It’s Thanksgiving week – a time to eat amazing food with people we love…hopefully. It is also a time to express our gratitude for the blessings our Lord as given to each of us. One of those blessings, no doubt, may be a coach who has been a blessing to many.
Being a Christian athlete these days isn’t easy. And neither is trying to help form young athletes as a coach.
I have had the opportunity to speak to coaches across the country – from college to grade school to CYO. Men and Women who love sports and the youth, but may or may not care to engage in the mission of the Catholic Church or have the confidence to do it. This mission is that of Christ Himself, the salvation of souls.
I see sports as one of the greatest contemporary opportunities to form and evangelize young people. I also see the role of the coach as a key facet of this work.
You may know coaches that struggle to engage his/her players outside the X’s and O’s of the game, especially when it comes to faith. You may be that coach. I want to share with you 4 pillars that I believe can help any coach start to live the mission of Christ well.
1. Help form proper identity and self worth.
2. Preach the gospel, and communicate it through the sharing of your life in mentorship
3. Point them to Jesus Christ as a life well lived – this is the framework to talk about virtues/character/integrity…in imitation of Christ (see 1 Cor 11:1).
4. Show them that God has willed (or desired) them to be an athlete, and wants to use every aspect of the experience to make them dynamic disciples – to sanctify them.
These four pillars of coaching in mission are simple and accessible for every coach, no matter how much they know about the faith. They also allow for the creative genius that each coach possesses to come to the surface and expose their own individual brilliance.
Young athletes are usually impacted heavily by what their coaches do and say. They don’t like to fail or even disappoint. As coaches, and even parents, I think it can be easy to forget how impactful our words and actions are.
Our current culture tends to praise talent, accomplishment/achievement. Celebrating success is often a good thing. The problem comes when, for years, kids get used to the pat on their back being related to what they achieve. A sense of self-worth gets connected to this. That shapes their identity in a superficial way. “I am good at sports. People always praise me when I achieve something sports related. I need to maintain my success as an athlete. This is where I receive validation.” And so the internal talk continues.
When young people build their identity, their self-worth, on a sense of achievement, they are building it on sand. The only lasting sense of identity is that which is true – they are a son or daughter of God. Nothing will ever take away their self-worth. They will always be loved and cherished. This knowledge helps young people develop a lasting foundation. Coaches have a unique role in helping to shape this identity.
Some ideas to help young athletes shape proper identity:
- praise effort more than outcome
- give equal affection and attention to all players, not just the starters
- Criticize lack of effort more often than execution failure
- Tell them they are sons or daughters of God; weave this into the team culture
We don’t want young men and women unable to accept correction. But the more they understand their true identity, the more confidence they will possess. This makes genuine coaching easier to receive and process.
By the time athletes get to the college level, they are so wrapped up in their sports, they struggle when their eligibility is up.
The second pillar: sharing the gospel
We live in a culture that no longer thinks Jesus Christ is relevant, important or even real. The fact that God became man and died for our sins so that we might have eternal life is the greatest piece of information in all of history. Nothing can rival this. He knew we were separated from Him because of our sin, yet He wanted to bridge that gap. Dying on the cross shut the door on that old chapter of humanity and opened a new one, a New Covenant to be precise. All we have to do it repent, believe and faithfully follow Him by living a life of prayer, fellowship, Sacramental life and adherence to the teachings of the apostles as given via the Church.
This is where coaches come in and the second pillar: as a megaphone into young people’s lives, we need to share this story.
Preaching the gospel can be an intimidating thing. The important thing is that we talk about Jesus Christ and the necessity of knowing Him and developing a deep friendship with Him.
Coaches have an amazing audience in each of their athletes. With that is a responsibility to proclaim the gospel.
Some other suggestions:
1. Use your own story to share the message that God loved us, died for us, and invites us to have a friendship with him. No doubt your life is fascinating and filled with “God moments”. Tell them. Everyone loves a story, including yours.
2. Invest a bit of time in your athletes. Become a mentor (age appropriate) to each athlete, even if just touching base for 5 minutes every week or two. This investment will make the opportunity to share the gospel even more effective.
I hope you are willing to be bold so that your athletes might hear the good news from someone they trust.
- Thomas Wurtz is the founder of FaithandAthletics.com