As I greeted the players and parents of my U10 soccer team, I noticed the coordinators desperately seeking volunteers to coach the other teams. This time last year, I was unexpectedly plunged into coaching by a friend who nominated me to coach our team. I quickly explained that I had no idea what I was doing and this was promptly matched with, “Don’t worry about it, we have a half-day course that the club will pay for.” The look of relief from the other parents was palpable, so I begrudgingly gave my yes. Meanwhile, my inner monologue played the tune of ‘what have you got yourself into’ and ‘should have said no.’ Needless to say, I survived the season and I am back again for another, voluntarily this time.
I’ve been teaching high-school students for over a decade, but coaching taught me many new lessons from twelve of the funniest, cheeky and toughest six-year-olds on the frosty Canberra fields. It is easy for experienced teachers to relax into the tried and tested pedagogy, becoming experts in content knowledge and forgetting the value of developing strong relationships with students. Pope Francis’s 2016 exhortation to the youth in Krakow also strikes to the heart of the sluggish teacher, “The time we are living in does not call for young couch potatoes but for young people with shoes — or better — boots laced,” and “It only takes players on the first string, and it has no room for benchwarmers.” So what converted this passive, bench warming dad into the engaged, boots-laced coach (and teacher) that I am today?
Like Jesus’ disciples, I was unprepared for the challenge that coaching required. Rick Yancey points out that “God doesn’t call the equipped … He equips the called,” and fortunately I was blessed to learn from some excellent coaches and hone my skills under the watchful eyes of extremely patient parents. My coaching was on display for all to see (and laugh at) as my 12 little people ran all over the place, occasionally following my directions and scoring goals.
I developed a newfound respect for PE teachers as I longed for the four walls and familiar desks of my classroom. A combination of accountability and my desire to refine the craft led me to spend time reflecting on how I managed the players, explained instructions, provided motivation, and boosted team morale. However, I still hadn’t picked up on the most important part of coaching, the secret that would see players returning season after season.
The discovery phase of soccer is all about replicating the type of soccer that would have normally taken place in the backyards and empty spaces of neighborhoods. These impromptu games were run without coaches and referees, but they had one key element that many modern coaches forget to include: joy and playing for the pure fun of it. As I settled into my coaching I began to enjoy my time with the kids: talking to them about their favourite superheroes, what they were doing in the holidays, and having a laugh.
My tendency to take things too seriously was being replaced by a joyful coaching demeanor and also began to influence my role as a Director of Faith Formation. The message was reinforced clearly in the 2017 Australian Catholic Youth Festival’s theme ‘Opening new horizons for spreading joy,’ building on the vision laid out by Pope Francis’s 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.
This newfound joyfulness didn’t safeguard us from the tears, frustrations, and tantrums that are an inevitable part of working with this age group. The players experienced repairing of relationships (between themselves and me), saying sorry, and learning from mistakes. They developed life skills such as sharing, being patient, accepting difference, and encouraging others. Like thousands of coaches before me, I began to realise that coaching was more than kids winning their games.
At a recent Father and Son breakfast Neil Smith commented that coaching “gives children a chance, an opportunity, a sense of broader belonging. I hope as a father I can be a father to my children but also to any child in need as I believe truly they are all our children.” Coaching has stretched me as an educator, innovator, and parent, but most importantly it has taught me to find new horizons for spreading joy.
Where are the new horizons for you to spread joy in your life?
Copyright 2018 Nathan Ahearne