About a year ago, I finally talked my husband, John, into asking our local high school’s athletic director if he could help out with track. John was an amazing runner as a teenager and had said for a long time that he wanted to assist with coaching. As it turned out, the school hadn’t been able to find anyone to lead the track team, and by the time John hung up the phone, not only was he the head coach, but I was his assistant. Now with one season of track and another of cross country under our belts, we’re “veterans” heading into our second season of track. Needless to say, coaching has been quite the learning experience.
Recently I heard a speaker say, “The best coaches weren’t necessarily the best athletes. Instead, they are people who loved the game enough to teach it to others.” I think this holds true in ministry as well. Our role as youth workers is to nurture teenagers into a deeper relationship with Jesus. To do this, we must surround ourselves with a team that pours into young people’s lives.
I’ve discovered these five transferrable truths about what makes a great coach for both track and ministry:
- Great Coaches Have High Expectations for the Team—Because we were recruited to coach so late last year, we had just one week before the first meet. Our goal was simply to run and hope a couple of athletes did well. This year we raised expectations exponentially. Conditioning started almost six weeks before the official season, we lengthened practices by an hour, and we drilled down on several key areas. The goal was to build a team of athletes who were serious about running. Along the way, we lost a few teenagers who didn’t want to put in the effort or had shown up just to be with friends. But now we have runners who want to become the best in their events as possible. Some stop me during non-practice hours just to talk about their form or to share an idea for building their speed. Our team has risen to the challenge of raised expectations. Never be afraid to raise expectations for your ministry team. Make sure those expectations are attainable, clearly communicated, and accompanied by a tangible reward. Not everyone on our track team is told they have to win; rather, they’re coached to be their best. The same goes for a youth ministry team—even if it’s just you plus one other person.
- Great Coaches Care About the Team—Coaching is about the team, not the “win.” Coaches and youth workers take time to teach teenagers to be their best, but genuinely care about them for who they are. We learn about their lives, what motivates them, and even what’s going on at home. When we pray with our runners, hold them accountable, and really know them beyond the sport, they grow into better athletes. Likewise, we can’t be so focused on our youth ministry goals that we forget about pouring into our team members. We must care for them, encourage them when they feel defeated, and celebrate their successes. Paying attention to their needs is crucial, because we never know what outside forces they’re facing.
- Great Coaches Pour Into Individuals—Leading a team involves caring about its overall vision, yet also paying attention to the individuals who make up the team. When do people need more information? When are they hurting and in need of healing? When are they ready to give up? While caring for the team, you also help each individual do his or her best in each race. Sometimes you may need to help a small-group leader learn how to work more effectively with teenagers; other times, you might need to provide extra love when that leader’s life is falling apart. Remember that not all team members approach ministry the same way.
- Great Coaches Learn to Coax, Not Command—Demanding too much from athletes can make them shut down. But if coaches teach them the skills of the game, provide correction as necessary, and help reveal who the athletes can be, they’ll blossom. It’s tempting to try to control how things are done so you can ensure a victory. But that doesn’t work in sports, and it really doesn’t work in youth ministry. Remind your team of the end goal—where they’re going and why you all want to get there. Help people see the vision and then trust that they can reach the finish line well.
- Great Coaches Focus on Coaching—They don’t try to relive their own experiences through their team members. They don’t care if anyone notices their own awesome abilities; instead, they care if their team can go all the way. Great coaches let each team member operate out of their unique gifts, abilities, and personalities.
Coach your team to be the best it can be. When you have a shared focus, everyone wins.