Spiritual leadership: The ministry of coaches

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Praying teams

Sadly, some of the worst coaches in the profession might be the ones that are employed on our faith-based campuses. Many of these individuals are active in FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) and engage in their local churches, but unfortunately they check their spirituality at the door when it comes to their coaching career. We have heard too many stories of manipulative coaches that embody the unethical win-at-all-cost culture and then lead their team in prayer. In my experience I don’t believe we are devoid of coaches who identify as Christians, but the challenge is finding coaches that see their profession as a ministry. During my investigation I found coaches that believed their profession was also their ministry.

One of the recurring themes of examining successful athletic departments was the expectation that coaches would serve in a pastoral role. One institution even developed the phrase ‘pastor coach’ to describe this dual responsibility. In fact, their philosophy was pushed to the extreme as they elected not to employ a campus pastor in fear their community would refer spiritual development to a singular office. The Vice President explained their philosophy: “We believe everyone employed here has a pastoral capacity, that’s why we don’t have a campus pastor. For us it would be too easy to say spiritual problems go to the campus pastor.”

Having spiritual minded coaches was expected among the institutions I visited. Equally impressive was that the coaches did not run from these expectations but embraced them as a part of their ministry. Coaches attended chapel, began practices in prayer, hosted team bible studies, engaged their opponents in cooperate prayer after athletic events, participated in local service outreaches, traveled on international mission trips, as well as many other spiritual formation strategies to assist their student-athletes to grow in their faith.

Men’s Soccer Coach Thiago Pinto revealed his pastoral heart in describing his team’s mission and purpose.

“The men’s soccer mission and purpose is to be a championship team that glorifies God through excellence in how we play, serve, and celebrate,” said Pinto. “We talk about it every day. We break that down because there is so much in there. Just the word championship, we want to be a team that is contending and winning. There are a lot of teams that win a championship but we want to be a championship team that glorifies God. The scriptures talk about how Goliath was a champion, so you can be a champion but not be a champion that glorifies God. How do we glorify God? We strive to be the best that we can be in how we play the game. Then we are going to serve, the way God calls us to serve one another. Lastly, we are going to celebrate, we are going to celebrate life the way that God wants us to.”

Interestingly enough while all the universities employed religion faculty and housed ministries offices, it was important to the ADs that spirituality not be automatically subcontracted outside of athletics. They were not opposed to partnering with faculty members and student development personnel; however as the primary recruiter of the student-athlete it was anticipated that coaches would play an active role in developing the whole student, including their spiritualty.


Intercollegiate Athletic Ministry Strategies

Throughout my research I was able to collect strategies of coaches serving as spiritual leaders, although Coach Mike Lightfoot revealed wisdom when he shared, “I think there are a lot of intentional strategies we do in developing the spirituality of our athletes however I think we have to be careful not to get caught up in programming.” Coach Thiago Pinto shared a similar perspective, saying “it is important to be intentional without being over programmed.”

Convicted by their faith and the university mission, the coaches I interacted with sought to utilize athletics as a vehicle for spiritual transformation. Coach Jody Martinez shared that he engages his student-athletes by praying at practice, establishing a team verse, monthly bible studies at his house, and monthly service projects in the community. While many different strategies were communicated, the four most discussed investments of intentional spiritual formation included (1) bible studies, (2) prayer, (3) retreats, and (4) mission trips.


1. Bible Studies and Devotions.

Throughout each of the athletic departments it was mentioned that Bible studies and accountability groups were established as spiritual formation strategies. Some coaches took active roles in leading Bible studies while others intentionally remained in the background to provide team leaders the opportunity to lead. On road trips and during the weekly practice routines all the student-athletes were expected to be in attendance for spiritual development opportunities which might include prayer, devotionals, Bible studies, testimonies, or service projects.

Coach Candace Moats has utilized team devotions as a chance for each coach and player to share their ‘Life Story’. Moats elaborated, “everybody shares where they are at with God. How do they see God? How does God see them? What journey are they on right now? What are those things that they want to grow in?” In previous years the process has taken a week for each of the members of the volleyball program to share their ‘Life Story’.

Similarly, Coach Mark Castro implemented devotionals during his preseason training. Each morning begins with a team devotion and time of worship. He described the scene, noting “I’ll do the first devotional, I’ll share whatever the Lord has placed on my heart and use the time to set the vision for the season. Then each of the coaches and team captains will take turns leading team devotions.” Typically, the athletes shared their testimony or background story of how they came to know the Lord.


2. Prayer.

It was understood that prayer at Christian colleges would be commonplace, however many different avenues to engage prayer were observed. Coaches initiated prayer before and after practices while corporate prayer took place through the public address system before athletic contests. Then after games it was common to find coaches and student-athletes holding hands with their opponent at mid-court or mid-field where a coach or student-athlete closed the event in prayer. Initiatives involving prayer included prayer partners, prayer at practice, and prayer in competition.

     A. Prayer partners.

Some teams implemented prayer partner programs which consisted of pairing up teammates who would seek each other out on a regular basis to pray. One coach took a unique perspective on prayer partners at the beginning of each practice during dynamic and static stretching. The vision was that during static stretching the student-athlete would partner up and share about their day, any challenges or prayer requests, and then ultimately pray for one another. The coach revealed that “stretching and praying is about 15 minutes, however there are times where we see two guys that are still praying and depending upon the day, I’ll either wait for them to finish or just let them go, I mean we’re talking about soccer but what they are doing is way more important than what we are doing.”

