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According to a study by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), during the 2018-19 school year, nearly 8 million student-athletes participated in one or more sports on high school campuses. While that number is astronomical already, that’s not even including the millions of kids competing in off-campus sports such as local recreation leagues and travel teams. Sports are an inevitable intersection in the world you live in as a youth pastor, but unfortunately, I’ve seen too many of my students experience church hurt that was in some way related to their athletic lives. Over the last six years, I’ve served on staff with Fellowship of Christian Athletes, where I’ve been doing high school campus ministry with high school student-athletes and coaches. While I’m not an expert, I’ve learned a few things during my time with FCA, and I want to help you be more equipped to minister to the student-athletes in your ministry.
Far too often, I talk to students who reach out to their youth pastors or youth leaders about the struggles they face as an athlete, whether it’s about playing time, team dynamics, or their frustrations with their performance, only to feel dismissed because they get “Jesus-juked,” if you will. The response is a “there are no batting averages in Heaven” speech, and they’re expected to move on. While that may true, it’s also a missed opportunity to leverage something that is not eternal for something that is. Playing time may not be eternal but learning how to bring your frustrations to God has eternal value. Morning workouts and crazy practice schedules aren’t eternal but helping them find creative ways to spend time with God even when their schedules are busy definitely has eternal value. There’s always an in-road to spiritual truth – we just have to look close enough to see it.
The world of sports has become a place where there’s always a “bad guy.” There’s always somebody to put the blame on and make the “villain” of the story. The good news about the Gospel is that we have a different narrative. Are there coaches and teammates who do and say things that negatively affect your student-athlete(s)? Absolutely. There’s no arguing that, but what we can’t do is allow our student-athletes to villainize them. We have to teach our student-athletes that there is a way to deal with both difficult people and difficult situations where we don’t have to compromise Gospel truth. It’s our job to give them space to be frustrated about their coach, to affirm the difficulty of that situation, and to empathize with their woundedness while not invalidating it. It’s also our job to remind them that their coach is an image-bearer of God whom we are called to treat with honor according to Scripture, as well as a fallible human who will make mistakes that sometimes negatively affect them.
We all want to shield the people we love from situations that could possibly bring about negative consequences in their lives. Sports, however, is a world in which failure is inevitable and inescapable. Our immediate reaction is to avoid and excuse away failure because excuses are easier than accountability in the short term. However, avoiding or excusing failure doesn’t help any of your students in the long term. As a former college athlete myself, one of the most significant things that athletics offered me as a Christ-follower was a healthy relationship with failure and accountability. One of the greatest invitations you can extend to your student-athletes is the invitation to confront their failure, learn how to deal with it and process it without being defined by it, and move forward better equipped to navigate failure in the future.
I know first-hand that the experiences of a student-athlete are ones that can be leveraged for the Gospel and the Kingdom and glory of God, and I pray these practices will help equip you to be able to do just that.
Share your thoughts with others in our YM360 community:
- What are some of your common practices when it comes to ministering to the student-athletes in your ministry?
- Which of the above practices do you think will serve you best in your ministry and with your students?