Friday, March 24, 2017

Sport and Identity

During a recent FCA Coaches Ministry event, the presenter made an excellent statement regarding the power of sport in cultures. He said that it was a matter of identity and tied it to three specific dynamics in which people find identity.
1.   Sport gives people a sense of belonging to something.
2.   Sport gives people a cause greater than one’s self.
3.   Sport gives people a sense of purpose.

That idea immediately resonated with me and I’ve been thinking about it for the two weeks since I heard it. Let’s think about each of these ideas and draw some ministry points from them.

1.   Sport gives people a sense of belonging to something. This is certainly the case for the countless young people who come to sport from terribly fractured backgrounds. It’s common for them to feel terribly alone since the normal structures to which they could belong are broken. Family, church, community, and other support structures, for them, are either shattered or absent altogether. Some of the things in which they may find this sense of belonging are pernicious: gangs are far too common on the margins of society, and they prey on the lost sense of belonging in young people. Sports teams have been a redemptive factor for generations of young people, providing a sense of family, a set of adults who genuinely care about them, loving nurture for their young souls, and safety for their entire vulnerable selves. This is even true for sports fans as it’s rather common to see middle-aged men wearing ridiculously expensive, “authentic” game jerseys of their favorite teams emblazoned with the name of their favorite player on the back. To identify with the sports team gives these people a sense of belonging to something, even more, something successful and socially prominent. Just watch your social media feeds for posts re: “_____________ Nation!!” Many fans find themselves being identified by their favorite sports teams. Many sportspeople wear their team gear in public, away from sporting environments, primarily because their identity is directly tied to their belonging to the team.
2.   Sport gives people a cause greater than one’s self. To be a part of a sports team gives people the sense of being caught up in movement. As a part of the team, there are other people working with the individual, there are coaches giving leadership, there is a specific goal at hand that we all strive together to accomplish. The cause, pursuing a victory, building our team, developing our teamwork, and more is the stuff of inspiration and motivation. Many young people move from a sporting experience in video game form, where the individual controls everything, to a genuine sporting experience where he or she is a part of a larger movement of people, and many find it liberating. Others obsess over the loss of control. In either case, they find that sport gives them a sense of being a part of a cause greater than themselves. Sports fans also connect here as they will often see themselves as a part of the team and its cause. You’ll hear fans say, “We won by 14 points yesterday.” As if they had anything to do with the victory, they use first person pronouns to describe the event. They feel that they’re a part of the cause. A sportsperson’s mood, the ones actually engaged in sport, is often directly tied to the results of his or her most recent competition. The success or failure of the cause is felt deeply as the person is so tightly identified with it.
3.   Sport gives people a sense of purpose. One of the best things about sport is that it engages all of the sportsperson’s life in it. When sport is at its best, body, mind, spirit, and social elements of each person is deeply involved in the pursuit of excellence and a goal. This gives the sportsperson a great sense of purpose. It helps one feel like his or her life matters. We feel like we fit in the world. This is true for the 60 year old team chaplain standing on the sideline of a college football game, chatting with a Women’s basketball coach at practice, leaning over the rail at a swim meet to encourage a swimmer, or leading a Bible study between batting practice and game time. I have a great sense of purpose in these sporting environments and there is no place I’d rather be. I believe this is also part of the reason people engage in “fantasy team” leagues and others wager on sporting events. Surely greed and the love of money is a part of it, but some find these activities to provide a personal sense of purpose for each week’s NFL game. They don’t even follow their favorite teams, they root for the statistical performance of individual players or for the teams on which they bet to achieve relative to the wagered point spread. Sport can provide a great sense of presence, often wisely for the sportsperson directly involved, but often less than wisely for those living through it vicariously via fantasy teams or gambling on it.
The whole discussion of one’s identity being found in sport has to be tempered by the understanding that it is inherently limited and even dangerous. To tie one’s sense of identity to an activity that will be ultimately posted on a scoreboard has real problems. It’s too flighty and insecure to be healthy. To be identified by the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ Jesus, to be found in Him, to be crucified with Him, to be raise up with Him, to be His workmanship, to be His joint heir, is much more secure and much more fulfilling.
May I challenge you as I do myself? First and foremost, rest your identity fully in the personal work of and relationship with Christ. Secondly, find great joy, fulfillment, sorrow, loss, exhilaration, and grief in the daily experiences of sport. The security of the former allows us to take the risks of the latter. It’s reasonable for us to find a sense of belonging, a cause bigger than ourselves, and a strong sense of purpose in sport, if it is subjected to the rock solid sense of belonging, cause, and purpose we have as being a child of the Living God. There is no need to reject one to hold to the other. Hold your life in sport loosely, it is fleeting and temporal. Christ Jesus holds your life in Him tightly, it is secure and eternal.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Sports Chaplaincy and the 10,000 Hour Rule

