Competition, Performance, and Transformation

As I have stated before, I enjoy competing. I always felt as though it was directly linked to training. You always train better and more consistently when you have a competition to train for!

Good training is formative by design. It is purposed to make you better at what you are attempting to do. A coach, especially a good coach, knows your weaknesses and targets them; training you in such a way that you become stronger, faster, or generally better in those areas. It is more difficult to train well on your own as you are less aware of your weaknesses than others; you don’t have the technical skills to train and overcome those weaknesses; or you are not able to demand more of yourself to change for the better.

Performance is the important link in this self-perpetuating merry-go-round cycle. As you perform in competition motivates or de-motivates your training and your desire to compete. Winning can be just as detrimental to training as anything else, as you are often motivated to compete again for the glory, but not highly motivated to train and continue changing or being formed. Losing, on the other hand, often motivates you to train harder and undergo more formation as your glaring weaknesses become more apparent in the imposed vulnerability from defeat. Or you just quit altogether.

Sport is often a great and living example of life. It takes guts to compete. It is difficult to be formed by another person coaching you daily. The formation is painful and arduous as there is often the grind day after day with little apparent progress. Then there is the competition itself. Very often the first competitor to defeat or be defeated by is fear. The fear of loss or the fear of harm or the fear of disappointment and embarrassment sideline many would be competitors with defeat even before the race or event begins. In order to compete and perform in sport as well as life, fear must be faced and dealt with. A coach can sure help with that!

So, am I saying life is a competition or am I saying it is like a competition? The latter is the case. Many do mistake it for a competition seeking to defeat known and unknown adversaries daily as their life’s performance and judgement hangs in the balance. I can tell you that is no way to live. The opposite, though, is also true. To not live in the moment and take advantage of the few days we have is no real life either. The fullness of life rests on the intentionality to train and be trained in life, to be in community with others performing alongside as you compete against your weaknesses and to be transformed, oh, to be transformed, by life in Christ. This is fullness. This is counting your days and making them count.

Jesus said in John 10:10, “The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy; but I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.

Jesus is the best Coach, ever!

I didn’t want to do this (expanding the story)

The title may not fit any more, as by the time I really launched the work of sport development for spiritual impact in Rwanda, I had changed my mind and not only did I want to do it but I was quite enjoying it!

The impetus for this series is to first and foremost, give glory to God for finding me usable in Rwanda and doing something unique with me.  The second, is that I love process, analysis, structure, and strategy.  For these reasons I wanted to take you on my unique journey into this world of sport development.  This will give us opportunity then to delve into the day to day as well as consider application of Rwanda’s story in sport to other potential efforts.

Because of that, now what began as a three part series of:  Becoming, Being, and Launching, is now expanding to include: Embracing, Building, Developing and Sustaining.

One may coach a sport over the course of a lifetime.  One may be a passionate follower of sport.  One may work in sport as a career administrator or manager.  One may also use sport as a talking point to illustrate personal character development or even apply to business strategies or social unity.  I find myself extremely blessed, though, as I am trying my best to illustrate through this blog.  My journey has now allowed me to experience the participation, teaching, coaching, training, administrating, structuring, and expanding of a sport for an entire nation that now has ramification on sport development for the region and continent of Africa as well.

I would love to say that it is because I am just so brilliant and capable.  If you believe that then please reread the first three parts of this series and remember:

‘I didn’t want to do this!”

I have always found Luke 17:7-10 as a very strong reminder when I begin to take credit for the amazing things God is doing in my life.  Jesus gives the illustration: “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at the table’?  Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’?  Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded?  So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”

I didn’t want to do this Part 3a – Launching

It was actually not an easy transition from Togo to Rwanda.  Rwanda, even though it had undergone such tragic events between 1959 and 1994, was a much easier place to live than Togo.  It was immaculately clean, the people were, for the most part, very reserved and soft spoken and the country itself is one of the most naturally beautiful countries that I have ever seen.  “So, what made it difficult?”, you may ask.  It was that our work was needing a complete overhaul.  In Togo, it was very straightforward.  You go to a new village that had never heard the gospel.  You asked if you could teach about Jesus.  If they agreed you then began teaching and with time a church was born and then … It was traditional missions, only with the challenges of Southern Togo, which were many.


