In sports, the sidelines are the lines that mark the limits of the playing field or court. Players and referees are actively engaged within the playing field. As an athlete in the game, you may get caught up in the action around you. Outside of the sidelines you’ll find inactive players, spectators and coaches. From the sidelines, you have a different perspective on what is going on in the game. As youth ministers, we have a sideline vantage point into the lives of youth. We are not living life for the youth, we are alongside them. Here are three valuable youth ministry lessons learned from the sidelines:
1. Don’t say mean things out loud. As a soccer coach, I spend a lot of time at games and practices, and a lot of time on the sidelines. I am often amazed and taken aback by what spectators on the sidelines are willing to say aloud.
For the most part, the parents and other coaches I overhear are supportive and encouraging, but not all of them. I heard a coach reprimanding his player-son this weekend in a way I would never accept as a way he could coach my child. I’ve half-joked with other parents that you can always tell who the coach’s kids are because the coach reserves a special tone of voice for yelling at their own kid…although to be fair, usually that same coach’s kid reserves a special tone of voice for talking back to his coach. My husband has said you can pick out the coach’s kid because he or she is the one that starts to cry. Among the fans, there are a handful of parents that say things like “Why did you do that!?” “Are you going to actually play hard this game?” “What were you thinking!?”
It’s tough to just sit there and hear kids getting berated like that, especially about playing a game. Sure, it’s tough to watch the kids you love lose a game or play poorly, but that doesn’t mean it is your job to criticize them. I love sports and I hope that kids grow up loving sports too…but I wonder if how we adults are on the sidelines can kill the joy of sports. I even wonder how many of these vocal critics could play any better if they were on the field. In your ministry, who are the critics of your youth’s lives? Are there people who are openly critical of what the youth do? How do you choose what to say? There is a lot to be said for encouragement over criticism.
2. Do say nice and specific things. As an athlete, I can tell you that players know full well when they mess up. There are plenty of self-critical voices. Critical voices from the crowd or from parents especially do not help. Here’s an idea on what a parent or fan could say at the end of a bad game or play instead of criticism:
Good: “I am proud of what a good team player you are/of how hard you work.”
Really good: “I loved watching you play!”
Even better, add: “I especially loved when you did [specific play here].”
Add to this an offer to work on a specific skill in between games, or to somehow spend quality time with the kid, and you’ve got a kid who knows unconditional love.
This translates really well into youth ministry: Our “players,” the members of our youth ministry, need us to come alongside as encouraging voices and coaches, not critics. They need us to come alongside their often messy lives and not say things like, “what were you thinking??!” “Why did you mess up like that?!” but rather, send messages into their lives that say, “I love watching you grow in your faith!” “I’m proud of who you are becoming.” “I loved when you did [this specific act of love, grace, mercy].” Add to this an offer to spend quality time together, and the message that gets caught here is one of love and acceptance, no matter what.
3. If you have to say something corrective, do it in private and focus on the behavior. In sports, the best coaches I’ve seen will substitute out a player after a bad play to explain on the sidelines what could be done differently, then put the player back in. One of the wisest bits of advice I’ve received is to correct misbehavior privately and to praise good behavior publicly and often. It’s the difference between openly criticizing (ouch!) and patiently redirecting…which may feel like the difference between being scolded/embarrassed versus being taught. When youth mess up, we can quietly pull them aside, coach better behavior or wiser choices and then send them back in. By doing this, youth learn what they need to learn, but also preserve their dignity.
One of the greatest challenges of being a coach is accepting that, no matter how great you are, you ultimately cannot control what the players do on the field. You can give great advice to the players/youth that you serve, but whether or not they follow your coaching is not ultimately your decision. This is life on the sidelines. Just the same, we keep on coaching. If you are mindful of watching the words you use, silencing the criticism and patiently making corrections, your team of youth will grow and respect you for it. What results from this is players (youth) who know unconditional love – that’s what we hope for, right?
How do you handle critical voices?
How can you relate sports and faith?
Who has inspired you as a coach?
How do you encourage others?