God as Coach

By Kersley Fitzgerald

It was 1992. Summer. I had just graduated from college and was recuperating from surgery. I was waiting for my first Air Force assignment, and should have been looking for a job, but I was still so weak I couldn't do a single sit-up. Thankfully, the Olympics were on.

It was two Olympics after Mary Lou Retton took the women's gymnastics all-around and led her team to the silver (and the Great Bear roared). It was just four years after Greg Louganis wacked his head on the springboard.

But the 1992 Olympics were held in Spain at the end of the Cold War. Nobody was boycotting nothing. And although the Soviet Union had been broken into more pieces than a Lego house, most of the Legos decided to compete together. In other words, the US was not expected to dominate.

Still, I was in love with the graceful Svetlana Boguinskaya, our women sprinters tore up the track, and Awesome Dawesome was so fun to watch.

Then there was diving. Greg Louganis had dropped off the map, but his fervor hadn't completely washed away. And, mind you, this was before cable showed the games on 18 different channels, so we watched what Bob Costas showed us.

What he showed was Americans winning a gold in men's springboard, a silver in men's platform, and a bronze in women's platform. If I remember correctly, it was supposed to be Tan Liangde's year. A Chinese diver, he had sat in the shadow of Louganis for ages. Now that Louganis was out, it was his turn to take the gold for the springboard.

Instead, here comes Mark Lenzi. An absolute upstart, he'd only been diving about eight years. But in the end, Lenzi took the gold, and Tan Liangde was stuck behind another American.

A lot of this I've had to look up, including Mark Lenzi's name. But I remember him very well. Not for his dives, but for what he did after each one.

Most divers hit the water, swim to the edge, hop out of pool, wipe their faces with a towel, and slide into the hot tub.

Not Lenzi. I still remember, twenty years later, how after every dive, good or bad, he would hop out of the pool, walk directly to his coach, and nod as the coach critiqued his performance. I'm not a world class diving fan, but I can't recall any other diver doing that. He didn't go to his mental happy place, he didn't strut around, trying to intimidate the other divers. He stood there, shut up, and listened to his coach. (This video is from Atlanta, a while later, but same idea.)

Believe it or not, that was a huge influence on my spiritual life. I'd gone to church my whole life, but I had a very confused view of Who God was and how He fit in my life. You may recall from an earlier post that college was the time when I won the gold for idiot choices. I came from a family that didn't teach their children. They mostly gave passive-aggressive disapproval after poor decisions. It was like living in a Calvinball game but with more frowning.

Lenzi's humility and his willingness to receive instruction with no defensiveness was completely foreign to me. Bear in mind that at the time of the above video, he'd already won a gold medal. But he still went to the one who knew him best, who could see exactly what he'd done, and who could explain how to improve.

This informed my view of God for a very long time. God became my benign coach. I could come to Him with issues because He'd already seen what I'd done at the performance. I could accept His critique or chastisement or encouragement because He was my coach and that was His role. I didn't have to be defensive. He might get disappointed, but I didn't fear Him. A good coach may be aloof or distant, but you have confidence that nothing he says or does is going to hurt more than what is necessary for your benefit.

I lived with the image of God as Coach for a long time before He figured I was ready to go deeper. Honestly, God as Coach can be exhausting. Everything in life becomes do/improve/get-it-right. There is grace in the process, but very little rest. Then one day after He'd given me a blessing and I asked what it was for, instead of, "To improve you in this area," I heard, "Because I knew you'd like it." And I finally realized what it was like to have your Coach also be your Father.

Sadly, Mark Lenzi died this April from a heart ailment. He was only 43. I don't know what his faith was, or if he even had one. But after twenty years, he's still my example of surrendering to God. I don't always remember to do this, but I still think one of the best things I can do after a challenge in life is to walk up to God, shut up, and nod as He speaks.

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Published 8-2-12