Typical village in Southern Togo (photo credit to Radford University)


Rwandan landscape

Rwanda was a different story.  It had a very complicated history.  It was one that also included great fault and guilt on the traditional church and missions for not only aiding colonialists to set up and grow an ethnicity division campaign but, also, during the genocide many churches actually assisted the killers by inviting in those being hunted under the guise of protecting them only to then call in the perpetrators to murder them in the churches themselves.  Like, I said, complicated and tragic.  We were told that we would need to prove social and economic benefit to Rwanda before being allowed to obtain long term visas.  In doing so, it also necessitated us forming an NGO (non-government organization or as we would say a non-profit organization) instead of coming in as a church group.  We were left scratching our heads and then scrambling to figure out what each of us had to offer Rwanda, that Rwanda itself would value.

The thing is, it fit as a different model of missions that we were actually shown the year before at a conference that presented a “Church Planting Movement” model.  It had been very effective in India and in other nations that stood opposed to traditional church planting methods.  Oddly, even though in the early 1990’s Rwanda had been considered the most Christian nation in Africa, the post genocide Rwanda definitely seemed “fed up” with church.  As well, in this model you focus on relationships through service that is valued and in those relationships you are provided the opportunity to initiate studies that are led by others and not yourself and have all the “DNA” of what church should be but often falls short of.

Still we were left with the perplexing question of: ‘What do we have to give?’.  I chose to build rocket stoves initially.  They are these great cooking stoves that cook in half the time and use half the fuel.  We could get really bogged down in the science of it, but I just knew everyone in Rwanda would want one!  They didn’t.  Their list of complaints was long and I found out that Rwandans don’t change traditional things very quickly.  I then jumped on the environmental and economic opportunity bandwagon and quickly developed a press for making biomass charcoal.  It provided businesses, utilized waste wood and field cuttings, and was a low cost startup.  It was a bust.  Turns out they didn’t want to change their cooking fuel either.

The problem with all of this is, that God had already told me what I would do that Rwandans wanted, but my issue was that it just didn’t make sense, and I was a bit terrified that all our supporters would call it quits when they found out.  In my sons’ first week of school they came home incredibly excited to tell me that there was a Taekwondo club at their school.  I decided to visit.  In visiting, I observed that my 13 year old son was a better instructor than this young man.  I asked him for his credentials and he asked me for mine promptly as he didn’t have any.  After inspection and his agreement for me to teach him how to teach he then asked me if I would be the grand master for Rwanda and start a federation here as that is what the people really wanted.  I laughed and said, “No way!”

John 10:27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.


Too many words!  Story to be continued in next post …. 3b – Launching

I didn’t want to do this Part 1b – Becoming

Friday the 13th of June, 1997, I turned in badge and keys to the district manager and resigned as an area director of Wal Mart.  It was time to pack our container, say goodbye to our families and, along with our two young sons, fly to Togo, Africa, our future home for the coming several years.  We had become missionaries heading to a new life in Africa.  How ironic after my bold declarations of nine years before that I would never be a missionary and would absolutely never by a missionary in Africa.  What in the world would have led us to such a risky and somewhat bizarre change in our lives?

A tribute to my wife – Louise

All who know her love her.  She is undoubtedly the most talented woman I have ever met.  She is a fine artist, a gifted seamstress and designer, a graphic designer, a professional photographer, an exceptional teacher, an amazing wife to me and mother to our four sons, and a deep lover of God.  She is truly a beautiful woman.  She had married me assuming I would be a physician and an Olympian.  After the injury, though, I had assessed my direction and realized I would make a proper physician but would likely be a poor husband and father while doing so.  She was in a solid career in advertising but was supportive as I transitioned out of grad school and a future in medicine to working in retail for Wal Mart.  She knew what I did not.  We were destined for missions in Africa.  So, in 1993, while on a visit to Memphis, she dined with some future missionaries heading to Togo in West Africa and confided in them, unbeknownst to myself, that we as well had some interest in missions one day.

