The most important teaching on the field of play isn't about running or catching, it's about building character and faith.

True Glory

The most important teaching on the field of play isn't about running or catching, it's about building character and faith.

Highly competitive sports demand commitment and time from young players. Parents often want that time spent with coaches who will guide their kids to the winner's circle. But that's the wrong goal, say three coaches in the pages ahead. You'll also meet a parent and a former player who each have deep admiration for Godly coaches who develop character in kids.

Many kids imagine winning the big game. In their dreams, they triumph at Wimbledon, win the World Series or slam dunk their way to victory for their college team.

Parents do their own daydreaming. She’s fast and tall; maybe she could get a college basketball scholarship. But isn't it much more important that she becomes a woman of integrity? Kids need to learn about working hard, telling the truth and growing in faith. A wise parent knows a blessed life is grounded in faith and values, not winning games.

Helping children develop character takes more than an inner circle of family members. Support comes from pastors, teachers, counselors and neighbors leading children’s Bible studies. Put coaches high on the list too. Regardless of the sport, a coach can play a crucial role in a kid’s life.

In sports, highs and lows are so public, so raw, so meaningful that kids experience the full meaning of the sports cliché about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. And who is always standing by to mold gracious winners and losers? Coaches.

The wisest coaches understand that shaping young lives—rather than winning—is their most important task. A positive coach teaches honesty, hard work, self-sacrifice, forgiveness and even the truth of the Gospel.

If you are the parent of an aspiring athlete, connect your child to the best coaches possible. Find women and men who aim to shape kids’ whole lives—their sports skills, their role on a team, their integrity as a person and their faith commitment.

Avoid coaches who bully and scheme to win at any cost. Don’t go where winning is more important than honesty. Your child will only lose and perhaps begin to interpret honesty as a flexible term.

To understand how the best of these leaders approach their jobs, we spoke with three outstanding current and retired high school coaches.  Each approaches coaching with the goal of achieving something greater than winning a team trophy. Love is the word that defines these coaches. If you find a coach who exemplifies Christian love, put him or her on your team.


On a crisp fall day just a few years ago, I sat on the grassy hill next to our high school’s practice football field. I was a senior defensive end, ready to be encouraged by my coach’s pregame talk. Like a lot of coaches, he had a playbook full of applicable stories ready to inspire us, but his story of humility has resonated in my thoughts for years. 

We were a Christian high school that had recently rebounded from a slow season start. Our confidence was high; testosterone was in the air. On that day, Coach stepped to the front of the group and prayed. Afterward, he looked up; his eyes swept over all 45 of us. We were anxious to tear up the field the next day. After he walked us through the game plan, he told us a story. This was about a college game he had played. 

Coach was an all-conference tight end, a leader on his team. A week before a game, he was told he would be facing off against an all-conference defensive end with a reputation for being tough to handle. This information added much more incentive for Coach to play hard, as his pride was now on the line. Practices prior to the game were fueled by an intense desire to outperform this opposing defensive end. 

When the two teams met, Coach trash-talked his way through the game and ultimately beat the guy in decisive fashion. After the crushing game and feeling proud with a giant grin on his face, Coach offered this defensive end a pity handshake. Instantly, Coach realized his mistake. 

The opponent was a young man with a learning disability. Coach’s heart sank as he grasped what he’d done. He had disparaged the man’s character. He had also dishonored himself. 

Coach didn’t share his story with us to highlight poor behavior, but to remind us of the importance of humility and love. Without humility, how can we truly love our fellow brothers and sisters? Love is many things, but as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, love is not proud.

Some say sports don’t matter, but they do. The games and the people who teach them can make all the difference in a young person’s life.  As I reminisce on my organized playing days, I’m amazed at how the game of football, so simple in nature, affected the lives of everyone involved—from coaches and players, to the parents and fans who rallied behind us.  

