Editor’s Note: Joel Hueser was my high school basketball coach and one of the most important people in my life. Along with helping me develop as a basketball player, he inspired me to think more deeply about the integration of my faith and athletic identities. That journey ultimately led me to enter graduate school and to study the historical intersection of sports and Christianity. I certainly would not be in my position today without his example and inspiration. As you’ll see from this post (and as I saw way back in high school), one of Coach Hueser’s best qualities is his desire to keep learning. That, to me, is the mark of a great leader: the learning and personal growth never stops.
I’ve been a Christian since my senior year in high school (1984). I started coaching high school basketball at the age of 23 (1989). Over thirty years later I’m still at it on both counts.
When your faith and sport collide, as mine did, there is a unique tension. From the start the Fellowship of Christian Athletes has helped me navigate that tension. It was through FCA that I accepted Christ and felt called to coach. And it was through FCA that I was introduced to authors like Wes Neal, who helped me see the primary goal of my coaching: To conform to the same likeness as Jesus Christ through my athletic performance. Scriptures such as Romans 12:2 (“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”) and Ephesians 5:1-2 (“Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us”) became focal points for how I wanted to coach.
To say I have perfected this process is the furthest thing from the truth. In some respects it’s gotten harder. But here lies the secret: it’s not about trying harder. That’s a lesson sport teaches us. The harder you try, the more successful you’ll be. Nope. That’s not going to cut it with “Doing Sports God’s Way” (a phrase Wes Neal and FCA use). My true source of strength is found in His power, not my own. 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.”
There’s a second secret, too: God is not done with us, no matter where we might find ourselves. Even though I’ve been coaching for three decades, every season there are new ways and opportunities for Him to work in my heart. This season was no exception.
At Papillion-La Vista South High School, where I’ve been the head boys basketball coach for seventeen years, we compete against the best of Nebraska’s best. We had a talented team this year with great people, but there was no guarantee that it would show up on the scoreboard. Still, we built momentum as the season progressed, finishing the regular season with four straight wins, two of them against teams ranked in the top five. Our confidence was as high as our hopes. A berth in the state tournament seemed within reach.
In Nebraska, eight teams qualify for the state tournament and there are two ways to do it. The first is simple: win your district tournament. With seven districts, seven teams earn a trip to Lincoln (the state capital) through that route. The second way, for those who fall short in districts, is through a wildcard spot. Only one of these is awarded, and it is based on a points system. We had finished the regular season sixth overall in wildcard points. This meant we were considered a favorite to win one of the seven districts. With our confidence running high, things seemed to be going well at first. We held an eight-point lead over our first-round district opponent in the fourth quarter—until our best player sprained his ankle and had to leave the game.
This is not mentioned to take anything away from our opponent. There is no guarantee that we would have won if the sprained ankle did not happen. And our opponent likely faced their own set of challenges that they had to overcome. But it does point to the uncontrollables in sports and in life. Suddenly what appeared to be a locomotive gaining more and more momentum down the tracks was derailed. When the buzzer sounded, our hopes for a district championship were dashed.
What now? Since our first-round loss happened on a Saturday, we had to wait until Tuesday to learn the fate of our season. Our only hope was for the five teams ahead of us in wildcard points to win their districts. One upset, and our season was over. This made for seventy-two hours of anguish as we waited to see what March had in store for us.
As I do with all of life’s circumstances I brought this to my Lord and Savior. If my purpose is to conform to the same likeness as Jesus Christ, this step is a no-brainer. But even if it is simple, it is not easy. It never is when it comes to navigating the difficult waters of winning and losing and coaching the game I love.
The uncertainty of what to pray for weighed especially heavy on my heart. I didn’t feel right praying for certain teams to win and others to lose. Praying to win has always been a hard pill for me to swallow. Don’t get me wrong, we serve a big God capable of handling all of our prayers. And we want to be unflinchingly honest when we bring our requests before God. But for me, at this particular mile-marker in my faith journey, it wasn’t about that. It was about fully trusting Jesus with either outcome, that he himself would be enough. I read it once like this: Jesus + nothing = EVERYTHING. I wanted my life to reflect my faith.
So I turned to the Scriptures and a devotion written by John Piper. He says, “Trusting Jesus glorifies God.” I want my life to glorify God so why wouldn’t I trust God? Simple, like I said before. But not easy. In fact, this is one of my greatest struggles. I try to control everything. And when events don’t go my way, I tend to question God and doubt His plan for my life. Piper cites Romans 4:20: “Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God.” That’s what I want. Faith like Abraham.
I found myself pleading with God to create in me a clean heart. To break me down. And He did. He shared with me a Cody Carnes worship song called “Nothing Else.” The impact was immediate when I heard the second stanza:
Oh, I’m not here for blessings
Jesus, You don’t owe me anything
More than anything that You can do
I just want You
This was the heart posture I desired. Did I still want our season to extend into March? Of course! But the big picture was to glorify God. And if trusting Jesus with this (and all) outcomes brought glory to God, then that is what I wanted. Trying harder meant nothing. This was a “white flag surrender” to God’s will being done.
By now you might be wondering who ended up getting the wildcard spot for the 2020 Nebraska boys basketball tournament. I’m grateful to say it was us. Make no mistake, waiting for those five games to play themselves out was nothing short of gut-wrenching. But I really was ready to accept His outcome. You might be thinking, “That’s easy for you to say after the fact.” And you could make a case for that. But in my heart I’m fully convinced God had prepared me to be ready for whatever outcome came our way. Jesus was going to be enough.
After the elation of making the state tournament, we drew a top-ranked foe we had already played three times. With less than twenty seconds left in the game and the score tied 60-60, we broke the time-out huddle and our opponent held the ball for one final shot. I vividly remember talking to God and confidently saying under my breath, “I trust You with this outcome.”
They scored. We didn’t. This time, the season really was over.
One of the reasons I love coaching so much is that you experience the full spectrum of life. Your highs are high and your lows are low. There’s not much in-between. It’s in those moments that my faith is stretched and growth happens. Of course, sports are far from the most important thing in life, as the recent pandemic has made abundantly clear. But it is one important part of life for me and so many others. And I’m thankful that thirty years after my coaching career began, God is still refining me through sports.
About the author: Joel Hueser is a physical education teacher and the head boys basketball coach at Papillion-La Vista South High School in Nebraska. He has served in that role since 2003, when the school first opened. Prior to coming to Papillion-La Vista South he coached and taught in Mankato, Kansas, and McCook, Nebraska. Joel graduated and played collegiate basketball at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. You can follow him on twitter: @coachhueser.