Long-time football coach John Robinson said this: “We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than we are at play.” One of the emotions at the heart of play is joy. When your athletes compete with joy, it can significantly raise the level of their performance.
So why is it that the emotions of our players during competition are too often more along the lines of anxiety rather than joy? A significant reason can be our approach to coaching. In 3D Coach, Dr. Jeff Duke says that coaches may think joy doesn’t really have a place in sports. Dr. Duke acknowledges that he held this perspective early in his coaching career: “I used to interpret joy as a lack of focus. And that meant loss of control. Coaches are all about control. We need to be in control. My first inclination was to suppress that joy. And after a while, athletes will learn to suppress it too. And when they suppress joy, they aren’t free to be who they were created to be. Ultimately, that means they aren’t able to perform to their fullest potential.”
Rather than suppressing joy, we need to coach in ways that encourage joy. The Bible directs us toward this very thing for our lives as a whole: “…the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10b); “Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).
What exactly is this joy of which the Scriptures speak? Joy is a deep, consistent delight at the core of our being based not on favorable circumstances but rather on the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord. We experience this joy as we trust Christ rather than attempting to hold onto control. Our joy in Christ enables us to stay positive and encourage others even when present circumstances are challenging.
When you as a coach not only see the value of joy for your players but actually coach with joy yourself, it can be a game-changer for your team. This brings us back to the role of play. Yes, there will be hard work required if your team is going to improve and succeed – but sports are intended to be fun!
That’s why Dr. Duke implores coaches to do away with the “outwork” mentality. He writes, “[The ‘outwork’ mentality] will only lead to burnout for you, your coaches and especially your players, who will become complacent as they begin to realize that they can never truly work hard enough. Turning work into play will revolutionize your practices and produce better, more sustainable results on the field of play.” (3D Coach)
Be creative in building fun activities into your practices that can still help your players improve skills or conditioning while experiencing the joy of play. Fight the temptation to feel like you have to be in control at all times. May the joy of the Lord be your strength, Coach.