The thought of running countless wind sprints and hurling my already physically exhausted body at lifeless tackling dummies on scorching hot, late-summer afternoons was not necessarily my first idea for fun. Don’t get me wrong, I love football and the detailed strategy needed to fully master it, but like a lot of others, I initially joined as way to be active and build friendships.  

Football is known for players and coaches with big mouths and even bigger attitudes, both of which Coach strongly discouraged. At the time I played, I didn’t appreciate or fully understand that my teammates and I were learning invaluable life lessons of determination, humility, cooperation and love. Now, as a college student, I realize how many things Coach taught me on the field. Turns out, I wasn’t just learning how to tackle and run fast. I was learning how to succeed in life.    — A.V.


Williams Photography, Des Moines, IA

Cade Lambert

Focus on Jesus

Win or lose, for the six years Cade Lambert coached high school football, every game ended with his entire team huddled together singing “You Are a Mighty Warrior.”*

“You are a mighty warrior
Dressed in armor of light
Crushing the deeds of darkness,
Lead us on in the fight
Through the blood of Jesus, 
Victorious we stand
We place You in the highest place
Above all else in this land.”

“There’s just something about hearing 50 young men singing; I get goose bumps thinking about it,” Cade says. “Partly it’s that there’s something special about seeing that happen in our culture. When you do hear it, you’re astonished at young men who are not ashamed to sing. You watch the moms as their young men sing and every one of them is crying. It’s quite amazing.”

Closing in song put the game into perspective, regardless of who won. It was one of many steps Cade took to keep his team’s eyes focused on Jesus. A victory on the field was a temporary thrill. A victory in spiritual matters had lifelong ramifications.

The life of Jesus was filled with lessons Cade wanted players to learn. Jesus put others before Himself, He came to serve and not be served, His life exemplified self-sacrifice and forgiveness. 

“From these things, you can develop a team where everyone is lifting up everyone else and creating a special bond. You can take those things from the Gospel and actually put them into your coaching to create great players who are also fine people,” Cade says.

Cade is currently Head of School at New Life Academy in Woodbury, Minnesota. His goals at the academy are similar to those he held when coaching. At the core is love. He believes that team members motivated by the love of Jesus help and serve each other, sacrificing themselves for the good of the team and forgiving mistakes. 

“Love sounds like a really soft word. But it’s not,” says Cade. “Love doesn’t mean you can do anything you want to do. Love can be tough sometimes. Talking about boundaries and holding players to account is an important part of the environment. It’s not just anything goes. When somebody rejects the team and rejects love, then they can’t be a part of it. Love is not soft all the time.”

To Cade, a Christian coach sees a team as a classroom or laboratory, whether it is football, basketball or another sport. His approach was one of unconditional love toward the players and encouraging everyone to make their best effort. The growth of athletes as people, believers and students was first; wins and loses were secondary. 

Lyrics by Kirk and Deby Dearman. Copyright © 1988 Integrity's Hosanna! Music

"I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."
Philippians 3:14 ESV

Photo courtesy of Kai Casey/CHSAAnow.com

Mike Swaim

Coaching for Life

Retired high school basketball coach Mike Swaim hears from former players now and then. He’s heartened whenever the conversation ends, “Coach, I still keep the rock in my pocket.” 

Back in the 1990s, Mike’s team earned a spot in the Iowa High School Boys State Basketball Tournament for the first time. His team would be playing a powerhouse  team from the other side of the state.

To understand his opponent, Mike sought insight from four coaches who had played the team. The verdict was unanimous: Enjoy the festivities at the tournament, but your team can’t beat theirs.

“I had no illusions about beating this team. Those coaches were telling me the truth. But God impressed me that I was to teach my kids to defeat the giants in their lives,” Mikes says.

He rooted around in his basement and found a favorite sermon from his pastor. It was about David and Goliath.

Then he sent out word to his team that they were having special night practices all week. The coach told them to come prepared to work hard and bring a Bible.

