It was the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada. For many years the Olympics’ top gymnasts hailed from Russia, the GDR and other Eastern European nations. Not many in the United States or Canada were familiar with Bela Karolyi, the coach of the Romanian girl gymnasts. His young students were not well known outside of Romania, nor were they expected to amount to much in Montreal. They were perceived as nobodies—underdogs from a small, impoverished Communist nation—coming to compete in the Olympics to try to make something of their otherwise drab life.
That misconception would soon change.
During the Olympics, one of the Romanian gymnasts, a young lady named Nadia Comaneci, performed extraordinarily well at her events. Almost immediately she became the darling of the media and spectators at the Montreal Olympics.
Recalling Nadia’s sudden rise to stardom, Coach Karolyi said, “My kid dominated the compulsory portion [of the gymnast competitions]. By the time we reached the last event, the bars, we were only hundredths of a point behind the first place team, the Russians. This was unprecedented. Never had a team of nobodies come out of nowhere and compete with the colossus, the Soviet Union. It was unreal, did not seem possible. Then Nadia Comaneci stepped to the bars and changed history. She mounted the apparatus and flew between the uneven bars with perfect flair and extension. It was clear, pristine and unprecedented. All eyes were transfixed on her. She ended her routine with an absolutely perfect landing. The entire arena went crazy!”
After her performance, Nadia stepped off the floor and rejoined her coach on the sidelines to await the judges’ results. Seconds later, a “1” appeared on the scoreboard. This confused Nadia and Bela, as well as the crowd. A score of 1 for such a flawless performance seemed absurd.
The crowd sat in silence as Coach Karolyi approached the judges’ table to inquire about Nadia’s score. The Swedish judge held up both hands, with all 10 fingers extended. Bela said, “What’s 10? I need to know Nadia’s score.”
Just then, the emcee announced over the loudspeakers: “Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in Olympic history, Naida Comaneci has scored a perfect 10.” The crowd was ecstatic!
The organizers of the Olympic event never expected any of the contestants to achieve a perfect score. As a result, they did not provide scoreboards capable of displaying the number 10. They only had scoreboards capable of displaying a single digit—zero through nine!
Though Nadia’s performance was unprecedented, she went on to win not just one more, but six more 10s in the same Olympics. In all, she earned three gold medals at the Olympics that year—though they were not mere gold medals. Each was earned with the score of 10—absolute perfection.
When Only Perfection Will Do
Several years later, in 1981, Coach Karolyi and his wife, Marta, defected from their native country of Romania and immigrated to the U.S. In so doing, they experienced excruciating hardships. They were persecuted on all sides. Yet, they persisted against great odds, eventually establishing themselves on American soil and once again, training aspiring female gymnasts.
Soon after they opened their doors for business, other Olympic trainers began chastising the Karolyis, calling them “dictators” and “slave-drivers” because of the extremely disciplined and regimented training programs through which the Karolyis put their students. This did not deter them. They knew what it took to achieve perfection. Mentoring gymnasts was their shared dream—a major desire of their hearts.They would not be easily shaken by their critics.
Their next aspiring protégé was a short and powerful little gal named Mary Lou Retton. Coach Karolyi quickly perceived that she had the makings of a top Olympic gymnast. In a relatively short span of time, Mary Lou developed into a star athlete and qualified to compete in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, California.
When the games began, Mary Lou and Coach Karolyi found themselves competing against Romanian gymnast Ecaterina Szabo. Paradoxically, Ecaterina’s coach had been none other than Bela Karolyi, from the time she was five years old until the day the Karolyis defected to America!
Imagine: Pitted one against the other, two of the best female gymnasts in the world, both trained by the same coach. The competition was heated. Mary Lou and Ecaterina competed neck and neck through every single event. Ecaterina had finished her final routine, the bars, and sat down. There was only one route left to finish; it was Mary Lou’s turn to finish on the vault.
The score was razor close. Coach Karolyi knew it would take a score of 9.95 in order for Mary Lou to tie with Ecaterina, and only a perfect score of 10 would earn her the gold. He later said, “I did not tell Mary Lou that she needed a 10. I said, ‘Give us the vault of your life. Be strong and aggressive. Don’t hold back—do a vault like you have never done in your life. Push it hard!’” Mary Lou replied, “Yes, yes, I will do just that.”
She sped off like a rocket, bounded from the springboard, and launched herself completely vertically into the air. She achieved full amplitude and turned with flawless alignment, knees, ankles and thighs completing a highly technical, full-twisting layout maneuver. She then stuck an impeccable landing. She didn’t even bother to look at the judges, because she knew what she had just achieved. She enthusiastically shot her arms straight up, like a referee calling a touchdown, while the crowd burst into immediate applause. Moments later, when the 10 appeared on the scoreboard, she threw her fist in the air, began laughing and clapping, and thrust back her head, revealing to the audience a smile that was priceless. It was not only the happiest moment of her young life—it was also Coach Karolyi’s. As a gymnast, Mary Lou Retton had achieved perfection.
