In November, 1985, Lou Holtz left his job as head football coach at the University of Minnesota to take his dream job — head football coach at the University of Notre Dame. Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame from 1952-1987, said to him: “Lou, I can name you the head coach, but I can’t name you the leader. Titles come from above. Leaders are selected by those under you. They will follow you if you have a vision and a plan.”  

Coaching is a difficult, often thankless job. Coaches are revered for their team’s wins, and blamed for their losses. The mantle of responsibility to have a successful season and to guide young athletes as they grow is a heavy one, and parents have high expectations.

But for some kids, their coaches are the only adult influence they have outside of school. In this society of fractured families and parents working multiple jobs to make ends meet, many kids who are lucky enough to be part of a team crave the direction and discipline offered to them because it simply does not exist elsewhere in their lives. The boundaries, rules, and expectations can be a welcome respite from what can be a somewhat chaotic existence.

The coaches’ influence over these student athletes cannot be underestimated, and all the kids place a high level of faith and trust into the ones who hold these positions. Like a parent, their words, actions, and attitudes — both good and bad — carry more weight than they probably realize. But as Fr. Hesburgh noted to Holtz, being a coach does not automatically make someone a leader worthy of being followed.

So, how does a coach trade his title for that of leader? According to Holtz:

  1. “There are two types of leaders: those that lift up, and those that pull down … The whole secret is to lift people up: to get them to understand how good they are, what they are capable of achieving, what they can do, and things of this nature. When you are in the leadership role, you can not worry about being popular. Your job is to have standards.”
  2. Coaches and athletes need to be able to answer these questions: “Do you trust me, on and off the field? Are you committed? Do you care about me?”
  3. Prioritize time by employing the WIN strategy, “What’s Important Now?”

Take some time this week to pray for your child’s coaches, and maybe send a quick email of thanks for all the time and energy they spend preparing for every practice and game. Your positive reinforcement may be the encouragement they need to finish the season strong, and set a strong example of leadership for all the eyes that are watching and the ears that are listening. Today’s players are tomorrow’s coaches, and what they absorb on the field this season will play out in how they treat others in the future.

“I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself, he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.” John 5: 19-20