“Every night for seven nights, we read 1 Samuel 17, the entire story of David and Goliath. We were teaching the kids about life; this wasn’t about basketball,” he says. At the end, Mike distributed rocks to the boys as a remembrance. If we rely on God as our rock, any of us can defeat giants, he promised. 

When parents find coaches with this outlook, they have found a treasure.

“From a Christian perspective, no matter what sport you coach, your first job is to coach kids for life. That’s the bottom line,” Mike says. Look for coaches with a similar philosophy, and your child will be a success whether it is on a playing field or in any arena of work, community or home. 

In Mike’s view, the biggest mistake a parent can make is expecting too much from sports. The coach is concerned about how families approach games today. The stakes are being raised too high as younger and younger kids are pushed into athletics. A family may spend thousands of dollars each year to put a child on traveling sports teams. And it’s becoming common for parents to hire a private coach to train a young athlete. 

The goals are usually the same, says Mike: Parents are looking for all-expenses-paid free-ride college scholarships for their kids. There’s also the ever-present siren song of professional sports. “I tell parents that they need to understand the odds of their child playing sports in college. I did a study of it once. In the state of Iowa only five kids a year get basketball scholarships to attend Division 1 schools, each one with 15 kids on the roster. The odds are very much against your kid ever being one of the five,” Mike says. 

Parents need to be realistic about their kids’ athletic abilities. A few kids start fast and steadily improve. Each year, they increase in speed, strength, agility and other characteristics. For a few, their eyesight sharpens, their reach extends farther and their reflexes gain speed. Yet others may start peaking in some ways while still in middle school. Growth may simply slow. They may not have the fastest reaction times. For countless reasons, they may have little chance of moving up the sports ladder.

“Parents have to help their kids in middle school and high school understand when they hit that point,” Mike says. “Are they good enough to go on to the next level? If they aren’t having fun any longer, that’s a signal that they have hit their level. Your child may not become the next NBA star. Parents have to help their kids understand.” 

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
Hebrews 12:1 ESV

Photo courtesy of Kai Casey/CHSAAnow.com

Jessika Stratton Caldwell

Love-Driven Coaching

Last year was Jessika Stratton Caldwell’s first season as head coach for the Valor Christian High School girl’s basketball team. And what a season it was. The Lady Eagles won the Colorado State Class 4A Championship. 

As gratified as she was, Jessika felt deeper satisfaction in the influence she had on her team. She had achieved her primary goal of helping her players grow in character and deepen their faith.

“Coaching is such a unique opportunity to really dive in and develop relationships with young women,” she says. “I share with them; I walk through life with them. Very rarely do you, as an adult, get to spend extended amounts of time with young people like you do if you are coaching. You get to see them in their most glorified moments and in their worst moments.  I feel that’s where I have a chance to impact their life for Christ.” 

DIRECTION FOR HER LIFE

There’s a hint of pain in Jessika’s voice as she recalls a major turning point for her—and it was her worst moment ever on a basketball court. It was 2004 and her team, the Baylor University Lady Bears, was close to winning the Sweet Sixteen and advancing in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.

“It was a nightmare—this was broadcast on national television,” Jessika says.

With the score tied, the game was in its final seconds. The other team had the ball and charged the basket for a last shot. The ball was tipped in the air. Jessika and an opposing player leaped toward it, their hands touched and the ball remained just beyond either player’s control. The buzzer went off, ending the fourth quarter. 

But a referee called a foul on Jessika, indicating she smacked the other player’s hand. After the refs watched a replay, the foul stood as called. The other team made two free throws. Jessika and the Baylor team went down, 71-69. 

“That was a turning point in my career and my relationship with the Lord,” Jessika says. “While dealing with what had happened, I grew into a deeper understanding of how faith and sports can intersect and collide and lead to incredible spiritual experiences. It was such a difficult thing at the time, but the Sweet Sixteen turned out to be a wonderful moment for me. After that, I had this passion and knowledge of what the Lord wanted for me.”