     B. Prayer at practice.

As mentioned previously, finding prayer at a Christian institution was not a new discovery, however the practice of integrating prayer into competitive environments was often a new experience for many student-athletes. Zach Miller reflected on praying at practice, saying “it seems small but we pray after every practice. Our practices can get heated but we still come together to pray. It is something that has meant a lot to me.” Heather shared, “this year we decided, as a team, to pray before every practice, to pray before every game. Coach doesn’t have to remind us to pray, it’s on us. Now before each game we pray and remember why we are playing.”

     C. Prayer at competition.

Praying with your teammates was universally accepted but praying with your opponent was a foreign practice that many athletes need time to embrace. One athlete detailed her journey from hate to acceptance of praying with opponents. “Praying after games was really hard for me, my freshman year I just wished we would pray before the game because when we lost I did not want to hold their hands. It was so hard, I just hated it,” she said. “Even my sophomore year when we were talking about doing it again, I was so against it. I’m not sure what happened but now I just think it is so neat because it is bringing it back to the fact that we are all God’s children. Yes this is a game and it matters but it is just a game. So now I really like it, but it took a lot of getting used to.”

One unique discovery was the cross country program that embraced prayer in the midst of competition. Maggie Dade shared the impact that prayer has had on her running career, saying “it is nice to know that you have someone praying for you. I found that to be really humbling because it is so easy to focus on myself and how painful running three miles is but I’ve learned the importance of relying on teammates. If I see a teammate, I’ll pray for her and it helps me push through. In high school I was always looking to defeat my teammate, fight for the top spot, but here our coach encourages us to run with our teammates, not against them.”

Praying teams


3. Retreats.

The concept of implementing team retreats was communicated by each of the coaches as an intentional strategy that enhanced team building, shaped culture, equipped leaders, and created spiritual encounters. Retreat length and location varied from program to program but each of the retreats was intentionally scheduled towards the beginning of the academic year. One athlete shared its impact: “Our retreat is my favorite time of the year because we go away and get rid of technology and coach talks about his desire, not to make us a basketball star, but to make us women of God.”

Coach Mike Lightfoot elaborated on the three day retreat he hosts annually at his house. “I just feel like we need to get them on my home turf,” he said. “They sleep here, I mean all of them. The retreat is a time for us to focus on what we want to accomplish.” Brandon Gerber added his perspective of the team retreat, nothing that “Coach Lightfoot took the time with us to get on the same page related to team goals and what we want to see happen, both spirituality and on the court.”


4. Mission Trips.

Engaging in global missions was another intentional strategy of spiritual formation observed across each of the athletic departments. It was such a major component in the athletic department that one coach shared, “I would be doing a disservice to any of my players if I did not take them on at least one mission trip in their four years.” The lifelong impact of missions in the lives of student-athletes was articulated by Coach Thiago Pinto, who said “I believe that some things are caught rather than taught. On trips something happens that shifts their paradigm and opens their heart.” Nearly every coach interviewed detailed years of athletic ministry trips which they have engaged with their student-athletes. Below is just a small sample.

  • A. Coach Jody Martinez and his teams have developed trips every other year as they have traveled to Alaska, Hawaii, and the Dominican Republic. Coach Jody Martinez described the different activities the women’s basketball program performed on a trip to the Dominican Republic: “We played nine games in five days, shared many testimonies, and visited two orphanages.”
  • B. Coach Thiago Pinto has led his teams on mission trips to South Africa, Brazil, and Niger. The men’s soccer program currently has multiple graduates who have become full-time missionaries. Pinto proudly communicated, “today we have soccer alumni that were impacted by our mission trips and now are impacting lives across the world, including China, Indonesia, and Haiti.”
  • C. Coach Candace Moats has taken her team, every other year, on a mission trip. In fact Coach Moats, who was a mission major in college, has been traveling on sport ministry mission trips for the past 30 years. Coats eagerly shared, “I love it, I love sport ministry.”
  • D. Coach Steve Boooks has taken his teams to Ireland, Ukraine, Alaska, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. The team also traveled domestically to Harvard Beach, a little lake town in upper Michigan, to serve its community.


In reflecting on the intentional spiritual formation strategies within these athletic departments and the concern of not being overly programmed I’m reminded of a conversation between a Rabbi and student as documented by author Phillip Yancy. In his book entitled Prayer, Yancey shared about a Rabbi who believes that experiences of God can never be planned or achieved. The Rabbi declared, “they are spontaneous moments of grace, almost accidental.” His student then asked, “Rabbi, if God-realization are just accidental then why do we work so hard doing all these spiritual practices?” The Rabbi replied, “to be as accidental prone as possible.” That was truly the desire of the administrators and coaches with whom I met, they wanted to embrace the various spiritual formation strategies to be ‘as accidental prone as possible’ in seeing their student-athletes grow in their faith.


Next post in the series: We are family: The power of developing close-knit relationships

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About Duane Aagaard // Chair and Assistant Professor of Sport Management, Pfeiffer University

A resident of Concord, NC, Duane has spent the past 15 years in higher education, 9 years as Director of Athletics at Southeastern University (Lakeland, FL) and the past 4 as a Professor of Sport Management at Pfeiffer University (Charlotte, NC). He is passionate about inspiring the next generation of athletic leaders to use sport for a greater purpose in changing our world. He can be reached on Twitter at @DuaneAagaard or via email at duane.aagaard@pfeiffer.edu

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