“A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life.” — John Wooden
A once-dead parking lot near an urban church in the United States has become a Saturday-night spectacle. It’s the weekly Futsal* gathering. The nets and goals are set up to beckon 30-50 young refugee men from the community to come together and play small-sided soccer. This is where high-schoolers and young adult men can leave the difficulties of their lives behind for just a couple of hours, and enjoy time playing together and hanging out with the local church members who show up to meet and play with them. The unlikely “pitch” has been provided by the church for this express purpose.
The problem is, trouble doesn’t leave our hearts even when we leave its space. These young men, created in the image of God, have walked roads marked with incredible loss, trauma, PTSD, grief and pain. They have lost their sense of value, of belonging, of good purpose. Adolescence is a turbulent time in the best of circumstances, but in such an environment of brokenness with no true hope to cling to, the only way a 17-year-old man knows how to process the struggle is to fight the nearest visible opponent. So Saturday night, the time dedicated to community building and relaxation, frequently turns into heated verbal, and oftentimes physical, assault.
One day, our Sports Friends Coach was driving home three teenagers when their own frustration initiated conversation about deep heart issues. “Why do we fight?” and “We do not have the power to be peaceful in such circumstances.” The field has brought down the facade. In the high energy and competition of the game, the mess inside is revealed… which means it can be addressed. As they opened up and shared their inability to maintain peace and self-control in the face of mockery and harassment, the Holy Spirit reminded their Coach: You used to be just like them. He reflected on his own young adulthood full of conflict and contention. Suddenly one young man asked, “Coach, did you ever fight? Why don’t you fight now?”
So he authentically shared how he used to get into fights, had no self-control, and used his words to make fun of people and tear them apart. “Now,” whispered the Lord to the Coach’s heart. “Now is the time you share clearly with them. Tell them of the Prince of Peace. Tell them now.” So he did. He told of another coach who’d loved Jesus and loved him in the middle of his own mess. How he was introduced to this Jesus who brings not the sword, but unshakeable peace. He told them how Jesus is the only one who can give the power to turn the other cheek. Jesus has changed everything for this Coach, and that night the effect rippled a little further into more young lives.
It is a wonderful thing to witness the authenticity of a young man’s struggle happen amidst a group of Jesus-followers who will help him navigate until he finds the Way. It is a wonderful thing to build such relationships of trust that a young man can be vulnerable and seek answers to the question of his heart’s need. It is a wonderful thing to be a coach.
*Futsal (also known as fútsal or footsal) is a variant of association football (soccer) played on a smaller hard court. It has similarities to five-a-side soccer.