She would become a coach.

DISCOVERING A GIFT

It took 10 years for Jessika to become the coach she believed she could be. Along the way, she played basketball in the Czech Republic with Athletes in Action, the sports ministry of Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ). She coached at two Colorado universities before accepting the assignment at Valor High in a Denver suburb. 

Gaining experience at each stop, she grew in the game, learning such technical skills as pacing her team on the court. She also saw that there was much more to a young woman than how fast she moves to the basket or how well she shoots from the foul line.

Jessika is part of a wave that is changing many sports programs at every level. In the past, fear-based coaching was common. But it is being pushed aside by coaches who see their main task as developing character in players.

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
2 Timothy 4:7 ESV

The most important teaching on the field of play isn't about running or catching, it's about building character and faith.

LITTLE LEAGUE

In our home, the sport was baseball. It started one night when I took my oldest child, Ben, to a California Angels game, figuring he would be asleep before the fifth inning. Wrong. Within a few weeks, we signed him up for Little League.

There was a line of good, if not great, coaches for the first few years. Then there was a memorable winter league that was excruciating to watch. Our son’s team lost every game. Through some foul-up, the team was signed up in the wrong division. Our kids were average 10- and 11-year-olds playing handpicked all-star teams of 12- and 13-year-olds. On the field, our players were helpless and hapless. It was one of the best things that ever happened to Ben.

The team had a few pitchers, my son among them. On his worst day, the opposing team was openly mocking him and challenging each other to see who could hit a ball as far as the houses rising just beyond the outfield fence. Home runs flew off their bats like cannon shots.

During those games, the coach always encouraged his players. He worked with them, improving swings or showing better ways to handle hot grounders. He never raised his voice and he always encouraged his team to show respect for teams that did not respect them. With each game, there were fewer tears, less anger and more determination. Maybe the cause was lost, but at least the team would stay close. 

The coach did that. He gave each player room to fail, space to grow and the will to succeed. All these years later, I can still remember the roar our team let loose when it lost the last game in a 1–0 squeaker. Only by the score did they lose.    —S.C.


The most important teaching on the field of play isn't about running or catching, it's about building character and faith.

RULES OF THE GAME

More important than rules are the principles that coaches, parents and players should embrace on the field. Each of our three featured coaches offers some of the ideas that they find help shape  better coaches, players and people.

For parents who want the best coach for their children, Cade Lambert offers three pointers. 

  1. The best coach is the one who commits to love your kids. 
  2. A good coach doesn’t constantly change schedules, lineups, strategies or other aspects of the game without good reason. This coach doesn’t juggle eight schemes. There is one great scheme. 
  3. A successful coach requires players use every second of practice to improve, while also making it fun for the team. The coaching staff should have fun, too, which will encourage the kids to do the same.

Character developed from a biblical perspective results in the best possible playing experience, Mike Swaim says. Here a few tips that will help everyone on the field.

  • Respect authority. Coaches deserve to be respected by athletes and their parents.
  • Teach your kids to love their teammates. Don’t join other parents who complain about the amount of playing time their kid is getting. That can divide a team. 
  • Opponents are not your enemy. No matter the side they are on, young players should never be booed or mocked. Kids on the other team need to be influenced for good by you just as those on your team are.

“Coaching can be fear-driven or love-driven,” Jessika Caldwell says. It’s easy to spot a coach who chooses the positive over the negative, she says. Look for a coach who:

  • Talks to the kids about the game—and much more in life.
  • Makes herself or himself available to players.
  • Pursues relationships with everyone on the team, paying special attention to those having a tough time.
  • Develops a team atmosphere where kids feel safe, secure and significant.
  • Contributes to an athlete’s skills as well as helping him or her off the court.

Jessika says, “These are all things you can look for. Moms or dads can see these things if they pay attention.”