One big lesson from the front line of coaching

Photo by Kevin van der Leek

I love volleyball. I have played it practically my whole life.

Recently I started coaching girls volleyball at a local high school in Pasadena. It’s not the same thing. I’ve quickly learned that coaching high school girls is a whole other ball game.

Here’s one example of how I’m trying to find my bearings. I told our JV team that my wife and I saw Taylor Swift in concert. They all screamed, giggled, and asked me what songs she sang. It was a great storytelling opportunity. I thought I’d bring that same story to the varsity team. It was met with “Eh, I don’t even like Taylor Swift.” Conversation. Over.

I couldn’t figure it out! I constantly felt like a nomad as a coach trying to figure out my place, and often times still do. Every day is different trying to connect with these girls.

Recently, our JV captain Meghan suffered a fractured foot. Needless to say, she was devastated. At the next practice, I was standing at one end of the gym watching. The girls were laughing together, cheering, and yelling chants in between plays. On the sideline watching was Meghan, looking down and out. I went out on a limb, walked up, and sat right next to her.

Through a class I took with professor Chap Clark at Fuller Seminary recently, I learned how young people feel abandoned by older generations because of the way we have created a performance-based society for young people. They often believe that if they’re not successful, they don’t matter. What truly matters, though, is helping them see their identity in God and how they have value regardless of their success or failure.

As I sat down next to Meghan, we talked about her injury and she mentioned how hard it was not playing. I told her, “You know, you’re an amazing volleyball player, but that’s not why we like having you on the team. We like having you on the team because of who you are. We appreciate you for you, and that’s enough.”

I saw maybe a slight twitch in her lip create the smallest hint of a smile. She gave a quiet “Thanks, Coach.” I didn’t expect much, but you could see something clicked.

The next day during a game, Meghan sat next to me on the bench. She was cheering on her team, encouraging them to keep working. I love how even when she was upset about her injury, she showed what being part of the team is about. It was not about her success on the court, it was about her willingness to serve others. She knew she offered value to the team regardless of her performance because her identity was rooted in something deeper.

Oftentimes as leaders we are so driven to find what makes young people successful and cheer that success on. It feels like we are cheering for them, but we’re really cheering on their accomplishments. We’re so driven to see them get A’s, to make the varsity team, to get that scholarship, you name it.

That day something clicked for Meghan, and something clicked for me too. Coaching is like pastoring. My personal investment in the girls affirming who they are is just as, if not more, important as coaching them to be better volleyball players.

I still love volleyball. But helping young people find deeper significance is something worth giving my life to.

How are you helping young people in your sphere of influence find significance beyond success?