Friday, March 18, 2011

Mentoring People in Sport

One of the unique opportunities which many of us who serve sportspeople is that of being a mentor to them. Whether coach, player or member of the support staff, we often have the ears of men and women who are seeking a mentor for various parts of their lives. Such ministry opportunities take on various forms in terms of relationship, timing, setting, method, resources and more. One should not expect that it’s a “one size fits all” sort of relationship.

The persons who desire a mentoring relationship will certainly vary. I’ve had such relationships with several young people, male and female, who have served as interns for our summer sports camps. This has been very good and productive. Other relationships have been less formal and frequent in meeting together. I’ve met with college student-athletes for breakfast three to four times during a sport season for simple discussion and encouragement. I’ve had a few student-athletes with whom I’ve met in a group and then additionally with the individual for coffee to talk about more personal matters. I’ve also enjoyed periodic meetings with coaches who were looking for ways to integrate their faith into their lives as coaches, so as to transform how they coach their sport and lead their staff and players. I’ve also had a mentoring relationship with sport chaplains, sport mentors and character coaches in my area, across the USA and around the world. Those relationships are furthered sometimes face to face, but more often by phone calls, SMS text messages and emails.

The settings for mentoring sessions will vary widely, depending upon the people involved. Some mentors meet with people in their offices. This has both strengths and weaknesses. Some mentors meet in public places. Jim Stump meets with Stanford University student-athletes in a cafeteria on campus all day, every day for one hour each. He has done this for decades with great effect. I have found coffee shops, conference rooms, cafes, fast food restaurants, sport stadiums, locker rooms and even public parks to be fruitful locations for heart to heart discussions and mentorship.

The aims for mentoring are often varied. In most of my interaction, the one being mentored indicates his or her desire to learn a particular thing and that determines the aim for the relationship. The mentee usually sees the trait he desires to develop in the chosen mentor and therefore makes the request for such a relationship. Seldom if ever has anyone approached me to be his mentor without having identified the area of life in which he would like to further develop. In my own life, I have sought out different mentors related to being a husband, being a father, serving Christ in the world of sport, working with coaches, study habits and subject matter, leadership and more.

A few tips for shaping such relationships follow. This is surely not an exhaustive list and it’s mostly reflective of my experiences as mentor and mentee.

• Choose your mentors wisely. Identify the character traits, skills, knowledge or abilities which you admire and make your invitation to the relationship directly related to those matters.

• Agree to serve as a mentor most soberly. Don’t let flattery at the invitation skew your insight re: the prospective mentee’s commitment to the process and to your ability to serve him or her well.

• Set specific times and locations for your meetings. It’s wise to do so regularly, to insist on punctuality and to have a predetermined amount of time for each session.

• Set a term for the span of your meetings. Starting the relationship without setting an end point for review and renewal often leads to frustration and embarrassment when the relationship simply declines and you’re no longer meeting. Say up front, “Let’s meet together for x weeks or x months and then see where we are. At that point we can either determine that we’ve achieved our aims or that we should continue to meet further.” This way both ends of the relationship have a better chance to sense success.

• Pray together. Most of us learned to pray by praying with others. The mentee will learn immensely from his or her mentor by simply being there. He will hear for what the mentor prays and for whom. She will observe the passion in your voice and the dependence of your heart. Pray for the mentee and thereby express vision, hope, love, compassion and zeal to which the mentee can aspire. Have no doubt, your prayers together will shape his or her lives tremendously.

• Ask the mentee for specific goals and objectives. The mentor has a much better chance to help if he knows the desired outcome.

• Allocate resources wisely. Recommend books to read, films to watch, articles, experiences, study guides, etc. to the mentee and then review his or her understanding of the material. This process has been most helpful to me.

• Engage the mentee in activity. Especially when mentoring leaders, nothing can catalyze the learning process like leading. As the mentee experiences both success and failure, the process is enhanced by real life experience and the mentorship is moved beyond a purely academic exercise. Wisely prepared discussions which follow activities are excellent tools for the mentor to use, expediting the development of the mentee and further integrating the information he or she has gathered from reading and conversation with the mentor.

