I remember the time clearly. My baby boy (who is now 16) had finally grown to an age where playing an organized sport was possible and sensible. As seems to be the case perpetually, the league needed coaches, so I signed up to coach. I was happy to help, and my dad and mom had spent years coaching my teams, so I had some ideas of what went into the endeavor.
That started a streak of about 10 years where I coached 1-2 teams nearly year round. I had been saved by grace through faith in Christ alone just 2 months before I started coaching my son’s soccer team, and as I’ve been conformed to the image of Christ, He’s also taught me a lot about coaching. Here’s some tips from my experience for anyone embarking on this endeavor or anyone who simply wants to be refreshed and encouraged.
One of the first things I noticed was the truth that “sheep need a shepherd.” Groups of children (adults too, but that’s for another post) need leadership. Without a unifying force to lead folks in the same direction, it can be difficult to not only strive for the same goals, but do so in an agreed upon method. A coach offers this much needed direction, and, what I found, is that the kids and their parents appreciate it.
- Be organized. Have a plan for what you will do in practice and follow it.
- Be flexible, but know that you can’t cover everything. So focus on fundamentals and get really good at a few things, rather than simply exposed to a bunch of things.
- Start your practices and pre-game warmups on time, and end them on time. Don’t waste the parents’ time. Let everyone know that for 1 hour (or whatever) you are going to have total control of the situation and they can be worry-free.
- Employ your assistants or other parents who are wiling to help, but give them clear direction. You may have someone who needs to be given easy tasks which you describe in detail, or you may have a Nick Saban wannabe on your sideline. Figure out how to best use those willing to help you and let them serve the kids.
- Establish your rules and enforce them. Kids will fall in line, especially if playing time is a viable option for discipline. I had a very no-nonsense policy regarding even mild cuss words. And, although I was sure some parents let their kids talk that way, when I confronted parents about their child, they all sided with me.
In summary: be prepared. Make making this experience great for all the kids your priority and teach them basics and fundamentals of the game.
One of the biggest shifts in sports in the past 30 years, I believe, is the shift we’ve seen from youth sports being designed for recreation, fun, and learning, to youth sports being a place where very young children are essentially training to be pros. Maybe you haven’t seen this in your area of the world, but I see it it in mine. What we need to remember is that most of those kids will not go pro in anything athletic. In fact, most of the kids you coach in a little league won’t even play a high school sport. How do you keep it fun for all the kids?
- Cheer them on. All of them. Each of those kids deserves your attention. Each of them is somebody’s baby. Each of those kids is a person made in God’s image whose parents paid to see developed, disciplined (a bit), and given an opportunity to play and have fun.
- So do all you can to know each kid you coach. You should be able to do as I did at the end of seasons and give families a letter which told the parents something their kid did well or learned that season, and something their kid could do to improve.
- Pay attention to the fact that some kids want to win. I remember my son being in a league where the mantra was “don’t worry about winning, just make it fun for the kids.” This sounded great until I realized half my team didn’t have fun unless they won (or at least really seemed to try to win). So be wise, figure out how to rotate the ball or playing time in a way that you meet your duties to each kid, while still putting the team in a position to win.
- Remember that they are just kids, too. Yelling at them because they screwed up isn’t helpful. They are going to make mistakes. Teach them how to learn from their mistakes and you’ll help them out in more ways that just sports. Note, I am not saying “never shout.” There is a way to raise your voice and simply be an excited coach who’s trying to be heard across the field. Just be careful that any frustration you feel doesn’t spill over.
- Find a team mom to help organize the after game snack. This is the best part of the game for some of the kids….
In summary, remember that it is your responsibility to try to create an environment where kids can recreate and have joy in playing a sport.
Ultimately, if you are a Christian, you are a missionary where you are. You are in a position where you now have the ears of a group of people. Find a way to get the gospel to them. Find a way to pray with them. Find a way to inject biblical teaching into the circumstances you find yourself in. Some leagues will be more open to this than others, but if you love your saviour, find a way, dear saint.
- At the end of the season when you give each family a personal letter about their child, include a gospel message or a tract.
- Your demeanor and testimony the entire season, especially your worst moments, will be remembered. Consider your calling, brethren, and the fact that your real goal will be to see families saved and worshiping Christ.
- The gospel is central, but there are other themes in the Bible you can teach people while you are coaching. Ideals such as unselfishness, working hard and not demanding instant gratification, or good sportsmanship (win or lose) are all concepts that would be easy to teach through coaching — referring to Bible verses help reinforce these ideas and may lead people to read more of the Bible.
- Pray for your players and their parents. You don’t know what they are experiencing, but you know they are experiencing something. That difficult kid? He’s may have a difficult home life. The kid who swears and you wish he’d stop? He may hear his dad swear at his mom. The kid who doesn’t seem to want to win or pay attention? Maybe his parents are over-bearing and he just wants to escape and be in a place with low pressure. You don’t know the details, but you can pray for kids and families and trust God to work out details.
In conclusion, you can be a servant to your child and your community by being a godly coach in a sports league. You will gain an ear with people you otherwise may not have gotten to speak to, and doors are opened for the gospel. Young boys and girls who may not have a father or home, or may not have a good one, may get an hour or two a week of a good influence. Of course, if you are a woman, maybe you will be an example of a godly woman that some of the kids rarely see.
Be careful how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, not being foolish! Be the light in the world that you are to be and don’t waste any time God has given you. Be an excellent coach, take criticism humbly, and love those kids and families.
P.S. Don’t forget to make sure your own kid feels special to you, in particular if he or she is not such a good player. As coach, you will need to spread your attention thin, and kids know who the best players are and see how the coach trusts them. Remind all the kids, and especially yours, that they are important because God made them and not because of how well they perform on the court or field.