It is mid-November. In my house that means we are putting the final touches on another season of youth football. We started practices in early August and are now in the final rounds of playoffs.
As I reflect on our season, I don’t dwell on the wins or losses, or the touchdowns or tackles; I instead think about the 3 lessons my fellow coaches and I have attempted to instill in each of the young men on our team.
(1) A Simple Motto. We ask our boys numerous times during each practice, “What’s our motto?” They respond at the top of their lungs, “Hard Work.” Their habit of hard work should stretch from the football field, to the classroom, to the doors of their home. We teach them to work hard not for our benefit, but because it gives them both dignity in a job well done today and the tools and character to succeed in the future as adults.
(2) Response-ability: As my good friend and our head coach Mike continually tells our boys, “It’s not if you face obstacles, but when.” Sports provide a great avenue to teach our kids that life is full of obstacles. In light of this, we remind our team of their “response-ability” – translation – they have the ability to choose their response to each situation they face in life. They are not powerless when it comes to their choices. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, once wrote, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s response.” It’s important our youth learn this lesson now!
(3) Identity: This is the most important lesson. From the first day of conditioning practices to the team party at the conclusion of the season we tell our boys, “You are loved.” Their identity is in no way tied to their position or performance on the field (for better or worse). For the Christ-following athlete and fan, identity in Christ becomes immeasurably important at this very point. Understanding that in Jesus we are loved unconditionally (Ephesians 1:4–5), forgiven freely (Romans 4:7–8), pursued endlessly (Psalm 23:6), and given meaning and purpose that stretch far beyond the scoreboard (Ephesians 1:5; 2 Timothy 1:9) can free us to rise above the scoreboard in victory and defeat.
I understand and respect the debate concerning youth sports. There are healthy arguments for and against competition at young ages. But ultimately I believe sports are a gift, a good gift, which God gave through human creativity for our enjoyment. And just like all of life, we ought to approach it with thoughtfulness, discernment, and intentionality.
From the cheerleaders who provide enthusiasm and spirit, to the parents who trust us with their boys, to my fellow coaches who sacrifice so much of their time, and most importantly to the boys we are blessed to lead, I am thankful for football season….and the lessons we all learn.