NFL coach John Harbaugh on COVID sports coping

By Rusty Wright

The coronavirus pandemic has brought global lifestyle changes, and athletes are not immune.  Personal identity, control, and security can all become scrambled in chaotic times.  Super-Bowl-winning coach John Harbaugh explains how he’s coped amid the loss of sport.

In 2013, Harbaugh led the NFL Baltimore Ravens to victory in Super Bowl XLVII.  He was named 2019 NFL coach of the year.

Athletes in Action features Harbaugh on its aptly named online video series, Delay of Game, probing sports figures’ attempts to make sense of pandemic disruption.  Many players and fans draw their identity and security from sports involvement.  With so much athletic life on hold and seasons disrupted, where is a solid foundation?

Delay of game

“This is a crazy time,” admits Harbaugh.  “I feel like God is trying to get each of our attention. …So many things that you are set in your ways about as a coach…things that you believe are so important…and all of a sudden, it’s all taken away.”  It’s forced him to rethink his priorities.

The loss has brought multiple emotions:  “At first, I was in denial, [imagining] ‘We’re going to be back, we’re going to be fine; this is going to be short lived.’  Then you start realizing that wasn’t going to be the case.  Things were going to be completely different.  Through prayer, and by faith, and by taking a deep breath, I was able to say we’ll find a different way to do it.”

Harbaugh is bolstered by Paul, one of Jesus’ followers, who wrote from prison, “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty….”  He encourages his staff to “find a way to make the most of this personally and for our team.”

Finding identity

He notes his daughter’s adaptation.  A high school senior and lacrosse player, the cancelled season disappointed her.  Yet, she used the down time to work on training to prepare for college athletics.

“Our identity is not so much what we do but how we do it, and more importantly, who we do it for,” continues the coach, whose faith is foundational.  “The thing that gives human existence any meaning at all is the fact that we are created in God’s image, and that he loves us and cares about us 100 percent.”

“We are made for something much bigger and better…than a season.  …We are also called to bring glory to God through whatever we can.  As a coach, that means a lot to me.  …I want to be successful…we want to win championships. …I believe in a right relationship with God that brings us strength and courage.”

Strength, courage and enthusiasm

Harbaugh encourages others to focus on their attitudes, again citing Paul: “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”  He’s especially fond of divine counsel to Joshua: “[B]e strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

He often shares his father’s admonition, “Attack the day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.”

Athletes in Action’s Delay of Game video series also features Olympic gold medalist Michelle Carter, NBA player Harrison Barnes, All-American volleyball player-turned-NBA-sportscaster Kristen Ledlow, and more.  Perhaps, in your own COVID-19 circumstances, hearing how they are coping could be encouraging.

Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents.  He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.

Copyright © 2020 Rusty Wright

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Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh. Image: DVIDSHUB / Public domain.
Baltimore Ravens logo. Image: / CC0 Public Domain.
John Harbaugh at practice. Image: Keith Allison from Owings Mills, USA / CC BY-SA (