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The Total Athlete

Article By: Tim Butler
Dana Hills High School, Dana Point, CA

A good coach will always seek ways to make their runners successful. Doing everything in their power to have athletes reach their potential becomes paramount to the most competent coaches. Where do they look to accomplish this altruistic goal?

All coaches will not argue about the importance of proper physical training meaning portions of distance, strength, and interval/speed integrated into their regimen. Most coaches will even buy into the idea of developing certain mental aspects of their athletes that include academics (grades), socialization (relationships), and mental toughness (personal focus and discipline). However, few coaches dare to venture deeper into their athletes' personal development. This area seems to be neglected for various reasons. Ironically, it could make a huge difference in the level at which they compete and live. I'm talking about the area of the spiritual development.

I know you say "We can't do that because of the separation of church and state". Then I ask, why is our national motto "In God We Trust"? Why does our pledge of allegiance state that we are "one nation under God"? Why do we have chaplains in the armed forces? Why does our government annually declare a National Day of Prayer? Or didn't you know the concept of "separation of church and state" is a very recent interpretation by our Supreme Court that has developed within the last 40 years. I happen to agree with President Clinton when on May 30, 1998 he contended that "Schools do more than train children's minds." They also help to nurture their souls by reinforcing the values they learn at home and in their communities. I believe that one of the best ways we can help schools do this is by supporting students' rights to voluntarily practice their religious beliefs, including prayer in school. For more than 200 years, the first Amendment has protected our religious freedom and allowed many faiths to "flourish in our homes, in our work place and in our schools". As coaches, I am not saying we have to be God pushers, but I do think that assisting our athletes in the physical and mental areas of their development and neglecting the spiritual is short changing the people that come to us.

So before I explain what I mean by spiritual let me tell you what it is not. It is not a method to aid one's focus or concentration like meditation. It is not a visualization routine to deal with an unknown future or unsettling realities. It is not some metaphysical concept to explain what you can't understand. It is not family loyalty or values.

When defining spiritual we need to understand this term consists of some of the most essential needs known to man: the meaning of life, security, and love. I believe God is the best answer to perhaps the greatest human need: The meaning of one's existence. Who am I? What am I doing here? Why do I exist? Ken Hamm in his book, The Lie Evolution, put it this way: "Whatever you believe about your origin does affect your whole world view, the meaning of life, etc. If there is no God, and we are the result of chance random process, it means that there is no absolute authority and if there is no one who sets the rules then everyone can do whatever he hopes or he can get away with". Ken Hamm continues, "God created everything, therefore, he has absolute authority because humans are created beings. They are under total obligation to the one who has absolute authority over them. Our absolute authority has a right to set the rules. It is in our own best interest to obey because he is the creator. Thus what is right and what is wrong is not a matter of anyone's opinion, but must be in accord with the principles found in the Word of God who has authority over us. Just as a car designer provides a manual for correct maintenance of what he has designed and made, so, too, does our creator supply his creation with all the instructions that are necessary to live a full, free and an abundant life. God has provided his set of instructions not out of some spiteful or killjoy design, but because he loves us and knows what is best for us."

Eric Liddell, the 400 meter gold medalist at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, was also known as the athlete who refused to run on Sundays because it was the Sabbath. He was characterized in the Academy award winning film "Chariots of Fire". Liddell was quoted during the movie saying "when I run I feel God's pleasure". Eric Liddell understood that what he did it for was a higher reason than his own name, or school or family or country. He did it for the noblest reason of all--pleasing his eternal creator. The one who gave Liddell his ability should naturally get the credit for the accomplishment just as the Ford Motor Company should be credit for its award winning features instead of the particular model themselves.

The Bible says "For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities, all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together". (Colossians 1:16-17). Everyone, not just our athletes, search for true meaning to their life. I believe God is that answer.

Another subject included in our term spiritual is what I call security or feeling safe. Fear and anxiety are a fact of life; no ones escapes those emotions. A spiritual tack will determine how one copes with those feelings. Any coach would agree that all of their athletes bring one degree or another of insecurities, fears or personal battles that cause a loss of personal peace. These detract from the athlete's ability to prepare and compete at their potential. The God says "For this reason I say to you do not be anxious for your life as to what you shall eat or what you shall drink nor for your body as to what you should put on. Is not life more than food and the body clothing? But seek first his Kingdom, and his righteousness and all these things shall be added to you". (Matthew 6: 31-33). I believe the personal peace that everyone seeks is found in a relationship with God. God promises a happy ending even in adversity "and we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose". (Romans 8:28).

Logic tells us that greater peace can enhance not only athletic performance but also coping mechanisms for the arena of life. When our athletes learn more than what's in it for me they also realize the bigger picture of where they fit in the scheme of things beyond themselves. Motivation changes. Perspective changes. A higher purpose and meaning appears. Eric Liddell was one of the first to discover this within the athletic world. Thousands have realized it since, including this writer. How many interviews on TV have you seen where the athlete and coach ascribe their accomplishment to God?

The spiritual needs of purpose and security are not so obvious as the third: Love. Much has been said in books, movies, and media in regard to the human need to give and receive love. The problem is that love in the purest sense is perhaps the greatest force in all human experience. However, in human experience, love has been reduced to a sexual act or conditional favors. "Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us". (Romans 5:7-8). "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? But in all these things, we are overwhelmingly conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord". (Romans 8:35, 37-39). Most psychologists would have to agree when a person experiences that kind of unconditional love that positive behavioral qualities would follow. Confidence and focus are perhaps among a few of the many positive results.

I believe every athlete who comes to us deserves our best. But sometimes our best is not good enough. Can we give purpose and meaning to life? Only God, the creator can. Can we protect them sufficiently so they feel safe? Only God, the omnipotent can. Can we love unconditionally? Only God is Love.

In the attempt to meet the needs of our athletes, wouldn't it be wise to use all the resources available to enable them to be successful? My point is this. Even with our best effort in the physical and mental, I feel most coaches fall tragically short in meeting the spiritual needs. I also believe those integrated spiritual components along with the mental and physical into our coaching allows our athletes to become the complete, total athlete that God has created them to be.

Jim Elliot, ex-wrestler in college eventually served as a Christian missionary to the Auca's Indians in South America. The Auca's along with four other missionaries massacred him. Years later Jim's wife returned to the same tribe and converted the very same men that murdered her husband. Before Jim Elliot left for South America he made this statement "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose". Jim Elliot understood that giving up his earthly life to attain eternal life is a wise goal. Sharing it with our athletes would enhance their performance and enrich the rest of their lives. Are we giving to our athletes just part of the puzzle or all of the pieces?

Coach Tim Butler

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