I was a gangly and scrawny 8th grader at a new school in Holland, Michigan who made the unfortunate decision to wear my Walter Payton jersey to a Detroit Lions school. I had no friends and was headed down the wrong path until one day a classmate asked me if I could dunk a tennis ball. I could. Immediately, I went from an outsider to someone who seemingly mattered. My whole world changed because of sport.
A few years later, I was a young coach who thought winning games was all about me as the coach. I arrogantly came into my first head coaching job with that attitude. After we lost our 13th game in row and finished the season at 2-19 I realized I needed to adjust my philosophy. I looked at my wife with tears in my eyes and said, “If this is only about winning, I am a complete failure.”
These two incidents have shaped my philosophy of transformation. Transformation happens one person at a time, and these experiences forced to appreciate the power of sport to influence and transform lives. In my role as an athletic administrator for more than 15 years, I have witnessed the horrors of poor perspectives on sport. Thankfully, however, I have more often been inspired by the way I have seen individual lives change through sport forever.
At Hope College Athletics, we have three pillars: Academic Success, Competitive Excellence, and Transformational Experiences. As a higher education institution we seek to educate our students and prepare them for future careers. We also believe that God has called each of us to “work at it with all our hearts as working for the Lord.” We want to win and give our best, not for our gain (although this is difficult in society today), but to give God all the glory and use our platform to honor Him. Every school wants to educate students and win. We are trying to differentiate ourselves by using academics and athletics to transform the lives of the student-athletes we serve every day of every season.
Christians are called “to not be conformed to the patterns of the world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.” This is difficult in sport because it is counter-cultural. I fully believe that sport can and will transform lives if done well. We’re trying. At Hope College we have been blessed with a full time Chaplain of Athletics who helps our athletes and coaches keep perspective; we have generous support for our SEED (Sport Evangelism to Equip Disciples) program which allows student-athletes to travel across the world to run sport programs and share their faith; and we regularly see the fruit of our coaches, staff, and administration investing in the lives of our athletes.
Sport is not life and should never be treated as such. However, the lessons we learn through the wins and losses, the early practices, and the grueling workouts can be used to prepare for the road ahead. In a broken and sinful world most of us have experienced significant heartache and loss. I am so grateful for the unique way that sport, at its best, has prepared me and thousands of others to handle those heartaches. That’s part of the transformation process. And it’s a joy to see!