate Leadership, 80).
If you truly desire to build authentic relationships within your team, grace and truth are essential at all levels. Require it of your players and parents, and practice it yourselves as coaches and administrators. Of course, we would not know the meaning of true sacrifice, grace, and truth without the example we have in Christ.
Building Authentic Community
It is my hope that at the end of a season, what should move our emotions is not victories or defeats, personal highs or lows, thrilling moments of excellence or bitter disappointments. Rather, it should be the impact of great relationships built through living, working, eating, and competing together.
The best team cultures or communities I have experienced in my time as an athlete, coach, or athletic administrator have been built on deep, authentic, and vulnerable relationships—on sacrifice and grace and truth. We shouldn’t be intimidated by this challenge. As I stated earlier, educational athletics provide a unique laboratory to prepare students to live a life full of relationships and in community. The time spent together striving toward a common goal provides a rich environment to explore the importance of community and relationships in “real life.”
My hope for our student-athletes at Calvin College and for yours at your Christian schools is that through their experiences with authentic community in athletics they will come to understand that life is better lived in community with other Christians and that they will practice sacrifice, grace, and truth in all their future endeavors. I also hope that by working hard to achieve excellence in building community on a team, student-athletes learn that it is well worth it to work for excellence in every area of their lives.
I have personally seen very few “excellent” things accomplished alone. We need Christian community. We need authenticity in our relationships, and we need sacrifice, grace, and truth. I am proud that athletics can provide a platform to practice these things in earnest.
Robinson, Bill. Incarnate Leadership: 5 Leadership Lessons from the Life of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.
Dr. Jim Timmer Jr. is the Director of Athletics at Calvin College. He is also a professor in the kinesiology department where he specializes in teaching classes that are part of Calvin’s sports management major.