The Uncontrolling Track Coach

By Craig Morton

What does it mean to coach athletes from a loving and uncontrolling perspective?

Describing my faith, sharing about my beliefs in Jesus, talking openly about God and prayer are not available to me as a coach in the public-school system or as a part of track club. Certain topics are off-limits. There are boundaries that I respect. And these boundaries entice me to demonstrate my faith rather than talk about it. Issues of liberating love, refraining from control, and trust in the process are pillars in coaching that are supported by faith.

When it comes to athletic performance, there’s a certain lack of freedom in basic tasks. There are only so many ways to breathe. Only so many ways to control the movement of the shoulder, of a footstep. Gravity has a knack for being regular which compounds to make routine movements not only predictable, but also limited.

As a track coach, I work with sprinters and hurdlers. There is a fine line between telling an athlete what to do, and helping an athlete discover what it is that they are doing, and having the potential to do. Perhaps it is the sport of track and field. There are no plays drawn up in track and field: no wing formations, cover-two defense, or triple-option. Our strategy is to run fast, throw far, and jump far and high.

Many years ago, we track nerds watched as Michael Johnson ran the 400-meter sprint. Incorrectly! He also ran the 200-meter sprint incorrectly. His back was too erect, there was too little of a forward lean. His arms pounded downward as if he was beating the air like a drum. And his legs, because of his lack of forward lean, looked like he was marching fast, more than running. Thus, his steps were too short and it took him more steps to cover the same amount of track compared to his competitors. His form was weird. He did it all wrong.

Johnson continued to run incorrectly, weird, and wrong. He ran wrong all the way through world records and multiple Olympic gold medals and world championships.

When we work with athletes—elite as well as beginners—awareness of the athlete is almost more important than the technique I can communicate to the athlete. In a day, I will ask a runner ten to fifteen times, “how’d that feel?” and “what did you learn or notice?” There’s very little I can do to control the athlete. Coaching is an exercise in limited influence.

Being aware of your body in motion through space is not so much a technique, as it is a way of being. One doesn’t do awareness, as much as one becomes aware. Be aware. That is something that I cannot control.

Some parents of athletes, as well as some coaches, try to live through the successes of their athletes. I’m not referring to the experience of sharing their experiences, both joyful celebrations and grievous defeats. Empathy with and living through our athletes are two vastly different things. Parents and coaches may seek their own satisfaction, and in so doing, exercise control over the athlete to meet their own longings, not the athlete’s. This is a spiritual and existential issue. The experience of kenosis, of letting go of control (which is elusive at best) allows freedom to the other. Though as a coach I have authority granted me, I cannot use it to control the athlete to meet my expectations.

Opening Up Possibility to the Athlete

More than once I’ve had hurdlers come and struggle to find the way to get accurate steps in the rhythm to cross over the hurdle without hurting themselves. Some simply require more work, awareness, and development. But others are not hurdlers. Yet, for some reason they may want to hurdle. But their body isn’t responding to the techniques necessary to accomplish the task. Then, we coaches work with those kinds of athletes and move them from one track-and-field event to another until that athlete finds the place where they fit and where it works.

Limitations are discovered. As coaches, we guide in the discovery. Some athletes simply want to have fun or develop some type of mastery; winning and losing are not the point. They want to control their emotions, develop personal goals, experience milestones. But when working with elite athletes who are trying to perfect minute movements for high-level competition, then we provide more prompts, tips, and direct coaching. Our job as coaches is to help an athlete become aware of what it is that their body wants to do regardless of what they think they want to do.

The Uncontrolling Love of Coaching

Speaking about coaching track and field is not just some analogy about prayer or about theology. This is about the struggles we go through to find where we belong. Whether it is on the track as an athlete, or in business, academics, and in relationships. When we come to something that feels like a barrier, something that feels like it’s keeping us from doing what we want to do, we may ask God to step in to intervene to do something. And God does not always answer those prayers. The infinite number of things that God would have to control may go far beyond God’s self-limiting love.

We may be suffering from an illness, or an infirmity, or something about us that just doesn’t work and we can do all the work we think possible to make ourselves better. But if you are 6’4” and weigh 320 pounds, you’re not going to be a good 800-meter runner and you can pray as much as you want and it probably still not going to happen. Gravity, the laws of thermodynamics constrain. You might be 5’ 2” and an excellent sprinter but you’re still not likely to get yourself high enough off the ground to become a championship high jumper. Or, as Thomas Jay Oord states it, “God also necessarily upholds the regularities of the universe because those regularities derive from God’s eternal nature of love” (The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence). Gravity, and its sibling, entropy, are the only real competitors in track and field.

While much of Oord’s challenge is to understand genuine evil in light of a loving God, “genuine evil” can also be lowered to things of genuine disappointment, existential challenges, losses and personal experiences that compete with our self-understanding. It is not a “genuine evil” that my athlete cannot accomplish a specific race. Also, I will not ask God to alter the “regularities of the universe” to allow this runner to excel. To teach this to an athlete and to attest to a loving God is hard for many to grasp.

Stoicism, Athletes, and Love

Reading the Stoic philosophers, like Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca, and others, gives me a helpful posture in the face of the uncontrolling God. God cannot do some things. As a result, I must adapt. Aurelius (Meditations) asserts that certain physics cannot be altered. He attributes this to “providence”, or simply as we would say, “it’s just the way of things.” But what is crucial, and what Aurelius does possess, is the possibility of a virtuous response, as opposed to responding with vice.

There may be so many things that I want God to do or do differently, but the limitations that are part of God’s very nature are not going to be overturned simply because I want to go faster or jump higher. My role as a coach is to help athletes choose between “virtue or vice.” My job is to help athletes understand and to be aware both of what they can do and of what exists for them as a real opportunity. Having uncontrolling love for an athlete puts me in a position to honor and respect the athlete much more than the event or my expectations for her or him. What is best for my athlete as a person?

Oord writes, “A God of everlasting love is always with us, already loving us. But for love to win—in each moment and in the future—we must collaborate. The God of uncontrolling love needs cooperation for love to flourish (God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils).” As a coach, my job is to care for the athletes as human beings. To view them as just tools for scoring points in a meet is not loving. To limit their value to a time on a watch, is not loving. But quietly partnering with God and with the athlete honors the athlete.

Prayer doesn’t always happen on the track with a bowed head and closed eyes. But there are mantras. Breath prayers. As a coach, I lead the “prayer.” Sometimes it is only gratitude. Often, it is the calm question, “how did that feel?” or, “what did you learn?” And sometimes it is just silent compassion when facing disappointment.

The Uncontrolling God wants me to learn to live with wisdom and the drive of the Holy Spirit in this universe. There are disappointments and limitations. These become hurdles to overcome. Not barriers to be removed or sidestepped. Paraphrasing Oord’s quoting of Wolterstorff in The Uncontrolling Love of God, God is everlastingly present, in our “time-strand.” More powerful than an expectation of God becoming present in a specific longed-for outcome is the assurance that the loving God is present now.

Craig Morton, M.Div, Ed.D, is a multi-vocational pastor in Meridian, Idaho. Craig co-pastors a Mennonite congregation, provides church consulting, is a college professor, blogs on Patheos as “RDC Reverend – Doctor – Coach”, and coaches for Meridian High School Track and Field and Team Idaho Track and Field Club. Craig co-pastors with his wife, Karla. Together, they have four adult children, and two grandsons.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

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