Sunday, November 08, 2015

The Long Arc of the Coach/Athlete Relationship: Until Death do We Part?

2015 Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture
The Spirit of Sports
Presenters – Marlene Bjornsrud and Gil Stafford

Topic – “The Long Arc of the Coach/Athlete Relationship: Until Death Do We Part?”

I had been retired several years from my coaching career. Late one night, I was awakened by a text from a former athlete who played on a team I coached thirty years ago. The person was in a panic. Their life was a mess. Desperate, they had turned to me for counsel. When I phoned, I found myself feeling like we were trapped in a black and white photo taken when we were both in another dimension of life. The former athlete wanted me to still be that spiritual guide who existed years ago. But my understanding of faith and life were in a much different place now. The question is, had I built a relationship that would sustain thirty years of change?

The coach/athlete relationship has many possible facets, among them, teacher, mentor, advisor, and spiritual guide. Like all human relationships, the coach and the athlete build a bond developed across the arc of several phases—getting acquainted, growth through sharing a common interest, building trust by surviving defeat, creating a safe environment in order to get beyond the personality masks, imagining the possibility of a sustained relationship.
As intercollegiate athletics rapidly changes into a revenue-based, winner-take-all pressure cooker, is it possible for a coach and athlete to develop a relationship based on authenticity, reciprocity, and evolving spirituality?

Some would say that the business of college sport has diminished its purpose as an integral part of educating the whole person. Coaches are evaluated on the basis of the competitive performance of 18-22 year olds and the revenue stream, or lack thereof, derived from their sport. Recruiting demands a focus on finding the next class of athletes rather than being present to those currently on the team.

What does this mean to a coach who is a person of faith? Is it possible for a coach to seek success and significance simultaneously?

The coach/athlete relationship has two unique factors that shade the color of their experience—the intensity of competition and the expected predetermined length of the relationship. Bjornsrud and Stafford’s presentation will explore the facet of the coach as spiritual guide during the competitive phase of the relationship, one that can be sustained years after competition.

Spiritual relationships between the guide and the mentee are often reliant upon concepts found within commonly held values concerning faith and religion. How can coaches create spiritual relationships that are not confined within the language and theology of one specific faith tradition?

This session will explore three elements essential for the creation of sustainable spiritual relationships between coaches and athletes:

1. RECIPROCITY: Developing a team culture based on mutuality and responsibility for coaches and athletes alike empowers the athlete to accept the outcomes of their behavior in all relationships and establishes trust between the coach and the athletes. Relationships exist as a two-way street.

2. AUTHENTICITY: Building an environment that encourages athletes and coaches to bring their whole self to the team - their interests outside the sport, their family circumstances, sexuality, faith differences, and whatever else distinguishes them as an authentic human beings – builds a relationship platform that extends beyond the field of play.

3. EVOLVING SPIRITUALITY: Cultivating an atmosphere of curiosity about life allows coaches to be vulnerable enough to admit they do not have the answers to life’s “Big” questions. While athletes may need answers and guidelines during the first half of life, learning how to ask questions will sustain them in the second half of life. Coaches must model an evolving and individuated curiosity about the journey called life. This will foster the trust that grows sustainable relationships.

Postscript: At this presentation, Marlene Bjornsud presented the basis of thought as stated above. She told a personal story of a long term coach/athlete relationship, particularly in an athlete's time of need. She went on to say that she and I do believe that the coach/athlete is, indeed, a lifetime endeavor.

For my part of the presentation, I told two stories that have not had happy endings. In both stories, I shared the pain and risk of reciprocity. In both cases, I share my own part and failure in the complex and troubled lives both athletes have suffered after leaving the game of baseball. Coaching is a very messy endeavor with few easy answers.

Gil Stafford is an Episcopal priest and the Canon Theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. He spent twenty-four years at Grand Canyon University. He was the head baseball coach for twenty years winning three NAIA National Championships. He was also the school’s Director of Athletics. In 2000, Stafford became the president of GCU, serving for four years. He was the only standing president to simultaneously be an NCAA Division I coach.

Marlene Bjornsrud is the Executive Director of the Alliance of Women Coaches. She coached collegiate tennis at Grand Canyon, winning the first NAIA National Championship for women. At GCU she also served as an athletic administrator. Later, she was an athletic administrator at Santa Clara University. Followed by being the first general manager of the San Jose CyberRays of the professional Women’s United Soccer Association.

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