Ever since Arthur Holmes published The Idea of a Christian College, scholars with a stake in Christian higher education have reflected on the relationship between faith and learning. With entire works devoted to scholarship, teaching, and student affairs at Christian colleges and universities, it is perplexing that the athletics department at these institutions has not received similar treatment. Considering the cultural significance of sport as a vehicle for character formation, and its relative importance to student life on campus, intercollegiate athletics needs to be taken more seriously in conversations about faith and learning. My recent dissertation was an attempt to address this need by exploring how head athletic coaches at CCCU institutions understood their professional roles in light of their Christian faith.
One thing in which I was particularly interested was how coaches’ faith animated their pedagogy. In answer to this question, coaches described a wide range of faith-informed professional and educational practices that they used to cultivate faith and Christian character. Rather than enumerating these practices, I want to chart out three broader approaches that shaped the types of identities, virtues, and disciplines that coaches emphasized in their athletic programs. When identifying these approaches, I found they overlapped significantly with Richard Foster’s typology of Christian traditions in his work Streams of Living Water, which I will use here to foreground each approach.
The Pietistic Approach: Unity and Virtue
Foster defines piety, also referred to as holiness, as “sustained attention to the heart, the source of all action,” with the goal of transforming one’s inner life to “reflect the glory and goodness of God.”1 Coaches that were heavily influenced by this tradition emphasized a life of Christian virtue that flows from an ever-deepening spiritual intimacy with Christ. One mark of this approach was an appeal to a broad range of Christian virtues. Most commonly, coaches shared how they addressed all the fruit of the spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, and self-control) throughout the course of an academic year or athletic season.
To develop these virtues, coaches relied on a strong sense of community founded on practices of accountability and hospitality. Some coaches held regular (e.g., weekly or monthly) gatherings at their home for deeper fellowship with their athletes. Other coaches implemented routine exercises that required athletes to verbally encourage one another in front of the group. These practices created an environment in which individuals who did not uphold the team’s moral standards could be confronted within a caring community. One coach described the way her athletes held one another accountable as “calling each other higher.” The relational nature of this approach was an artifact of participants’ desire for unity that transcended a cohesive team culture.
At its best, the pietistic approach might be the most fruitful vehicle for thinking about sport as an engine for developing character. The impulse to generate a strong sense of community creates a wonderful structure where virtues can be taught, practiced, and acknowledged. One caution for this approach, however, would be a tendency to over spiritualize the faith in a way that is divorced from everyday life. This approach can breed a dualism that draws hard lines between the “sacred” and “secular” with sport being relegated to the secular realm. The result is that faith is not so much integrated into sport, as it is merely a separate set of practices added on top.
The Evangelistic Approach: Missions and Ministry
Broadly speaking, the evangelical tradition emphasizes the proclamation of the gospel through the confessional witness of the Christian community.2 While this was a shared concern of nearly every coach I interviewed, some made evangelism central to their programs. In the evangelistic approach, “kingdom-building” was the prevailing theme. The primary task of building God’s kingdom through coaching was to share the good news of the gospel through word and deed. Coaches who were more evangelistic in their approach tended to describe their professional role as a “platform” or a “mission field” where they could share their faith within their programs and mobilize their athletes to do the same with others.
One of the most important practices within the evangelistic approach was the act of sharing testimony. Coaches often designated regular times during which students and coaching staff could share their testimonies with the team. Some coaches even created a space after competition where both teams could join in prayer and several athletes could share their testimony in front of home and visiting crowds. Evangelistic coaches also embedded ministry work into their programs through annual international mission trips or more frequent local community service. I was particularly struck by coaches who made community service a weekly practice for their athletes.
The virtue of courage, both in sharing the gospel and representing it well in competition, was a strong theme in the evangelistic approach. These coaches emphasized living boldly with an unflinching commitment to excellence in moral and performance categories. At its best, this impulse was expressed in coaches’ desire for their athletes to honor God with the gifts they have been given by training hard and competing well. However, some coaches veered into language that conflated athletic excellence and Christian witness. The sentiment could be summed up: no one wants to hear the gospel from a losing team. The risk of this way of thinking is that it overlooks the fact that our identities need to be prioritized and may fail to recognize tensions between our faith commitments and certain forms of excellence.
Sacramental Approach: Contemplation and Incarnation
The sacramental, or incarnational, tradition is particularly attuned to the ways in which God is manifest to us through creation.3 Coaches who took a sacramental approach leaned heavily into symbolic practices and the aesthetic dimensions of sport that invite their athletes to deeply contemplate the presence of the divine in the ordinary. Most often, this took the form of leaning into the “play” element of sport. To combat a sports culture that prioritizes performance and production, some coaches emphasized the virtue of joy and the presence of God that can be experienced in the midst of training and competition. One coach even put his athletes through contemplative prayer and mindfulness exercises, during which they visualized moments of intense competitive pressure and the ways in which God was present in those moments.
Another mark of the sacramental approach to coaching was a robust understanding of justice and a concern for social reconciliation.4 Most commonly, coaches were aware that their institution, and perhaps the sport they coached, were predominately White and affluent communities. Several coaches worked with their athletes to put on camps and clinics to increase the access of their sport to lower-income families and youth athletes. In a similar vein, some coaches addressed and confronted racial tensions and their impact on team dynamics. Other coaches, mostly women, noted gender disparities in sport that were reflective of broader societal norms and initiated dialogue with their players and colleagues about how women could be better supported. A select few coaches also leaned into uncomfortable conversations about gender and sexuality, identifying themselves as advocates, or their programs as safe spaces, for LGBTQ athletes. In all these cases, coaches described justice as an important theme in the Christian narrative and a virtue that can and should be developed through sport.
Unfortunately, the sacramental imagination has been abandoned in many evangelical spaces for a host of reasons.5 Thus, it was unsurprising to see this tradition far less than the previous two in participants’ responses. The reasons for evangelicals’ ambivalence toward sacramental expressions of faith are valid, as they can easily lead to rote, legalistic, practices devoid of spiritual engagement. Even the pursuit of justice, without attention to the full range of Christian virtues, can become stale. Combined with the approaches above, however, the sacramental approach can be an extremely powerful tool to teach athletes that all creation is sacred and even our everyday practices are sites for communion with God.
Comprehensive Christian Coaching
The approaches I have described above are certainly not mutually exclusive. I spoke to very few coaches whose pedagogy could be described solely in terms of one category; rather, most coaches described a unique blend of practices within each of these approaches. My effort to identity various approaches was not an attempt to box coaches into one or the other, but instead to provide coaches with a framework for thinking deeply about Christian formation in sport and the wide-ranging forms it might take. Ideally, coaches at Christian colleges and universities would challenge themselves to meaningfully weave each of these approaches into a more comprehensive form of Christ-animated coaching.
- Foster, Streams of Living Water, p. 79-81
- Foster, Streams of Living Water, 185
- Foster, Streams of Living Water, 216
- Although Foster identifies a distinct “social justice” tradition, he also acknowledges that the sacramental tradition shares themes of justice and shalom in “cultural, political, and institutional life” (p. 220). I found coaches’ concern for justice was a part of a larger sacramental approach that sought intimate connections between religious and public life.
- For consideration of these reasons, see essays by Maurice Lee, Rhodora Beaton, and Byron Anderson in Williams & Lamport’s (2021) edited volume Theological Foundations of Worship: Biblical, Systematic, and Practical Perspectives