Spiritual Guideposts: Advice from Maine Football Coach John Wolfgram

“It’s not whether we win or lose; it’s who we help along the way.”

Retired Maine football coach John Wolfgram has won ten state championships and more than 300 games during four decades as a head coach at four schools. John is also a champion at ushering at the 8:00 a.m. service at church. When he asked if Wayne and I could fill in for one of his slots, I told him we’d trade in exchange for a blog interview! He cheerfully and graciously agreed. I’m so happy and honored that he volunteered to share his inspiring approach to “winning” with you here on my blog.

How has faith played a role in your coaching career?

Faith has played a role in my coaching career in many ways. I have been teaching and coaching for 47 years, at a variety of different schools. Along the way I have “listened” for teaching and coaching opportunities that would allow me to use my natural, “God Given” abilities.

In building athletic programs throughout my career, I have built the programs around faith-based, spiritual principles, principles which have helped the athletes to become successful athletes but also better people. These principles were based on strong personal ethics and values. In our team’s mission statement, these principles were typically called Cardinal Principles. For example, our first Cardinal Principle was the Golden Rule: We will treat everyone in, and around, our program as we would want to be treated ourselves. A second principle related to discipline, the discipline necessary to make good decisions, both on the field and in life. A third principle related to togetherness, teamwork and what we called synergy. And a fourth principle related to how we addressed adversity as a team – how through resilience, grit and problem solving we would address our challenges. All of these principles, I feel, have a foundation in faith and spirituality.   

One final point about my career and its connection to faith relates to the overarching attitude that I adopted as a coach, an attitude I will refer to as “Holy Recklessness”. One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, refers to the attitude of “Holy Recklessness” in his book “Beyond Words” (a book I would highly recommend). The attitude basically translates to an attitude of positive energy, non-judgment, openness, and “playing for fun”. I believe this attitude has helped me to keep things in perspective throughout my career, and also helped many of the teams I coached to perform at a high level.

Could you share a time when faith helped you and your team successfully work through a difficult situation?

One of the most important lessons an athlete can learn through sport is the importance of maturity and “mental toughness” in working through difficult challenges, or adversity. I personally believe all the great “Faiths” teach us that life is often a struggle, and that God’s spirit is a key principle in facing our struggles successfully.

Relating this spirit to athletics, I think several values, or character traits, are relevant. Some of the most important are: patience, hard work, preparation, selflessness and trust in teammates, and resilience.

There is one particular game several years ago where our team had to display all of these character traits. It was a play-off game where the winner of the game would move on to a championship opportunity and the loser would be done for the year. Both teams displayed a determination that reflected strong spirit, but fortunately we were able to prevail with a late touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.

It is my belief that God doesn’t care who wins or loses. He just cares that sports (or many other activities) provide an opportunity to learn strong values and grow spiritually – an opportunity for all of the young men and women participating, regardless of whether they win or lose.

Do you have any faith-based suggestions for anyone reading this blog who may be struggling to “win” when it seems that the cards are stacked against them?

I will call these suggestions “spiritual guideposts”.

To begin with, I think it is important to understand that life is filled with obstacles, and we will all have struggles along the way. It is important to treat these obstacles as challenges, challenges which will in many ways define our lives – and make our lives more rich.  Our faith, and its “guideposts”, can be extremely important in addressing these challenges successfully. Some of the “guideposts” that have helped me face challenges are to: 

  • Surround myself with good people, people who are positive, highly motivated, and problem- solving oriented. A strong support system is essential to success in meeting any challenge.
  • Become involved in “purposes” bigger than myself, purposes that will provide a service to help others. In the long run, it’s not whether we win or lose; it’s who we help along the way.
  • Realize that there will always be other opportunities, other challenges… A coaching expression that comes to mind is: “success is never final; defeat is never fatal”.
  • Help keep things in perspective, it is important “to focus on the process, not the product”. That type of focus will help to promote consistent excellence, and keep the “intention” on what is important.

Our faith, as it relates to these “spiritual guideposts”, can provide important “perspective” for our lives.

The Coach, as I now call him, also teaches English and has published a book, Coaching to the Highest Level.

9 thoughts on “Spiritual Guideposts: Advice from Maine Football Coach John Wolfgram

  1. Excellent interview. I resonate with all that Coach/Teacher Wolfgram said. I had the opportunity to be a School Chaplain and the Assistant Coach of the “lower boys” football team at a boys boarding school in New York for three years. When I was with the team went 31 and 2. The final year we went undefeated beating the team we struggled against for the first two years. I was very aware that I was their Chaplain both on and off the field. The first Spirit inspired move was to stop the head coach from swearing at the boys during practice. (That is a story in its self.) I also prayed with the team before and after the games. I never prayed that “we would win.” but to do the best we can. At the end of the game we prayed in thanksgiving for our good effort and for the other team. It was amazing to watch the transformation of the players and the team when you give the players encouragement without anger, focused teaching, always congratulations for their good effort and respect. (Side note: The head coach at the prep-school kept copies of my prayers before I returned to parish ministry. I hope he did well.) A Cherished Gift:: I was given the game ball when we finally beat our nemesis (21-0). A Cherished Memory: The players.

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    1. What a lovely gift and great memories! Thanks for sharing them. I’m glad you enjoyed the interview. I am admittedly not into football (Wayne is very much so). However, it has become interesting to me now when I consider the spiritual angles to it which I never had before.


  2. Forwarded this to my son, John,who played for Coach Wolfgram, and to this day, speaks of him with incredible admiration , and the reasons come apparent through this interview – Will share this interview with my son –

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