By Anne Wilson
After his failed Olympic hockey tryout in 1982, Paul Kobylarz found himself coming face-to-face with his limitations and searching for his identity all over again. “It was the worst and best year of my life,” Paul says. “The better I performed, the more I liked myself. My self-worth depended on my performance. When I was benched my sophomore year, I hit rock bottom.”
The year before his tryout, Paul was living the dream. He had a successful freshman year playing hockey at the University of Michigan, was asked to try out for the Olympic team, and was drafted by the National Hockey League. Then, unexpectedly during his sophomore year, his whole life flopped. His parents were going through a divorce, and the stresses of school were starting to get to him. He overtrained and overextended himself as an athlete, and just before the tryout, Paul came down with mononucleosis. As many could guess, Paul’s Olympic dreams were cut short, and it was a time of identity crisis, to say the least.
From Grief to Faith
During that year, a couple of friends invited Paul to attend a Bible study through Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). Paul began to discover that there was more to life than performance and that God’s love didn’t depend on his athletic success. While up until that point he had focused most of his time and energy around his achievements, he began to see that there was a bigger purpose for his life. After a lifetime of basing his identity around his performance, Paul gave his life to Christ and found that his worth came from God alone.
“I saw how people who had been converted (to Christianity) were now taking their faith and giving it away to the community,” Paul said. “I knew I wanted to do that with my life too.”
That best and worst year changed the trajectory of Paul’s life forever. After his conversion to Christianity, his outlook on sports had fundamentally changed. While he still wanted to strive for excellence and healthy competition, he no longer carried the weight of striving for perfection and needing to please others to gain approval. Paul went on to have successful junior and senior years and signed a professional contract with the New Jersey Devils.
After only a couple of years playing professionally, Paul transitioned out of hockey. “There was no one mentoring me at the time, so I didn’t understand yet that hockey could be used as a mission tool,” Paul explained. “I felt like Eric Little in Chariots of Fire when he was trying to explain to his family his desire for running and missions, but they didn’t understand. I stopped playing hockey because I didn’t know yet that my faith and hockey could go together and that God created me to love hockey for a reason.”
A Change of Heart
Paul spent the next few years working in sales and marketing with Procter & Gamble but still felt like something was missing. He started praying a lot, asking God to give him clarity about where his life was going, and he started to wonder if he had given up on hockey too soon.
He then received an opportunity to travel to Europe for three weeks with a Christian hockey team. There his team saw many people make decisions for Christ through hockey games. Paul witnessed firsthand that God could use his unique hockey experience and athletic ability as a tool to share the good news of Christ.
On the same trip, a coach recruited him to play hockey professionally in Sweden. At that time Christians in Sweden were fairly hostile toward the sports world and believed that the church and sports could not go together. Because of that, the church had little to no influence in the athletic community. Paul knew it could be different, and he had a heart for athletes who were in crisis or who were curious about faith. After three years of playing hockey there, Paul was hired as Sweden’s first sports minister, and through God’s leading, the three-week trip turned into 20 years.
Paul eventually went on to develop a national sports outreach program in Sweden called Sport for Life. Through it God used Christian sports camps to break through walls, and within a couple of years the church in Sweden experienced a significant amount of growth. Sport for Life became a model for Sweden, as it built a bridge for faith and sports and put sports ministry on the map. As Sport for Life’s reputation grew, Paul was asked to serve as a chaplain at several major sporting events, and eventually he served as head chaplain for the 2010 Winter Olympics and the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Mission Field in the U.S.
After 20 years in Sweden, Paul started to feel like God was transitioning him to something different and that ministry should be in the hands of the nationals who were there on the ground. God planted a desire in Paul to go back home and help build a stronger connection between the church and sports community in the United States. So in 2009 Paul accepted an opportunity to continue to bridge the gap between sports and faith at Traders Point Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.
With a similar vision in mind, Paul used his gifts, abilities, experience, and passion for reaching the sports community in Indianapolis and to open hearts for the gospel. And if anything, while the mission field here was certainly different, in Paul’s eyes, it wasn’t much smaller. “I went into Europe thinking it was going to be hard, and it was,” Paul said. “But coming back to the United States, it’s just as hard. There’s a huge mission field here in the sports world.”
In fact, he would argue that any of us engaged in any level of athletic involvement—whether we are coaches, parents, athletes, and so on—as Christians, we are all living representatives for Christ. While that doesn’t mean anyone is perfect, Paul believes that a Christian athlete’s testimony can actually become stronger when he or she makes a mistake. “When a Christian falls and makes a mistake, all eyes are on him because he’s a Christian,” he said. “It’s through that mistake that you have an opportunity to draw people closer to God or further away from him. You could look like a hypocrite or—if you’re mature enough—you could allow God to use your brokenness to point to Christ.”
As an overseer of many Christian sports leagues and camps and former professional athletes, Paul has seen his fair share of mistakes on the field and in the rink. But it’s through our mistakes, Paul said, that we can give people a better picture of Christianity.
Encouragement for Athletes
From his days of sharing his testimony in hockey locker rooms in Sweden to starting up sports camps around Indianapolis, Paul feels strongly that anyone involved in sports can make a significant impact on the kingdom. From ministering to athletes in crisis to helping the curious athlete who wants to know more about faith, or encouraging a Christian athlete to deepen their faith, there’s no limit to how God can use sports.
“God’s gift to you is your life, and what you do with your life is your gift back to God,” Paul said. “After years of living in a performance-based mindset, I found my identity in the only thing that lasts forever. I want to help give people a bigger picture of what forever looks like, because when they’re in that mindset, they can’t see anything but right now.”
Today Paul serves on staff with Community Church of Greenwood and the Gathering Place, a large, multi-use sports complex associated with CCG. Every opportunity that has come Paul’s way has been daunting at first—from playing hockey professionally in Sweden, starting Sport for Life, and eventually moving back to the United States and serving the local church. But instead of zeroing in on the size of the challenge, Paul’s focus has remained on the size of his God. “I want to use the gifts I’ve been given to leverage the kingdom of God as much as possible. The fulfillment I get from that is far greater than any fear or challenge that comes with it.”
Anne Wilson is a freelance writer in Indianapolis, Indiana.
10 Tips for Coaching Youth Sports
1. Always strive to understand the personalities, development, and desires of kids—in general and the ones on your team.
2. Balance your focus between individual skills and team camaraderie.
3. Be yourself—you don’t have to take on someone else’s attitude or personality to coach well.
4. Demonstrate positive relationships with other adults, including parents and other coaches.
5. Don’t play favorites—it’s OK to award playing time based on skills, but no team member should feel unwanted.
6. Don’t take yourself so seriously that you never have fun.
7. Know the sport well.
8. Make it your goal to help your team members become strong adults.
9. Model patience and anger management, and admit when you make mistakes
10. Set clear, age-appropriate expectations and hold kids accountable.