Thursday, August 09, 2012

Faith Works 8-11-12

Faith Works 8-11-12

Jeff Gill


Faces to watch and stories to hear




Tomorrow night the London Olympics closing ceremony will hand over the flag of the games to Rio de Janeiro in 2016.


It's been an amazing two weeks for the winners and the spectators, a mixed bag for TV viewers (a fall preview wedged into the coverage because we'll excuse Matthew Perry anything? Really?), and for many athletes, it really is simply about the honor of participating.


Quite a few are shrugging philosophically about the Olympic Games now past, and are already starting to prepare for Rio.


As are the coaches.


It's probably one of the many signs of growing older, but I find myself watching and intrigued by the coaches back on the bench or behind the starting line more than I am the athletes.


The truth is, these folks often have competed in Olympic Games themselves, often not to medal level but many had, and over their lifetimes they will be a part of the Olympic movement longer than any of their protégés .


You probably recall Sam Mussabini, the pioneering running coach for Harold Abrahams during the 1924 Games in Paris, so memorably portrayed by Ian Holm in "Chariots of Fire." Ben Cross and Ian Charleson play Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, which are the roles you usually recall, but it may have taken a second to think of Sam.


If I say "remember the guy who punches a hole right through his hat, sitting in a little hotel room where he couldn't see a thing" then you remember Sam. (And Ian Holm is the guy who played Bilbo Baggins in the "Lord of the Rings" movies.)


Sam was in that room, punching that straw boater, because in the 1920's coaches were disreputable and in many circumstances banned: if you paid a coach to train and guide you, you weren't an amateur, just as if you were being paid yourself.


The definitions of amateurism have obviously changed (was that LeBron I saw playing Olympic basketball?). And coaches are not only in the stadium but next to the athletes. They occasionally get interviewed by the media, but they tend to stay in the background unless their names are Béla Károlyi.

There was one Danish swimming coach whose craggy features and gentle smile caught my attention even as the Phelps & Lochte drama was in the foreground; the Chinese gymnastics coaches, alert on the side of the mats during the uneven bars competition, poised to catch their tiny charges if they slipped but tensed to stay out of the way so their routines could continue on to the medal stand.


What experiences, how many frosty mornings beginning in darkness, how many locker rooms – and while you certainly would wonder that about the young athletes (and even those they call "old" are surely young themselves), what does that same routine look and feel like across years and decades, with technique and technology and time changing around them, while the essence of their sport remains the same? How do they adapt, adjust, learn, hold fast?


Paul, in the Christian New Testament, uses a number of sports images in his letters to churches. Given the stock image we have of him as short, bald, and possibly epileptic (or whatever the thorn in his flesh might have been), we usually relegate him to spectator status, obviously not much of an athlete himself.


But considering the letters as a whole, I wonder if we might usefully imagine Paul to be Sam. Sam Mussabini, the skilled coach.


That's the kind of leadership he's doing through the letters, nudging, observing, guiding, occasionally directing but more usually just pointing out all the "don't do that's" and cheering on the "do that more" choices his trainees make. Paul is being a coach.


Coaching is a category of counselor and mentor that you hear about in everything from personal fitness to business consulting, not just when you take your kid to youth soccer games. It's a role that we often need even in the practice and activities of faith. Clergy may or may not embrace that sort of role, but I think in some ways we all need a coach from time to time. Not always right at our elbow, but observing, reflecting out of their greater experience, communicating with grace and precision just enough to help us make better decisions on our own, but ones we might not have made without a good coach.


Who's coaching your journey in faith?


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; he's helped coach youth basketball & soccer teams, but not very well. Tell him about your coaching experience in wider contexts at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.