Put Me In, Coach!

It seems like I’ve been coaching all my life. Even as a kid, I would coach my little brother and his friends playing backyard football. Part of the great fun in growing up in East Point, a southside suburb of Atlanta, was having a neighborhood chocked full of kids, ready for pick up baseball, basketball or football games at all hours of the day. Danny, Tony, Ricky, Collie, even Johnny were characters in my own Sandlot production.

Later, when I was in seminary, I coached a local YMCA team that played soccer in the highly competitive environment of Decatur, Georgia. This was back before there were girl leagues, so I happened to have two girls that I coached, Jennifer and Leah, the only two girls in the league. They were at that age when they had grown faster than boys. And obviously, it goes without saying, they were smarter and more mature than the boys. It also goes without saying, they were my favorites.

I taught them a defensive formation I learned in college, a “diamond”, that is simple but effective in preventing the offensive advances of opponents, like a magical web. Most coaches at that level are dads, so we were pretty much ahead of the curve in sophistication of game plans. A number of them went on from the mighty, mighty Panthers to play for Decatur High and won a state championship. And one of my girls wound up playing in college. As impressive as that is, those achievements were tertiary to the sense of team we experienced.

Later, I moved to Texas and was coaxed into coaching my son’s soccer team. Once again, I installed the diamond that Richie Warren had taught to me at Emory. There was one kid who was a little bigger than the other kids, but he lacked focus and aggressiveness.  He reminded me of Michael Oher of the real-life movie called The Blind Side, and I was cast in the Sandra Bullock role of pulling out his native gifts. Yeah, that’s right….me as Sandra Bullock. Deal with it!

I convinced Russell that he was the fiercest person on the field, in fact,  in the world as we knew it.  When an opponent came on his side of the field, his mission was to take the ball away from the intruder. I looked him square in his eyes and said, “You are the destroyer! Got that. Who are you?” And Russell would respond dutifully, “I am the Destroyer.” And he was transformed from tentative, reserved Russell into The Destroyer,  becoming aggressive during those games, destroying the offense of our opponents. A couple of years ago, he asked me to officiate at his wedding in Park Cities, Utah. As I drove up to the rehearsal at the tiny Episcopal chapel downtown, his mother greeted me, “The Destroyer is waiting for you!”. She had remembered, and reminded me of the coaching transformation I had wrought years ago, and we laughed. Luckily for the bride, The Destroyer had throttled back and expanded his repertoire of behavior to become The Lover. A good man, this Russell.

I have been a coach all my life. I coached young people who were trying on “the fit” of  adulthood, being a young man or young woman in a demanding world. I coached couples who were trying to get prepared to launch their marriage; worked with scared partners scrambling to keep their young marriages together; sat with folks to negotiate breaches in trust and promises broken; and counseled with older couples that were trying to bring life back into their intimacy. I coached people who were struggling with their identity, people who had experienced some sort of breakthrough or breakdown. And I’ve even coached people through their process of dying, as well as  those that had to say goodbye to a loved one. Coaching, it turned out, is part of being a priest.

It’s ironic. I’ve often had athletic coaches schedule time to talk to me about becoming a priest. I take them seriously and listen to their story as they tell me about the circumstances of their sense of calling to the priesthood. I always try to help them understand their unique position of being with young people, and the peculiar advantage of being with a human being as they are early in the developmental process. I attempt to get them to see what a noble job they have already and what they will be giving up by putting on a collar. But I have to admit, most of them don’t listen to my coaching, and they move forward with their plans. Foolish mortals.

At one time in my career, I was charged with coaching clergy that were graduating from seminary and heading off for their first work in a parish. My colleague, Kevin and I would meet with them for a couple of days each month, over a year, and assist them in thinking through this awesome and awful role of being a priest in community of faith, comprised of people who were mixtures of  sinners and saints. It was one of my favorite times, helping them figure out how to lead, how to challenge, how to comfort, how to be present to others. I did that coaching for five years, and it was such a gift from the Bishop of Texas and these emergent priests. Not surprisingly, I learned a lot about how to be a priest by coaching them to do the same.

I have coached persons in how to be people of faith, of finding and being their True Self, fighting off the temptation to just “get by”. Some people call it spiritual direction but it’s really the same as coaching soccer. I am just trying to bring out the very best of what may be undiscovered.  Rather than calling out another soccer player, I call out humans who are gifted, talented, compassionate, creative persons who have a special path to follow.

I have worked with other priests, a bunch of faithful lay folks, people who were figuring out where they fit in the vocations as doctors, lawyers, or tribal chiefs. I was fortunate to work with Trappist monks who were struggling to live out their vows within the crucible of community.  And recently,  I have worked with people whose careers had ended, and were trying to make sense and joy  out of retirement. Still coaching.

For the past few years, I have been coaching people in healthcare. I have loved working with executives who want to make healthcare a place of better quality care and more compassionate, more humane. Again, I have been fortunate to work with a team of colleagues who know the particular and peculiar challenge of healthcare, from both business and clinical sides. I’ve enjoyed working with a CEO who was retiring after a long successful career, moving on to another chapter of life. And I’ve coached a brand new CEO, taking on an unfamiliar role and trying to make good on a promise to transform healthcare, providing a model for the nation. I have worked with execs, docs, nurses, and administrators as they try to live out their vocation in the healthcare arena. Still coaching.

These days, I continue my coaching, therapy, and spiritual direction with a wide variety of folks. I still work with clergy who are trying the be faithful in their calling of leadership. I work with people who are trying to make sense out of a life that is not neat, but messy. And I work with folks that are seeking a way to live before they die. Still coaching.

Coach. It’s who I am.  I have been called Father, Doctor, Professor, Reverend, Canon, and in Texas, sumbitch. But it’s “Coach” that I love, “Coach” that I relish. It is where I get my juice, my psychic pay.

The best way I can describe it is to say that as a coach, I have the unusual privilege of coming alongside a fellow person, attending to what is going on, listening carefully to the story someone tells me, asking powerful questions that clarify, helping them make sense of their experience, and design plans for the living of their days. Building capacity. It’s good work, this being a coach. That’s why I am still coaching.

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