Last weekend I attended an FCA Coaches ministry event in my state and marveled at the authority carried by our presenter, the depth of his understanding of the material he presented, and the way the whole room of 100+ coaches were riveted to his presentation. There are dozens of others who are certified to present this material, and many of them do it quite well, but no one carries the same weight of authenticity that we experience when this man is at the front of the room. Why is that?

It’s not about the material, they each have the same notes, the same presentations, even the same movie clips. It’s not a matter of intellect; each of the presenters have plenty of intelligence, plenty of knowledge, and plenty of capacity. It’s not even a matter of personality; there are lots of dynamic men and women presenting this model of ministry. So what is it?

As I drove home Saturday evening, I think I arrived at the answer. It’s found in Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book, Outliers, that I read several years ago. Chapter two of that book is titled, “The 10,000 Hour Rule.” Page forty contains this paragraph, “The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything.” - Daniel Levitin “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why come people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that is needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

I read that book nine years ago and immediately agreed with his premise and the excellent examples in the book. I have also observed it in action in some people I know who are world-class experts in their fields. It was worked out in front of me on Saturday and I began to apply these ideas to the world of sports chaplaincy.

In my monthly conference calls with sports chaplaincy colleagues from around the USA, I regularly ask, “How long did it take for you to get a handle on this role and to feel like you knew what you were doing?” Most are humble and realistic enough to say that they haven’t arrived at that point yet. Wise answer. Let’s consider some math and some scenarios about how long it may take to get to 10,000 hours and to achieve world-class mastery of sports chaplaincy.

For this exercise I’ll paint a picture using American Football chaplaincy among university teams as a premise.
Scenario A – (much like the schedule of a volunteer chaplain)
          Four weeks of preseason practices, 30 minutes at practice x 6 days = 3 hours per week, 12 hours total.
          Four weeks of preseason meetings and meals at 1 hour each x 6 days = 6 hours per week, 24 hours total.
          Two preseason chapels at 15 minutes each = .5 hours total.
          A 12 game season attending three practices per week at 30 minutes each = 90 minutes per week, 18 hours total.
          12 game days at 7 hours per week, 84 hours total.
          6 travel days at 10 hours per week, 60 hours total.
          Total hours per season = 198.5           10,000 hours / 198.5 = 50 seasons to attain world-class mastery.

Scenario B – (Let’s suppose one spends much more time with the team per week.)
          Four weeks of preseason practices, 2 hours at practice x 6 days = 12 hours per week, 48 hours total.
          Four weeks of preseason meetings and meals at 2 hours each x 6 days = 12 hours per week, 48 hours total.
          Two preseason chapels at 15 minutes each = .5 hours total.
          A 12 game season attending five practices per week at 2 hours each = 10 hours per week, 120 hours total.
          12 game days at 7 hours per week, 84 hours total.
          6 travel days at 10 hours per week, 60 hours total.
          Total hours per season = 360.5           10,000 hours / 360.5 = 27+ seasons to attain world-class mastery.

Scenario C – (Let’s suppose you are a staff member and sports chaplaincy is your full-time occupation, working 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year.)
          Total hours per year = 2,000                10,000 hours / 2,000 = 5 seasons to attain world-class mastery.

In my experience, there are lots of people in Scenario A, fewer in Scenario B, and very few in Scenario C. In any case, to accumulate 10,000 hours in serving as a sports chaplain will take a very long time. Few of us will invest that much time into a voluntary ministry opportunity. So what’s the point?