Three years later in 1996, many things had changed.  I had become successful in my new career and had matured considerably, by God’s grace.  Nothing like walking into a 200,000 square foot Wal Mart with 600 employess and 20,000 visitors a week; being handed the keys and wished good luck, to grow you up a bit.  We had moved to the beautiful small town of Remington, Virginia and were part of a vibrant church in Warrenton.  Over the previous years my faith had taken hold and permeated most of my life (would love to say all but am trying to be honest!).  Our preacher quit and I began, alongside my 80 hours or so with WM.  After five months of dueling works, a businessman and his wife took us out for a meal, looked across the table and asked, “Why don’t you quit what you are doing and do what God has called you to do?”  With a start, we said, “Excuse me?”.  He then said, “Why don’t you quit Wal Mart and go to Africa and be the missionaries that God has called you to be?”  We wept, right there in Jerry’s Pizza.  It was time.

Two days later, we were encouraged to call a missionary who was home on furlough from Togo, West Africa.  I did and brought him up to date.  He then asked if I was sitting down.  I was.  He then informed me that since Louise had visited them three years prior he and another teammate had been praying for us daily that we would quit our jobs in the US and come to Africa as missionaries.  We wept.

How could God love me that much that he was so patient to “wrestle” with me for those previous eight years?  Amazing.  Just call me Israel (one who wrestles with God), bum hip and all.

Later, just before leaving for Africa, someone approached me and remarked how great our faith must be.  Immediately I responded that with all that God had shown us, and even with a repeated “calling” after eight years and all the answered prayers, it would be a greater show of disbelief in God to stay in the US than a show of belief to go.

1st Sidebar – My greatest victory in the Marathon was a DNF (did not finish)

A turning point occurred in December of 1991.  I had trained more than 140 miles per week for the previous nine months.  I had raced over thirty races in the preceding year winning many of them and racing faster with each contest.  I was ready to qualify for the 1992 Olympic Trials and possibly the Olympics themselves.  I had only taken one break in the previous ten months, my honeymoon in July.  That week I only ran eighty miles as I would daily sneak out early in the morning while my bride still slept and get my twelve milers in.  Yeah, what a swell guy I was.  All this while taking a fourteen hour per semester graduate load and having a full time corporate exercise scientist job.  Lucky for Louise, my wife, to marry such a relaxed and balanced guy (cough, cough)!

Once in August, after dragging her to yet another race and trying to explain away the obsession as the focus of elite sport, I made a declaration.  “If God didn’t want me to race in the Olympics, then I would get injured, let’s leave it to Him”, I said.  

I had no idea, He would take me so seriously!  It was the Rocket City Marathon in Huntsville, Alabama.  A flat and fast course with cool December air and usually no wind.  My wife had gone on ahead finishing up an advertising job in that area while I made the trek mid-week.  As I was driving through West Memphis, Tennessee on that rainy Wednesday night on my way to the race, an 18 wheeler (large lorry for my international friends) struck my car and crushed it against a cement wall while traveling at 60 mph.  He drug my car for more than 800 yards before it was so disabled it broke free and he continued on his way never knowing until the police caught him several hours later.   

During the accident, instead of considering the danger to my life, my relationship with God, or the loss of our vehicle, I was consumed with thoughts of affected performance in my race on Saturday.  I felt a little off physically in my left hip, but we have since learned that my pain tolerance is a bit wacked from all the years of sports and racing, so I didn’t really pay attention to it.  

On raceday, I took off, feeling fairly good and helped set the pace with the lead group for the first five miles or so.  It was my wife’s home town, so her family were all out with encouraging signs with “Barcelona or Bust” (Barcelona, Spain was the host for the 1992 Olympics).  They didn’t see me again until the 10th mile.  In the interim, God and I had a conversation as the previously unknown crack in the head of my femur continued to widen and bring my racing and Olympic hopes to a grinding halt.  The wreck had done me in.  Amazing that I walked away from that accident with my life.  Miraculous that I had walked away with just a small fracture in my left hip.  I pulled off the course at mile ten, got in the van with the family and simply said, “Well, He has spoken, and I guess the Olympics aren’t to be.”  I was devastated, but, He had a plan to heal that too.  He was redirecting me.  I had been so consumed with what I desired, that my pursuits had become gods unto themselves that I worshipped daily.  It was in this loss, and the redirecting, that I won.  I was not yet ready to go to Africa as a missionary, but I was ready to choose Him over me.

Mark 8:32-34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.