How to Achieve Perfection
“Be[come] ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,” said Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:48). This is the ultimate goal of Christian conversion. But what does it take to achieve such perfection—such greatness?
On the physical level, what is required to do great things in life? To, say, earn a gold medal in the Olympic Games? Or to achieve some other level of perfection—whether at sports or some other worthwhile endeavor? More importantly, on the spiritual level, what does it take to achieve your incredible human potential?
The Right Coach
To achieve perfection, whether spiritual or physical, you first need a consummate coach. You need a competent mentor and teacher—someone wiser than you, who can teach you how to become an outstanding individual. What’s more, you need a coach who won’t settle for mediocre performances. You need a teacher who will push you to your outer limits and cause you to tap into the hidden reservoirs of your talents and abilities. You also need a coach who will exhort you, motivate you, and treat you justly—offering you a balanced blend of correction and encouragement.
Coach Karolyi once said, “Coaching is a profession. A coach does not just go and spot stunts. He is an educator, a motivator and a disciplinarian and a loyal supporter.”
The consummate coach, or mentor, knows his students through and through. An extremely powerful personal relationship exists between teacher and disciple. A greatly effective coach perceives exactly what each of his athletes needs in order to achieve his or her full potential. Each student possesses differing strengths and abilities; the perfect coach is attuned to the finest details of his athletes’ condition. He knows how far he can push them. He challenges each one to achieve more, to grow in experience and performance.
Consider further: An outstanding coach not only knows his athletes, he knows their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, because he knows his athletes have to face them. He offers his students a realistic education, so they can face their competition. He knows what it takes to be a conqueror and how to perform exceptionally well, because he too achieved greatness—overcoming many an adversary and foe.
A perfect coach, desiring to train student athletes to achieve perfection, is self-sacrificing. He puts the interests of his athletes before his own. Coach Karolyi, to a certain degree, was such a coach.
Betty Okino, contestant in the 1996 Olympic Games gymnastic events, said this about her coach, Bela Karolyi: “One day, at his ranch in Texas, Bela was gored in the leg by one of his pet rams. Without telling anyone, he struggled to the gym and bandaged his leg, so that he could be there for our training session. He waited until practice ended, then passed out from the pain. He ended up in the emergency room. If that’s not crazy dedication, I don’t know what is. That’s why he’s one of the most amazing human beings and coaches ever.” Miss Okino went on to dub Coach Karolyi a “consummate perfectionist, who puts himself on the line for the good of his athletes.”
We have a Coach who truly is a “consummate perfectionist” and knows the only way to success. We have a Coach who intimately knows our strengths and weaknesses and can push us toward greatness if we allow Him. We have a Coach who helps us to continually keep the vision of victory alive in our minds (Proverbs 29:18), and who sacrifices His life daily so that we may be victorious (Romans 8:37; Romans 12:1). He is the living Jesus Christ!
Our heavenly “Coach” will do all it takes to bring us to perfection, if we truly desire it and let Him. To win the “gold”—to achieve our human potential—we must have the consummate Coach, the most perfect Coach ever. God is the most consistent, disciplined, self-sacrificing, lovingly concerned, fair and just Mentor ever to exist—or who ever will exist!
To become truly complete, mature, and perfect spiritually, it requires this Coach of all coaches. It requires a Coach who isn’t interested in your achieving a “silver medal” or a “bronze medal” or some other second- or third-rate reward, spiritually speaking. You want a Coach who will push you to the max—that you may receive a full reward (2 John 1:8). Surely our Coach, more than any coach on Earth, knows how to push us to the limit so that we can “boast” in Him, and confer glory and honor upon Him—not upon ourselves (1 Corinthians 1:29; 2 Corinthians 10:13; Ephesians 2:9).
A Teachable Attitude
A second element necessary to achieve perfection is a teachable attitude in the athlete or student himself. In other words, the athlete only becomes perfect by heeding the instruction of his perfect coach—by listening and applying the coaching with a willing heart!
All too often, budding athletes can limit themselves because they are either filled with ego and vanity—trusting in their own ability and prior experiences rather than listening to corrective instruction and changing for the better—or, they lack proper confidence, doubting their potential, and not believing their coach can assist them in achieving at higher levels. Achieving perfection requires that we not swing to either end of the pendulum—either having a cocky, I-can-do-anything approach, or an I’m-no-good; I-can’t-do-it attitude.
Too often we vary in our thinking; we are double-minded and subject to changing moods and attitudes (James 1:8). By not remaining in a consistently teachable frame of mind, we diminish our progress at achieving greatness. We don’t “go on to perfection” as we should.
What we need is a positive mental outlook; a humble, teachable, optimistic, can-do attitude. An attitude of implicit trust and belief in what the coach is teaching us. An attitude of willing obedience , rather than begrudging “submission.”
