I have been planning on writing this article for a very long time, but being as it has become such a hotly debated topic with many, shall we say, passionate opinions, I wanted to be very clear and look at this from all possible angles. I have had the privilege of being on both sides of this discussion and I can tell you from experience that there is the good, the bad, and the downright ugly in these conversations. I have been out of the high school coaching world for a while now, so I enlisted the help of one of my closest friends, Michael Forrester, who has over 20 years of high school coaching experience and several years of leading youth groups. How close of a friend is he? Close enough for me to name my first born after him. We talked last night about both sides of the debate and the truth of the matter is that these programs should find ways to work together instead of against each other because the two biggest influences on teenagers lives outside of their parents is typically their youth pastor and their coach. Let’s dive in and discuss the elephant in the room, shall we?
I had the honor of coaching baseball for 15 years. I spent 10 of those years coaching high school baseball and coached several successful competitive travel teams (one of those teams, I coached with Michael). I get it. I get the thrill of watching your players grow and your players get better. I understand the euphoria of winning and have a wildly successful run. The biggest part of that euphoria comes from knowing that you made a difference in the life of your player. Sports, however, has evolved into an all or nothing endeavor that literally engulfs the athletes adolescent life. No time for family, no time for vacation, no down time to be a kid, and certainly no time for church. I have also had the honor of being a student pastor for 13 years, and guess what; I still get the same euphoria. I love watching my students grow in their faith and becoming more solid believers. I love watching them bloom into leaders. And yes, I also love knowing that God used me to make a difference in my students’ lives. Are you starting to see a pattern? That’s right…we both want the same thing! If both coaches and youth leaders would take a step back, communicate, and join forces for a common cause, communities would be changed irrevocably for the better. Let’s talk about why.
Look, every single coach struggles. Every single youth pastor struggles. It’s a fact of life. I write this with the knowledge that I’m speaking on things that I have personally messed up on in the past. So much of this comes from my own personal failures. There are coaches & youth leaders who get this (likely after much trial and error) and there are coaches & youth leaders who struggle with this. The coaches and leaders who struggle have the same things in common in this debate. First, the motivation of their students is fueled by guilt. You want to attend church, the coach makes you feel guilty. You have a game and you are going to miss a youth event, the youth leader makes you feel guilty. You are not going to win over anyone when guilt is your motivation. We are currently walking through a series with my students titled Owning Your Faith. I want them to WANT to be at church and for church to be a priority- and yes I think it is a priority over everything. That doesn’t mean my students can’t be successful athletes…I have several of those. Youth pastors, we all know guilt is not an adequate evangelism tool, so let’s throw it out of the tool box all together and not use it with our athletes. Coaches, we all know guilt will only lead to disgruntled players who will eventually resent you as a coach.
The other thing that coaches & youth leaders struggle with is the idea of “it’s all up to me.” They have convinced themselves that the pressure is on them as the sole influence in the student’s life and if they don’t make a difference, then no one will. I don’t think its malicious (although I’m sure arrogance knows no bounds), but it’s just an incorrect mindset. Youth leaders, we all know the studies. Our students need to have 5 meaningful adult relationships in their lives. We are only ONE of those relationships and we live in a world where few students have both mom and dad in their lives. In fact, we are often struggling to fill all 5 spots for our students. If they play a sport, then we ABSOLUTELY need their coaches on board. If you don’t know them, then get to know them, do what you do best and make a connection. Even if they aren’t strong Christians or Christians at all, they can still be a positive influence on your student if you get on the same page; and who knows, you may get to lead them to Christ as well. Likewise, coaches- you have someone who wants to pour into your athletes, give them a sense of purpose and to believe in something bigger than themselves. They want to develop your athletes into people who will stand up for what they believe and what is true; while teaching them what it means to be a follower of Christ, be confident, and care for others, on top of teaching them to be leaders. Tell me what part of that is not appealing. Even if you are not a believer, what is your downside here? OK, Keith, wrap this up. What do we do? Glad you asked.
The greatest coaches I’ve been around allow their players to go to church on Wednesdays. They invest in their players as people, not just the season. For many players, being able to go to church is important, they just feel like they can’t. The things that these great coaches understand is that there is more to their players’ lives than the sport they play. They communicate with parents and youth leaders. Youth leaders- befriend these coaches. Communicate your needs and schedule and allow them to communicate theirs to you. Coaches, cut practice short on Wednesdays. Wednesdays are the primary day that most youth services occur and are usually focused on delivering God’s Word. You are not going to lose anything on the field by sacrificing an hour once a week to get in those last few snaps, the last swings, or last foul shots. What you will get are players who become better people because they get to grow through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word and that will be more valuable than extra reps on the field. And, I mean stop practice for everyone, even if you have players who don’t go to church. That gives your players a chance to invite their teammates to church and it prevents the player who does go to church from the feeling guilty for leaving practice early. If that happens, we are back to where we started. Work with the youth leader on big events that are bible study driven like a disciple now. We are dealing with spiritual growth that will be impacting these players long after they play their last game.
Youth leaders, don’t underestimate the importance of having their coach in your students’ lives. We are always desperate for adults to pour into our students, don’t shut out one of the biggest influences they will have. Find out what your coaches and teams need. Provide snacks or drinks for practice. Host a pre-game meal for them. Find out what the coach needs personally. They sacrifice a lot of time and energy to pour into kids who aren’t theirs….you know, kinda like you do. Be understanding if your athletes aren’t at every single event you put on- especially if the event is not bible study driven. It’s ok if they miss your dodgeball night, your laser tag outing, or your movie night. Get the teams involved in your service projects. Partner with them. Work together. Coaches love that. Most of all communicate the BIG dates and events, particularly the ones with gospel and spiritual implications (like a D-Now or youth conference). And don’t host a dodgeball night, tack a 5 minute devotion on at the end, and pretend it’s bible driven. You are fooling no one, especially the Lord. Work together to make disciples of these students instead of pitting their two loves against each other.
This is the short version. I could write a book on this (and I might just do it). But, there is room for sports and for church- and I truly believe a room for church to be the priority (eternal implications you know) if we are willing to acknowledge the role that God has put us in the lives of our student athletes. This doesn’t even cover the parental role here either, but that’s for another time. I will leave you today with a summation in the words of my good friend, Michael Forrester, who I believe said it best when we were talking about this last night. He said:
“I like to think that a person can be 100% committed to the Lord, and still be very, very committed to their sport. I strongly believe that, as coaches, we have the opportunity to strengthen the faith of our players. I know for a fact that my players help my faith daily. There is no question in my mind that sports teams and youth groups can coexist and should be able to strengthen each other. I wish all coaches and youth leaders wanted that connection, but as you know there are too many of both that don’t want it.”Michael Forrester
There are going to be those youth leaders and coaches alike who will not entertain any of the thoughts in here. To that, I can only recommend a re-evaluation & conversation about the health of your connection to those people. What we have here, like Michael pointed out, is a great opportunity to reclaim the relationship between sports and church. A great opportunity indeed.
In Christ Alone,
Rev. Bro. Coach