The role of mentor is often overlooked, too often performed poorly and occasionally transformational. If you’re seeking a mentor for your life or if you’re suddenly in a position to serve as one, respect this relationship and pour out your heart in the pursuit of complete development as a man or woman of God. The world of sport desperately needs men and women who honor Christ Jesus in every facet of their lives. Wise mentors can be powerfully catalytic to the process of our becoming just such people. Let’s get to it.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Sports Ministry and Celebrity Culture

One needs only glance at almost any daily newspaper or turn on the television to nearly any channel to encounter one of the most pervasive, and I believe destructive, elements of popular culture in the USA, the western world and beyond – Celebrity Culture.

We are flooded daily by information which we neither need nor even desire. We hear about the latest celebrity break up or hook up. We read about the newest “It Girl” or “Sexiest Man on Earth.” We are suddenly aware of the exploits of people who are seemingly famous for being famous, unencumbered by personal achievement or strength of character. Paris Hilton and others of her dubious distinction are emblematic of this wave of media inundation and the growing need to fill air time with some sensational story about just about anything lacking substance or significance. The USA has reached new lows in this regard as we even create celebrities ex nihilo. “American Idol” is the most obvious example of this self-absorbed, self-perpetuating celebrity machine.

A quick reading of Acts chapter 14, verses 8-23 will provide a biblical example of celebrity culture in the Apostle Paul’s day. At first (verses 8-18) the crowd sees Paul and Barnabas as idols to be worshiped and the next (verses 19-23) they are objects of derision to be stoned to death. It is the same crowd of fickle people. We are just like them, but we use mass media to assassinate people rather than stones.

Sadly, we in the world of sport are not exempt of this culture and its insidious drive to make celebrities of those whom we serve and love. Professional sportspeople are easy and often willing participants. Their flesh is gratified and their wallets are often fattened by the process as they sell their dignity, honor and even their relationships with team and family to this foolish industry. Their privacy is laid on the altar of popularity and Q ratings, which they trust will result in the growth of their “brand,” further resulting in greater profits from endorsements, appearances, publishing and more.

We who serve in ministry roles with people in sport walk a fine line between wisdom and foolishness. We swim in a river of powerful currents which can easily pull those whom we serve and even our ministries toward a tragic drowning. We sometimes trade on the public profiles of those whom we serve and that is a real issue to be faced. Some of our ministries in sport were founded on the principle that just as high profile sportspeople use their popularity to sell shaving cream and beer on television, they could speak of their love for Christ and thereby “be used” to grow the Lord’s Kingdom. Such strategies are perilously close to the edge of manipulation and prostitution of the people we claim to love.

One of my colleagues who serves very faithfully with a number of high profile Major League Baseball and National Football League players has a very wise approach to this issue. I asked him sixteen years ago when we were both new to sports ministry about his policy re: requests for players to make appearances at area events, schools or fund raisers. He said that he never makes such requests of active players because he’s more interested in serving them than in asking them for favors. He said, “If every time they see me coming across the clubhouse, they think here he comes to ask me to do another talk, I forfeit my opportunity to lovingly serve them and to impact their lives with the Gospel.” He gets it! We must not forfeit our ministries of love and service in order to trade on the celebrity of the player with people in the community and even with the donors who fund ministries.

It seems to many that the high profile, celebrity player owes something to the adoring public. It’s counterintuitive for us to prefer to keep our relationships with such players and coaches private and to not drop their names at every turn. It’s even seen as selfish or snobbish by some when we protect those whom we serve from the provocative paparazzi and the ogling eyeballs of television cameras. To protect the player, to withhold information given in confidence and to value the coach’s privacy is still the right thing to do.

Let’s be the ones who love without thought of return. Let’s love coaches and competitors without reservation and without posing for the cameras. Let’s help them find a side door to avoid those who would trade on their sudden celebrity and help them see their true value in relationship with Christ rather than in the number of magazine covers for which they pose.