Bela Karolyi had this to say about Nadia Comaneci: “[She] was a very quiet child. She hardly smiled those few months at Onesi [the training gym in Romania], and she didn’t stand out in a group. She did, however, have one trait that eventually caught my attention. She never said ‘No’ or ‘I can’t do that.’ It did not matter what the stunt was, how difficult or how frightening, she was always ready to perform. … That enabled her to press on rapidly, and in a short time she could do the same feats as the older gymnasts in the school.”
Notice! Young Nadia’s physical performance improved at a phenomenal rate because of her remarkably teachable attitude. She didn’t impose limits on herself—she listened to her coach’s instructions and heeded his advice. She willingly submitted in everything!
What kind of attitude is our Coach looking for in us? Quite obvious to those who have spiritual eyes to see and ears to hear, is the fact that He and the Father are looking for a poor and contrite spirit (Isaiah 66:2). They are looking for athletes who will tremble at their words. They are looking for athletes who will never say “No!” or “I can’t do that!” They are looking for athletes who have faith and trust in them, and who will abide by their instructions.
How is your growth as a Christian? Are you growing at a phenomenal rate? Or are you stagnating? Perhaps it is time to stop and take stock—and see if your attitude is that of “him that is poor and of a contrite spirit,” who trembles at the Word of God, as described in Isaiah 66:2.
Yes, stop and examine your attitude toward your consummate Coach! Ask yourself: How well do I submit to my spiritual Head?
Consider every facet of your Christian life. On the physical level, within the body of God’s Church, how well do you submit to those who have been ordained to spiritual offices over you? Do you, in a poor and contrite spirit, walk by faith and tremble at the words of those who, by the authority of God’s Word, have been appointed to mentor you and help you achieve spiritual perfection?
The Apostle Paul did not shrink from whatever Christ put before him; he faced very daunting tasks that were not comfortable. He did not cower in fear, nor cockily rely on his own abilities or prior experiences, but rather labored and relied on his perfect Coach to make his obedience possible (Hebrews 10:38-39; 12:1-2)). He relied totally on Christ to train him and see him through the trials that perfected him (Philippians 4:13).
Consider the words of Jesus to His disciples: “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom …” (Matthew 18:3). Are you totally dependent upon Jesus Christ, even as a small child is dependent upon his parent? Are you as humble, contrite and teachable as an innocent child? If you are, Christ can work wonders in your life! You can achieve perfection with a teachable attitude—for that’s the type of attitude God can work with!
Concerning Mary Lou Retton, Bela Karolyi said: “Mary Lou was the sunshine of Marta’s and my career. Years after 1984 when Mary Lou was asked about her success she said that she always listened to me 100 percent. She said that if I made Nadia, I had to be right about everything. It was a child’s mentality, but the type of belief and confidence in herself and in me that helped her tremendously, and made her a joy to coach.” Mary Lou’s greatness was due, in large part, to her teachable attitude, her trust, her complete confidence in her coach, as well as her personal sustained effort.
Meditate on this: We have Christ as our Coach. The Passover proves that He clearly has our interests before His own. He was willing to sacrifice everything for us. In His resurrection and subsequent spirit life as our Advocate today (1 John 2:1), He is continually showing us that He is there for our every need. He is a Coach who does not change (Malachi 3:6). He is perfect, and He always will be.
We need the attitude of, If the Father made Jesus Christ, He has to be right about everything. If the Father and Christ made Abraham, they have to be right about everything. If the Father and Christ made King David, they have to be right about everything. It is this attitude that will allow our coach, Jesus Christ, to take all of us to our incredible human potential. It is this attitude that will enable us to grow, overcome and conquer so that we can enter into our Father’s Kingdom. It is this attitude that will bring unspeakable joy to Christ and the Father!
Going for the Gold
When Mary Lou Retton made her famous vault at the 1984 Olympics, she achieved a perfect 10. Yet she had one optional vault left, if she wanted to take it. She had already achieved the gold so she did not need to take her final vault—but she did so anyway. She wanted the world to know that this was no fluke; perfection had been achieved. She took that last vault—and it was a carbon copy of the first one—except she nailed the second landing even better than the first!
Recounting that amazing moment years later, Coach Karolyi said, “When Mary Lou flew towards me, after her second vault in the ’84 Olympics, she yelled, ‘Bela! We’ve done it! We’ve done it!’ She didn’t say ‘I’ve done it.’ Mary Lou recognized instinctively that our common efforts had generated the ultimate success.”
Once perfection is achieved, it is our submission and the Coach’s efforts that will bring us to our ultimate reward. One day in the near future, we will stand before our Coach. He will gaze upon us, full of joy, because we submitted 100 percent, gave all we had, fully trusted and trembled before Him so He could prepare us.
We will then be able to look into His eyes and say “We have done it!” What an amazing moment in history that shall be!