Pressing on toward the goal

A good football coach understands that they are not just coaching a game, but coaching life. They recognise the need to develop the whole player. As in the journey of discipleship, what we learn on the football field touches all areas of life and community.

An Interserve Partner and football coach reflects on his role: shaping young players into people who can receive, apply and spread love and grace in every aspect of life.

In 2011, I was fortunate to be able to attend a 2 week coach education course in Spain, along with 30 other coaches from Australia. We had lectures from coaches involved in the youth programmes at some of the biggest and richest clubs in the world – clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Espanyol, Malaga to name a few. And without exception, these coaches all started their lecture with the same line: that they “first develop the person, then develop the player”. The biggest football clubs in the world know that having players with good character and behaviour, who can work well together in a team and be role models to the community are a valuable asset to the club. They are beneficial both for its on-field success as well as for its reputation and economic success off the field.

Can we also develop people as we develop players?

More recently, I attended another conference in a nearby country, this time for like-minded young coaches of many sports. The focus of this conference was not just on improving coaching ability, but on how coaches can become role models for the young people in their care.

At this conference, some recent research was presented which showed that sport itself has a neutral effect on players. It can be used to positively influence a person’s life, but it can also be detrimental. If the coach adopts a “win at all costs” attitude, then sport has negative impacts on the moral fibre of the players. Their behaviour off the sporting field is eroded by the messages they receive at training. When winning is everything, being honest, respectful, loyal, humble and fair are disregarded. When winning is all we focus on, self-centredness, greed, pride, violence and bending the rules all take centre stage.

But, as the teams in Spain prove, it is possible to adopt a winning attitude without abandoning our moral accountability.

Combating negative influences

There are many negative influences that we need to counteract as we strive to teach our players positive personal characteristics and attitudes. After all, we live in a fallen world. I will highlight two:

Firstly, there is the lack of positive role models for youth, especially fathers. This applies especially in the countries where we serve. Due to many factors, fathers are absent from young people’s lives. While coaches can’t become a new father, they can certainly become a new positive role model in the players’ lives.

Secondly, there is the effect of poverty. A newspaper editorial about World Humanitarian Day this year stated that, “poverty kills solidarity and dehumanises people. When I have less and feel insecure, I am less inclined to associate or support others.” In poor communities, it said, people have “lost the mechanical sense of cohesion where people help one another without thinking.”

The effect of poverty

Poverty causes people to abandon any thoughts of working together and instead adopt a survival attitude: you must look after yourself or you will go without. No one else will look out for you. Poverty is a very real factor in many countries where we serve.

I had a glimpse of how that plays out in real life in 2004 when I first came to my adopted country and spent some time at an orphanage. One of the activities I did with the kids was to play a variation of baseball, using a football and kicking instead of batting. Sounds simple enough. There was a fielding side. There was a batting side; all sitting and waiting their turn. Well, almost. Whenever it was time for the next “batter”, every one of the batting team was up and fighting for position and I had to pull them apart. Waiting in line wasn’t an option. Was it just because they were naturally self-centred and greedy? Or did their lives condition their behaviour? When you realise that they are amongst the poorest of the poor, and waiting for anything means missing out, then it is easy to understand that they didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to play.

Training to win – on and off the field

When you look at the way a team plays sport – in my case football – you can learn a lot about the culture and society of the players. Football is just a microcosm of life. When I watch the local games here in my country, I see the same problems arising from poverty and lack of positive role models, the problems that hinder community spirit and development in the society, all played out before you on the football field.

So why use sport as the vehicle to combat these effects? Sport is a natural bridge between the coach and the players. As we coach, our focus is not just on making better players, but on making the players think about the concepts and attitudes involved. Concepts like teamwork, serving others, forgiving others, encouraging others, helping the weaker members of the team, helping others to score goals, planning ahead, making good decisions, respecting others, being loyal, humble, working together for a common goal, overcoming challenges, and working hard to improve ourselves are all important for a successful team. They are also all important in a successful and caring society.

By giving the players a tangible example of these principles in action, we hope that they can understand their value and apply them within their families, communities, and their future work. In so doing, they may ultimately transform the communities where they live.
Transforming lives and communities

And there is more. A wise man once said that we only need to do two things. The second was to love our neighbour. How do we love our neighbour? By doing what’s best for them, and putting their needs above our own. We do that in a team environment by doing what’s best for the team;

By serving the team.
By respecting the coach, the opposition, the referee.
By being loyal to our teammates.
By accepting responsibility for our mistakes; admitting them and not blaming others.
By being honest.
By working hard and improving ourselves so we can better serve the team.
By helping others to score goals, especially when they are in a better position to do so.
By being honest, and not stealing from others: not their belongings, their opportunities, or their worth as people.
By being humble in victory and gracious in defeat.

All of the things that we want to encourage in our players go to the very essence of loving our neighbour. As we encourage our players to obey this second command for the sake of their present lives, we ask and hope that it will lead them to understand the very nature of the One who gave the command, and then to their understanding and obedience of the first.

Sport provides a unique bridge between the coach and the players, but it also touches many others in the community who enjoy participating or watching it. It has a levelling quality that gives us acceptance in the community. Because of this, it is also a unique opportunity to reach into and share the lives of the people we live amongst, allowing us to reveal the hope we find in following the One who lets us share in His victory.

There are many opportunities in the countries we serve. Find out how you can be part of His team in these countries. Don’t wait on the bench, but get involved in the game.

The author is an Interserve Partner in the Arab world.