If given the choice, would we want to influence 1.5% of a group, or 100%? The answer appears obvious, yet in many situations our society chooses the 1.5%.
Years ago, I read a study that noted 30% of the kids that play youth sports, play a sport in high school. A separate report stated that 5% of High School athletes play a sport in college. This means that just 1.5% of young athletes become a college athlete. Yet 100% of them will be citizens and contributors to society. However, the focus of most youth sport coaches is on making kids the best they can be at whatever sport they are coaching, so they can win elementary and middle school age titles and championships.
Youth sports, in America, engage more individuals, families, and communities in a shared activity than any other cultural activity, institution, or religion. Sports represent a significant venue to do good. While sports do not directly teach character or other virtues, sports provide a unique environment where character and virtues can be taught in a distinct and holistic experience to youth.
Sports build our reasoning abilities. The world of sports thrives on its stories and our brains are wired to learn through anecdotes. Sport brings emotional, psychological, and social benefits, as the athlete learns and experiences self-discipline, the joys of achievement, the lessons of losing, and the camaraderie of teammates. Historically, sports have fostered social change and integrated people of every color, class, and culture in American society. Sports offer a connection to others that would otherwise be outside our ‘comfort zone.’ However, these benefits occur when young athlete are coached in a transformational manner. An approach that builds and enhances the self-esteem, and self-efficacy of each participant.
Sports also represent a significant venue to do harm. What was once just a game and a good time, now can feel like life or death. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for kids to play simply for enjoyment, now they must excel. All organized sports are directed by adults, whose own motives, morals, and beliefs influence the overall experience of every player. I started an entire AAU organization, in part, because I watched my daughter’s coach teach her to cheat. I also watched talented high school athletes act like jerks and kill team chemistry, and never get called out by the coaching staff because of the results they produced. Coaches focus on the glory that comes with wins and accomplishments. They lose sight that the twelve-year old knows exactly why they were replaced when it suddenly became a one score game.
My approach to coaching, be it high school football or youth basketball/soccer, is as a means to help kids/student-athletes build a foundation to be a better adult. Although I coached with the intent to win, I was more concerned if my player’s experience would help them be a better leader in the workforce or a more accountable spouse. The task of “cutting” players from our high school team fell to me. Our Head Coach made sure he had the players he needed for offense and told the rest they were now our Defensive Coordinator’s players, who then made sure he had the players he needed, and the rest were available for me as the Special Team’s coordinator. Anyone I did not need would then be cut from the team, so I was handed those conversations. It was important to use that opportunity to have a positive conversation about abilities matching expectations, that just because we want to do something doesn’t mean it will happen, and how if one door closes, we look to open another one.
Sports are part of God’s intention and design. God means to take every aspect of our lives and work it for our everlasting good in Christ. Athletics are ripe for teaching that lesson in the ups and downs. They are a chance to create a forward vision, to build a path for the future. As Christians we should be coaching that our failures are never final. Whether it’s a fumble, a strikeout, or an airball, these missteps are chances to learn what it means to bring Jesus into every moment of life, especially our frustrations and failures. Our identity is based not on our performance but on God’s grace. One is not a soccer player who happens to be a Christian, but a Christian who plays soccer.
I have always felt that St. Paul, who seemed to appreciate sports, would be a big football fan. In his letter to the Philippians (3:13-14) he writes, “I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
If we are Coaches and Leaders who believe the Gospel, then we do not see people as a means to an end, but rather as unique individuals loved by God with talents, gifts, and abilities bestowed by God. We do not need to build an identity through our accomplishments, we have been given an identity because of Jesus’s accomplishment. Opponents are not then adversaries, but those who help us grow as an athlete and a person. In effect, they become our teammates in our mutual quest for excellence and therefore in giving God glory. We coach with humble gratitude, as one privileged to be a coach.