I hope this finds you well. Before we get into the particulars, please allow me to take a brief moment to simply affirm you … right here, right now. Thank you for stepping up to coach. It often goes unrecognized but to coach means to make a decision: to lead others, to foster relationships, to care for and love those individuals entrusted to you, most of whom find themselves in oft-turbulent years of adolescent or teenage self-discovery and recognition of their “place” within the larger community. The opportunity that lies before you cannot be overstated: You can be that stabilizing, supportive presence who helps every player, perhaps as much as anyone in their lives, realize who they are, Who loves them, and who they’re called to be.
Coaches Change Lives
We all have had at least one coach we can recall who changed our lives (even as a member of the Saint John’s Seminary basketball team, I’ve got two of ’em in Coach Pat and Coach Tom). There’s something transcendent about the role: the one tasked with delivering a vision, inspiring others to see it and believe in it themselves, and then steer the ship each day, game, practice, drill, and interaction, toward that desired goal. Simply put, the best coaches inspire. They encourage. They are reliable, reasonable, and realistic. When things go awry, they recalibrate and get everyone back to equilibrium. When things become too careless, they inject the necessary intensity, urgency, and healthy discomfort to keep the squad sharp. It’s an art, a science, and a spirituality all wrapped into one … but, man, are the fruits of the labor rewarding.
5 Goals For Catholic Youth Coaches
While every path to this “end goal” may be different, and every vision in itself varies team-to-team, there are some “transcendentals,” though, that should be at the foundation. Let’s take a look at five (5) on which to focus this season:
- BORN IDENTITY — If there’s one truth all coaches must burn into their players’ hearts — above any X’s and O’s, form drills, etc. — it’s this: “It is good that you exist.” Boom. Identity. Security. Freedom. As finite, imperfect humans, failure in sport is inevitable for each of us — in every practice and every game (and in every halftime or postgame speech you give, too, Coach). Becoming increasingly rooted in and reminded of our foundational identities as sons and daughters of the Father (i.e., not just athletes whose identity/worth is found only in performance) is paramount to any insights sport-specific strategy could give.
- PACK YOUR BAGS — Watch the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Survive and Advance” and tell me the late North Carolina State basketball coach Jimmy Valvano isn’t one of the greatest motivators you’ve ever witnessed. The guy was electric! More importantly, though, he coached with a love and belief in his players that was truly something to behold. The “big picture” goal as a coach: Be like Jimmy V. Sure, we all have to be true to ourselves and be rooted in our own identities, but share this attribute with Valvano: Believe deeply in your players (and coaching staff, too, for that matter). Get to know them as people off the court. Show a vested interest in their personhood and a fascination for their uniqueness and let ’em all know emphatically, “My bags are packed.”
- SUFFERING SOULS — As the legendary Sister Mariam James Heidland (a former college volleyball player in her own right) says, “Communal suffering leads to healing.” Truth is, every person is wounded in some way and needs to be healed. Sports can be a catalyst along that healing journey, especially when the “suffering” is faced head-on by the full squad. Coach, don’t baby ’em! Call ’em higher! Those grueling practices, as brutal as they may be in the moment, are what we all look back on most fondly. Give them the opportunity to push past the threshold of what they thought they could do … together. As Herman Melville writes in the novel Redburn, “The scene of suffering is the scene of joy when the suffering is past, and the silent reminiscence of hardships departed is sweeter than the presence of delight.” Yet in that suffering, emphasize one thing in particular: Make it about someone else. On our seminary hoops team, not only do we jog a mile to and from the gym where we play and incorporate sets of foot fires, side shuffles, and loose-ball dives during each practice (💪🫁), but each player receives a “Practice Intentions” sheet at the beginning of the season and fills in who they’re practicing for each day. This can introduce and help explain the importance and merits of redemptive suffering and, even the deeper truths of the theology of the body. In sports, this virtuous end can be taught, learned, and practiced.
- FRATRES IN UNUM — Psalm 133 reads, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” The togetherness of a sports team is largely unparalleled. You can truly feel it when a team shares a common bond and love for one another. Yet fostering those family vibes must be done intentionally: emphasizing the importance of “touches” between teammates and coaches, organizing at least one team activity outside the sport being played (e.g., take the hockey team bowling or the volleyball team to laser tag), and most importantly, demonstrating this unified spirit with your own words and actions: honoring individual and collective successes, echoing a team-first mentality and saying the most important words a coach can say (within the appropriate context): “I love you, guys!” Man, that’s got the potential to set a kid and team’s soul on fire. If all the collective does is rooted in love and unity, buckle up ‘cuz WEEE REEEEAAADY.
(Also, handshakes. Definitely handshakes.)
- THANKS, GOD — Whether each day with your team ends in joy, sadness, laughter, or frustration, a team’s last “action item” must be unchanging: Give thanks to God for what He’s given. After each Friday night practice, our seminary hoops crew comes back to one of our in-house chapels (we’ve got some nice ones) and prays a Thanksgiving Rosary as a team: each Hail Mary replaced by a particular shared grace (e.g., “Thank you, Jesus, for the gift of our bodies.”), and each Our Father replaced by a Glory Be. It’s an amazing experience and one that’s helped us become closer and increasingly aware of God’s constant blessings bestowed on us. And at the end of the day, a team that prays together stays together. Competing (Sidenote: “competition” comes from the Latin competitio, which means “striving together” and a “mutually acceptable quest for excellence”) is great, but a team must never compromise and always aim to deepen its Christocentric character. Our Lord will take any team higher than could ever be “game-planned,” and most simply, your players will stay focused on what really matters.
Other ideas: Consecrate your team to the Blessed Virgin Mary; vote on a “Team Bible verse” for the season; if at the high-school level, consider sending five-minute “check-ins” (via Google Forms or a similar program) for players to complete daily or weekly — ask them about how much sleep they’re getting, where their energy and stress levels are, and about any other concerns/issues they’ve got, and if they have any particular prayer intentions they’d like the team (or the coach, at least) to keep in its prayers.
OK, that may seem like a lot to enact all at once. So just reflect and pray on it: Which of these touches your heart? Which of these seem attainable? Where are you seeing a need for growth yourself? Start with a personal inventory before advancing to any sort of implementation stage. The most important stuff need not be rushed. And remember, at the end of the day, what’s most important: your ministry of presence. Be there for your players. Don’t minimize them to “just players” or yourself to “just a coach.” When they need support, console them. When they need to grow, call them higher. Build authentic, loving bonds, and the Lord will bless your team in abundance … in ways both unexpected and unimaginable. Offer everything to God and Our Lady, and watch Them work wonders. There may be defeats along the way, but strive for the victory that is eternal.
You got this, Coach, and God bless,
First Theologian/Guard, Saint John’s Seminary (Brighton, Mass.)
Joe can be seen on the court in the 2023 documentary “Souls in the Game,” a co-production of Saint John’s Seminary and the Archdiocese of Boston that depicts the spiritual life of seminarians intertwined with their love of basketball.