Tricksy trainer

In the midst of Olympic coverage last week, I saw a couple of different interviews with current and former athletes who talked about the relationships they had with their coaches. In each of them, the athlete said that they didn’t always like what their coach made them do, but they appreciated enormously that the coach pushed them to develop their skills and compete at the highest levels.

The most extreme was Michael Phelps’ personal coach, Bob Bowman. Apparently over the years Bowman has played a whole range of tricks on Phelps, forcing him to swim under difficult conditions — stepping on his goggles so they’d fill up with water in the pool, making Phelps a little bit late for competitions to add extra pressure. Because of this extra-credit training, Phelps has developed the mental focus to deal with pressure and out-of-the-ordinary situations. In one of his Beijing Olympic races, his goggles did fill with water — and because Phelps didn’t panic, and because he had trained in such a way as to know where he was in the pool even when he couldn’t see well, he still won the race. Being forced into hard situations earlier in his training enabled him to win his historic eight gold medals in those Olympic Games.

In some respects, training is training, and right now I’m thinking about spiritual training in my own life. There are so many passages in the Bible about discipline and training, urging us to accept discipline as an act of love from our Father in heaven. One extended passage on discipline comes at the beginning of Hebrews 12, including this frank reminder:

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)

We don’t get our choice of how to be disciplined, like a swimmer doesn’t get to choose all of his or her own training exercises. It’s the trainer’s job to watch and see what the swimmer can’t, and to assign work that will strengthen what’s week and sharpen what’s coming into focus. It is a collaborative relationship, because only the swimmer can feel what’s happening in his or her own body and set to doing the work, but the trainer’s job is to push the athlete along, and that may well mean handing out work that isn’t welcome.

I’ve had a lot of experiences over the last 18 months that I didn’t want and that hurt a great deal. Some of them I’ve wrestled with and overcome, some are still underway, some have only just begun. It helps me to reframe these difficult things, thinking about high-level athletes and their trainers. They work together to push their level of achievement forward, and that’s no more or less than God is doing with his people — acting as our trainer, giving us hard, practical experiences that will teach us how to take on life’s difficulties and overcome.

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