On Monday I spoke at Bethel University and had the chance to visit with several students and professors afterward. Campus Pastor Laurel Bunker invited me to teach as part of their Tru?tworthy Chapel series. I challenged the student body to go the extra mile to learn why Christianity is true so they can better defend it once they leave the safety of Bethel. Students are hungry to dig deeper into the evidence and over 200 of those in attendance signed up for free downloadable Case Making materials before I even got off the stage. Bethel is an amazing, energetic environment for Christian students, and their faculty is largely responsible. I wish everyone could have the chance to see what I saw on Monday; I returned from Bethel with great optimism about the future, and with a few words of wisdom. Prior to heading back to the airport, I sat briefly with a member of Bethel’s football coaching staff. Mike Fregeau has been a defensive coach at Bethel for over 16 years. He shared a bit of his coaching strategy with me and I was immediately impressed. At a time when football (at both the collegiate and professional level) seems to be replete with stories of poor judgment and controversial behavior, Mike reminded me of the role coaches can play in character formation. I came away with four character lessons from a Godly football coach:
Make Your Priorities A Priority
We all know the pressure coaches and players feel when it comes to winning. Under coach Fregeau, the Bethel Royals defense has ranked in the Top 3 in the MIAC in each major statistical category. Bethel’s football program has risen to national prominence and has become a perennial contender for the MIAC championship. Head coach Steve Johnson has done an amazing job. But in the context of winning, these coaches haven’t forgotten their calling as men of God. These aren’t just players they’re coaching, they’re young brothers in the Lord. Bethel’s coaches aren’t willing to sacrifice everything to win, and their priorities are unflinchingly fixed. They don’t just coach; they mentor. They don’t just teach; they lead. These priorities are still a priority.
Take A Stand Even Though It Will Cost You Something
Coach Fregeau told me something interesting about their concern for character. It’s not easy to set a standard and stick to it, especially when recruiting new players. Incoming recruits need to be more than great athletes, they need to be Godly men. It’s sometimes hard to find both characteristics in the same players. Mike said they have talented players on their team but they aren’t always as deep as other teams with whom they compete. If Bethel would lower their standards, they could easily recruit more talent to shore up an already impressive roster. But they won’t compromise, and as a result, they may not go as far this season as they might like. In other words, there may be a limit to how well Bethel can do in any given season unless they are unwilling to compromise. Bethel won’t trade their higher standards standards for a better record. Taking a stand will sometimes cost you something.
Don’t Step Out of Bounds (Even a Little Bit)
Mike teaches his players about the importance of unwavering good character. When trying to explain character to his players, Mike analogizes it to the sidelines on the football field. Players know they can’t step out of bounds with one foot and argue their still inbounds if they have the other foot on the field of play. If you step out of bounds, even just a little, you’re… out of bounds. There is no “half-way” out of bounds. In a similar way, players understand they can’t put one foot “in the world” and stay “in bounds” as a Christ follower. You’re either in or you’re out. The sidelines are clearly defined and easy to see. Each player has to choose how they will run, because stepping out a little is stepping out a lot.
Love Is More Than Affirmation
Coach Fregeau struck me as one of the most loving guys a school could hope for in their football program (just talk to him for a minute about his daughters), but his players may not always feel that way. That’s because, under Mike’s instruction, they’re learning about the proper definition of love. Love isn’t just about affirming and encouraging. Sometimes love is about correcting and disciplining. Mike put it this way: “Love is both ‘kisses’ and ‘kicks’.” Sometimes the most loving thing you can do for someone is kick him (or her) in the backside when they’ve stepped out of line or are in need of correction. In that sense, Mike seems to have the spirit of a good father:
“For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” (Hebrews 11:7-8)
Coach Fregeau understands the dual nature of love and the delicate balance between justice and mercy. He’s been working with his players to help them hold each together accountable with “kisses” and “kicks,” encouraging them to praise each other when appropriate but to also correct each other when necessary. Love takes more than affirmation.
If my sons were young enough to play in a university football program, I would want them to be winners both on and off the field. I would want them to excel athletically, but I would also want them to emerge from the experience as better men. Football can do that for its players (especially at the high school and college level). But it’s going to require men like Coach Fregeau, who are willing to prioritize, set a high standard (regardless of cost), strive without compromise and apply some tough love when needed: four important good character lessons from a Godly football coach.