College Football Saturday usually holds its fair share of upsets, which makes College Football Monday pretty interesting for players across the nation. This weekend, after seeing Texas A&M upset the No.1 ranked Alabama, Rozann Carter reflects on how coaches both act and react on either side of Saturday's final scores and how the best coaches hold their pre- and post-game responses in appropriate tension.
Saturday night, I watched in (admittedly hopeful) disbelief as the Fighting Texas Aggies upset top-ranked Alabama in a flurry of big plays, even bigger turnovers, footage of sad fans in their regrettable body paint, and overwhelming amounts of traditional school spirit. As a college football fan with a vested interest in the “choking” of teams above my team’s ranking, I took a certain level of delight in the halting of the rolling tide. But, as I watched the epic battle unfold, as the cameras panned to each team’s coach and to their pre-play action and post-play reaction to a missed field goal, a fumbled chance to cross the goal line, or a silly lack of coherent decision making on the crucial third down, I thought about the distinct difference, but delicate balance, between this “pre-“ and “post-“, and what the balance has to say about leadership.
Any coach will attest to the fact that preparation for competition undoubtedly involves passionate, bold, and stark directives on what is expected from his/her team. Father Barron has many commentaries and sermons regarding this dynamic—the shaping of the player to ensure that he or she is adequately trained so as to be free to operate at his or her highest potential is what the “big game” is all about. The pre-game or pre-play coach, then, is not aiming to make the player comfortable or content, only to make him a player. Having the wisdom and experience gained from loss, defeat, and squandered potential, he does everything in his power to coerce the player into avoiding the hard-earned lesson, into embracing the wisdom and behaving in such a way that the subsequent games and plays do not have to compensate for a regrettable start. He holds in his mind the ideal season, the perfect game, the seamlessly orchestrated play, and he desires his players to experience this ideal. He is “satisfied” with nothing less.
However, if he is a good coach, he is “pleased” with much less. He is pleased with the ideal aspects of every well-intentioned effort from his players. Preparation leads to action, and on the other side of the action, the coach’s behavior demonstrates his deep love for his players. His behavior embodies forgiveness, meaning it forgets the negative aspect of the well-meaning but mistaken action and gleans from it that which will propel the player to perform with greater skill the next go-round. He does not lower his standard; he merely remains focused on it.
The problem lies in confusing the pre- and the post-. A lukewarm, coddling pre-game disposition is akin to the spoiling of a child in the way that C.S. Lewis describes it — appearing to be loving when it is actually cowardly and selfish. Preparation for the game, in any area of life, is not helped by a soft, disinterested view of success or failure. It is unapologetically pro-success, pro-potential, and pro-player. A preemptively forgiving attitude, in this circumstance, relativizes the ideal and waters down the “good”.
At the same time, a post-mistake disposition that is coldly focused only on the lost ideal misses the mark insofar as it loses focus on the aspects of the game that are still to come. Dwelling only on the frustrated failure, it hypocritically forces the player to live in self-deprecation without the hope of another pass, another kick, another chance to improve.
Apply this to any moral conviction, any relationship, any attempt to help another or yourself live in the freedom of God’s unconditional love and you are mimicking Christ. This pre- and post- is the great Both/And that displays the nature of God who loves a sinful humanity. He wants us to succeed more than anything, but he Himself is the very dynamic of forgiveness that we fall into when we fail. Again, he is satisfied with nothing less than our success in loving, but he is pleased, even still, at our efforts to love. Our sin divides the pre- and the post-, and we shouldn’t expect to mix up those two reactions, hoping to please him without aiming at the ideal or scrupulously expecting he will only be pleased with our perfection.
As we aim to positively affect society— or to grow closer to Christ on a personal level— we would do well to keep both of these reactions, properly ordered, in mind. This is what he means, too, when he calls us to be “wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” In forgetting the dual-nature of this call, we angrily act like “I-told-you-so” serpents, or we float around like cherubic doves with the mistaken perception that participation in what is “wrong” is none of our business. It’s an art, this “pre-“ and “post-“. That is why good coaches get paid the big bucks for getting it right.
However, the “proper order” of this love applies to us because we operate on a timeline. God is outside of space and time and knows of a third way, which includes the pre- and post- -- and goes beyond the temporal. This way is demonstrated by the wounds of Christ. God, the perfect coach, can find inchoate in a mistake or loss the future glory. The world saw the crucifixion of Christ as failure, as evidence of defeat, but God knew better.
The perception of the greatest good is always present to God, yet we can only perceive it in retrospect. So, while we are either coaching or being coached toward the ideal, he is working out all things for the good of those who love him. And through it all, he is bringing us to himself, both as imitators of his love and as recipients of his grace. The best coaches submit to this in humility even as they strive for an ideal performance.
None of this is to say that Alabama’s loss was God’s will. Perhaps, however, his Mom had something to do with it… (Go Irish.)
Rozann Carter is the Creative Director at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and an unapologetic Notre Dame fan. (La la la la la, she's not listening...)