About the healing.  Eleven years afterwards, in Togo, West Africa, during our misson team’s training session, our team was encouraging each other.  It came someone’s turn to encourage me.  In this moment they talked of my determination and persistence and I expressed guilt and remorse that sometimes this “gift” from God had led me beyond His will to pursue my own desires.  I gave the example of my career in racing while accidentally expressing deep remorse and loss.  Other teammates spoke up to ask where I had been injured.  I said, “In my left hip.”  They then spoke of a couple in Arizona that had been praying for the Togolese people, who even though they did not know me, had, while praying seen me lying on the ground and God call out my name, touching me on the left hip and saying, “You are healed.”  I wept deeply as the remorse, loss, and guilt washed away and was replace by His peace.  I was then left in wondrous awe of such deep love that He would use an, unknown to me, couple in Arizona, to speak healing over me.

Grace and Peace

I didn’t want to do this:  Part 1a – Becoming

This is a three part series on how my sport development story happened.

I came from a family where we were given every opportunity to succeed and were expected to do so (in a kind and supportive way).  My father, as an officer in the army and former basketball player, saw the value of sports in developing our character and led by example continuing to play basketball and running well into his adult years.  As well, we all pursued a vibrant relationship with our savior Jesus and sought to live a life where our faith in God was integrated into all.

From the age of five, I ran.  Our parents were quick to put us in “everything”.  I played tennis, basketball, football, baseball, and swam in addition to the running from the age of seven.  We were a “sporting family” of the 1970’s.  At the age of ten, I wanted to accomplish two things:  win the Olympic marathon and become a cardiologist.  I know that is a bit early for lofty goals, but it was important in our family to plan ahead.

Spring of 1988.  As a junior at Harding University, I was racing well and had scored decently on my MCAT.  Things seemed to be humming along very nicely for my 10 year old plans.  What I didn’t count on was the impact of my Bible courses at Harding which began to augment the faith journey I had been on since childhood.  That semester, I was being taught by a missionary serving in Kenya.  Towards the end of the semester after many heated discussions in class, he called me to his office or maybe I just happened by and he expressed that he could see me becoming a missionary to Africa as well.  I remember, either just in my imagination or in the flesh, placing my hand on his desk, quite possibly in a fist of defiance, and proclaiming that I would never be a missionary, and most definitely would never be a missionary in Africa.

Thus began an eight year wrestling match with God that I eventually lost. Only, in losing to God, I won at life.

Jeremiah 29:11

11For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Its a Marathon

Wish there was a photo to document it.  At that time Captain Koonce dressed his family every morning in grey army sweats and at 5:30 AM loaded us up in the Buick to go to the high school track and run our minimum two miles.  Yes, even the family dog, a poodle named Fritz, was included sans US Army sweats.

Five years later in the fall of 1978, I ran my first marathon at the age of eleven.  Yeah, yeah, I know they don’t allow that anymore, but, hey, it was the 70’s; we took knives to school and sledded while being towed behind a truck.  It was the AAU Championships, the International Rice Festival Marathon in Crowley, Louisiana.  It started late because of fog and by the 10 am gun it had reached a sweltering 85 degrees.  I’ll never forget the shimmer of heat rising off the pavement.  I also couldn’t believe how long three hours could be.  Alas, I finished in 3: 42 minutes, won the under 17 division (I guess that made me a national champion at the age of 11)  🙂  and I was welcomed into the world of marathons.

I can tell you this about marathons.  It doesn’t matter whether your racing them or you are just trying to finish, it is a long ordeal.  It cannot be completed without great preparation, personal sacrifice and without enduring some pain.  It can be a very rewarding experience and worthwhile endeavor.

Sport development for ministry is a marathon, but, I am hoping, however, that reading this blog won’t be!

Running that first marathon we trained ten miles a day four days a week and ran a 20 miler on the weekend for almost four months.  I will never forget nor will I ever thank God enough for having that time with my Dad.  He ran with me, coached me, led me and encouraged me.  We did it together.  He invested in me.

That in so many ways is a perfect view into the window of sports development for ministry.  It is investment, it is sacrifice, it is time, and in the end it is all about the relationships.

The Colonel, as we have fun calling him now, my Dad, invested in me.  In this he had the venue to share with me his inner life of faith, his dependence on Jesus, and his great hopes for me.  I guess this is where it all began, he was developing me through sport.