We are a sports family. Between the 3 kids, my husband and myself, we have played soccer, cross country, track, baseball, basketball, football and cheerleading. As an athlete, a sports mom and also a coach, I spend a lot of time at games and practices, and a lot of time on the sidelines. Today I even had the special opportunity to watch my niece play in a volleyball tournament in Dallas (my picture of the day.) What really struck me this weekend were the voices and messages from the parents and fans around me.
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. 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?!”
I’ve also overheard plenty of parent-fans openly and loudly criticize the calls of refs, usually just teenagers or volunteers working as a referee for the game. My brother shared with me that the niece I watched play today has spent time working as a referee, and was really hurt by snide comments fans made about her calls. My niece is beautiful, smart, talented and an all around lovely young person, so it’s painful to hear about how thoughtless parents/fans could be.
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. There is a lot to be said for encouragement over criticism. In fact, I think there are really important lessons here for parents, coaches and youth ministers alike.
To parents and fans: 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].”
The message that gets caught here is one of love, no matter what. 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.
To the coaches: 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. It’s the difference between openly criticizing (ouch!) and patiently redirecting…which may feel like the difference between being scolded/embarrassed versus being taught. To the parents who are coaches (myself included here), let’s remember to try to treat our own kids like a part of the team – neither giving them special treatment beyond the rest of the team, nor giving them harsher criticism.
To my fellow youth ministers: There are great lessons learned on the playing field for 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 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].” When youth mess up, we can quietly pull them aside, coach better behavior and then send them back in. Correct privately, praise publicly.
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?