It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of college athletics.
At the gooey center of every college team is the coach. The college coach is far more important to the success of the program than at the professional level. For example, he/she sets the tone for everything from recruiting to player development to academic support to nutrician to training to recruiting and, most visibly, to performance on the field. Really good ones are also involved in fundraising, masterminding the press, and scheduling.
A successful college coach is an excellent manager that depends heavily on the support network around them. They are visionary and at the same time granular… somehow they help their team recognize that dealing with the tiniest detail helps their team win championships. Legendary basketball coach John Wooden was famous for painstakingly teaching his teams how to properly put on socks.
But none of that matters if you don’t genuinely love the players. When you hear players talk about their coach you hear that they care for their coach because their coach cares about them. Sure, cynics and critics rightfully point out that the best college coaches make millions of dollars leading teams full of players earn only a college scholarship. (Or, in many cases, a partial scholarship.) But when you talk to the athletes themselves they hardly see it that way. All-too-often, even among players with amazing parental support, they look up to their coach as a parent or grandparent.
There’s genuine love at the gooey center of the center of the program.
Growing Into Coaching
As a youth worker, I can’t help but contrast the role of the average youth pastor to the role of the average college head coach.
Truly brilliant coaches have learned, often times by years of experience and working their way up the hierarchy of college athletics, to master all of the essential aspects of coaching the team so that they can focus on what really matters… coaching the players.
Yes, within their purview is a range of things that have to drip of excellence. But their experience allows them to manage those things with little effort, they know how to hire good people, know what to look for, know how to express their values in and through those things. On and on.
This allows them to maximize their focus on actually coaching players. As they move up the ladder they recognize more and more that it’s about the players. Lose that and you’re sunk.
The sure sign of a truly excellent youth worker is much the same. They’ve mastered keeping all of the plates spinning, they’ve created a culture where others contribute and build on that culture, and they dip their toes in fundraising when needed.
But like their coaching counterparts, unmistakably, at the gooey center of any good youth worker is a genuine and obvious love for teenagers.
Age is a Benefit in Coaching… and Youth Work, Too
There’s a sharp contrast between college coaching and youth ministry. In college athletics age isn’t a barrier. Recruiting 17 and 18 year olds, managing a system that helps cultivate them into young adults is seen as valuable. In a lot of states a head football or basketball coach is the highest paid public person in the state!
For some reason this isn’t true in youth ministry. It’s really hard to stick with it long enough to get to that point. Sure, it happens. But it’s pretty rare to meet a youth worker who has been at it for 25-30 years. There seems to be a prevailing thought– one that’s been there since the beginning– that youth ministry is a great career for a season.
But, the thing I’m wondering, and the thing I’m banking on… is that there are among our tribe a growing number who will resist walking away or doing something else… but will instead continue to get better, to build more and more enduring and endearing youth ministry programs that transform lives not just for a season, but for generations.
Friends, you’re never too old to love teenagers. Don’t give up. Get better!