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Strong Direction! Energy to Thrive

By David Jeremiah

Rafer Johnson’s career is almost unbelievable. A versatile high school athlete, he played basketball at UCLA and competed in long jump events in the 1956 Olympics. He won gold in the decathlon at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Retiring from athletics, he starred in various television shows and movies, including the James Bond film License to Kill. He also developed a close friendship with Senator Robert F. Kennedy. He was there when Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles and helped apprehend the assassin. In 1984, Rafer was the torchbearer at the Los Angeles Olympics, climbing the stadium stairs and lighting the flame symbolizing the opening of the Games. In athletics, politics, and cinema, he’s been a star.

Rafer credits his success to his college basketball coach, the legendary John Wooden. Coming to UCLA from a small Swedish community, Rafer said he was intimidated long before he walked into the gym. He didn’t think he could possibly compete with all the great players in a big city school. That changed on the first day of practice when Wooden said, “Don’t worry about whether you’re doing better than the next guy. Just give me your best.”

Rafer later wrote: “My subsequent performance in the 1960 Olympics, held in Rome, had a lot to do with Coach’s philosophy of concentrating just on being the best I could be. Don’t worry about the score, the medal, the prize; don’t worry about the other guy; just concentrate on doing your best. It’s that simple…. Don’t worry about the competition; don’t worry about the gold medal or winning the race. Just focus on running the race that’s right in front of you.”1

That simple philosophy, homespun from a wise coach, shaped the life of a tall young fellow from a small town who came to UCLA to play ball.

Three Keys

It’s no secret that a good coach often becomes the greatest influence in a young person’s life. High quality coaches are more concerned about mentoring athletes than winning games. Former Canadian Olympian Dr. Penny Werthner has devoted her life to sports psychology. She’s now Dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary, and her husband is President of the Coaching Association of Canada. After the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Dr. Werthner conducted a study to identify why some athletes did so well.

She found the most important theme was the relationship between the coach and athlete. For example, Coach Xiuli Wang, a former Olympic speed skater for China who has since coached Canadian athletes, described how she guided Clara Hughes to a gold medal:

“At the time of meeting Clara,” said Coach Wang, “she was very fit and she had lots of sport experience … but now she was changing sports. She needed help with skating technically well. She was asking lots of technical questions, but they were the right questions…. I was straight with her. I told her the truth, and I got on the ice with her to show her how to skate well.”2

Notice those three phrases: “I was straight with her…. I told her the truth…. I got on the ice with her to show her how to skate well.”

That’s the secret to excellence in coaching, and that’s exactly what the Lord does with us. God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—plays many different roles in the life of the Christian. But have you ever thought of Him as your Coach, the One who will help you navigate through the ups and downs of life? As the One who gives you strong and perfect direction in good times and bad?

First, He’s straight with us. He watches how we run the race of life, how we wrestle with conflict, how we swing and miss, how we stumble out of the blocks or give up before the race is over. He knows when we’re spiritually dehydrated, lax on our disciplines, or off our game. Sometimes we don’t know what’s wrong, but the Coach always identifies the problem.

Take Jonah for example. At the end of his book, Jonah is sulking, angry, and depressed, though he didn’t really know the root of his problem. The Lord was straight with him, saying, in effect, “Your problem is you don’t really care about the people of Nineveh, its children, or its livestock. You care more about the vine over your head than about the eternal destinies of the multitudes in this city” (see Jonah 4:7-11). Jonah evidently got the point, because his autobiographical book is the testimony of how God coached him throughout this phase of his ministry.

Think of how Jesus coached His disciples. When Peter fumbled the ball at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus rebuked him before the whole team: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:23).

We must listen carefully to the Coach when He shoots straight with us. While reading our Bibles, we need to apply the truths to ourselves. While meditating on the Word, we need to ask God to search and try us. When reeling from a failure, we need to listen to God’s voice of rebuke and correction. The Bible describes our Christian experience as a “work out” (Philippians 2:12), and we have a Coach who helps us by being straight with us.

Second, He tells us the truth. His Word is truth. He’s the only infallible Coach in history, and we can depend on every word of advice, every syllable of encouragement, and every command and promise. Remember when Paul was aboard a sinking ship in a prolonged typhoon in the Mediterranean? Everyone had given up hope of being saved. All expected to drown. But the Coach stepped onto the deck and gave Paul a word of truth: “Do not be afraid, Paul; you must be brought before Caesar; and indeed God has granted you all those who sail with you.” Those words so encouraged the apostle he was able to lead his team to victory, telling his fellow sailors and passengers, “Take heart, men, for I believe God that it will be just as it was told me” (Acts 27:24-25).

The Holy Spirit takes His Word and gets inside us with the truth. That’s where we acquire the energy to thrive. That’s where we get the strong direction we need.

Coach Xiuli Wang’s third secret was: “I got on the ice with her to show her how to skate well.” Good coaches don’t just stay on the sidelines. They get on the field, on the ice, on the mat, on the hardwood. That’s exactly what our Coach did. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory” (John 1:14). Wanting to demonstrate a winning life, God entered humanity through a virgin’s womb, grew up like an ordinary child, and exhibited a wholly righteous life. He showed us how to play the game, how to consistently win over the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Though Jesus returned to heaven, He sent His Spirit to live within us, and the secret to victory is allowing Him to work in and through us with all His strength. Paul said, “To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:29, NIV).

A Coach Who Gets Inside Us

Vince Lombardi once said: “Coaches who can outline plays on a blackboard are a dime a dozen. The ones who win get inside their players and motivate.” That’s what our Lord does, giving us strong direction, fresh empowerment, renewed energy, and the strength to thrive in life.

Here at the end of this article, why don’t you pause a moment for a brief time-out. See the Lord as the best Coach in the world. Think of yourself as an important part of the team. He wants to shoot straight with you, to tell you the truth, and to get on the ice with you today, whether you’re experiencing the thrill of victory just now or the agony of defeat.

Don’t worry about the score, the medal, the prize; don’t worry about the other guy; just concentrate on doing your best. Just focus on running the race before you, looking unto the best Life-Coach in the world, the Lord Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith.

1John Wooden and Steve Jamison, The Essential Wooden (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007), 50-51.

2Bo Hanson, “Success of Coach Athlete Relationships (Canadian Olympic Study” Athlete Assessments. (accessed September 20, 2013). 

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