There are actually several points:
1.   Watch your attitude. If you think you have this all figured out, you are probably wrong. Unless you have amassed the 10,000 hours to be seen as a world-class expert in this matter, keep yourself in position to learn.
2.   Keep at it. Overnight sensations are never that. Most people who achieve powerfully have toiled in obscurity for thousands of hours, honing their skills, mastering their craft before anyone really noticed. Be that committed to your service and press on.
3.   Appreciate excellence when you see it. When you encounter someone who seems to have what all the others pretend to have, pay attention, ask questions, learn from him or her. That person has likely invested the time, the effort, and the attention to become as proficient as he or she is.
4.   Strive to become a world-class master of your craft. Set your course toward excellence and don’t be detoured. Read and learn widely. Ask good questions of those who excel. Find and spend time with wise mentors. Commit to your task and practice purposeful neglect. Set aside the petty distractions and get your 10,000 hours in.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Reality Check - Reprise

Today’s note is a reprise of a note from May of 2011. It is even more poignant today than then. I hope it serves you well.

Every year I observe parents, coaches, school athletic directors and even sport chaplains as they relentlessly drive young athletes toward the goal of becoming a “Division I student-athlete.” Their rationale is overly simple, “If you work hard enough, you can earn a Division I full-ride scholarship to college.” They’ve bought the foolish end of the American dream, “You can be anything you want to be.”

The reality is much the opposite and one simple statistic bears this out. Only 3% of all high school student-athletes ultimately receive any measure of scholarship to compete in college sports. Three out of one hundred receive anything. If the goal of the endless hours of practices, private lessons, thousands of miles driven to out of state games, tens of thousands of dollars spent to be a part of “travel teams,” and the untold measure of grief, anxiety, pressure and emotional trauma endured by the family is a total loss on 97% of those involved. If the acquisition of a college scholarship is the goal, almost everyone fails.

If, however, the goal is something other, one’s chance of success is much greater. If we can simply focus on the athlete’s experience with the sport, with his or her teammates, with the coaches, officials and opponents, the athlete is suddenly free to experience the sport without the artificial pressure to perform for an elusive and probably unrealistic goal several years in the future.

More simply said, the goal of earning a scholarship must not be the goal. It is simply too remote and results in failure for almost everyone concerned. Let’s focus on this game, this practice, this day and an attitude which helps the players, coaches, parents and everyone else to experience the best parts of sport. Hear Jesus’ words from Mark chapter 6 and verse 34, "Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”

Bottom line – Mom and Dad, back off! Give your child a break! Coach, stop it. Your quixotic drive to get your player a D-I scholarship will not be the validation of your coaching. Chaplain, cut it out. Your attempts to manipulate your relationships in sport will not enhance your ministry even if the student-athlete becomes All-American and ultimately a pro All-Star. Let’s help those we lovingly lead to experience the best of sport in the moment. Let’s help them cultivate a growing sense of the Lord’s presence and pleasure in the activity of sport. That is an enduring joy which does not require a scholarship.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Results.... How long to wait?

One of the constant battles many of us face is the conflict in ourselves between results and processes. How can we measure results? What would we measure? How do we account for timing? How long should it take for results to be evident? How hard should we push for measurable results vs. how patient should we be in allowing processes of evangelism and discipleship to accomplish their work?

I will not presume to answer these questions for you, but I will take the risk of sharing my approach to such thorny issues. After almost twenty-three years of serving in this ministry, mostly in a university sports environment, but also serving among high school coaches, and minor league professional baseball, I have found that the most satisfying, lasting results take several years to develop. It may be due to my relational approach, which values long-term relationship over short-term programmatic strategies, or it may be due to my more Calvinistic than Armenian approach to spiritual development, but for whatever the reason, I see most results over five to seven years.

The usual reaction to that statement is, “I don’t have that many years to be engaged with these people.” My reply is always, “Neither do I.” I am usually afforded a four to five year window with a player, occasionally longer with a coach. I have found that it is reasonable to observe real, significant, growth in a person toward a relationship with Christ and development of his or her life in Christ in those years.

Even better, if we build our relationships deeply enough, our influence with these athletes and coaches lasts beyond their days in our sporting programs. Many times, the result of our ministry with sportspeople becomes evident years after they have moved on to another program or are out of the sport. Two such occasions, both being Facebook Messenger messages received in January of this year, are detailed below.
·        Hey Roger , It's DJ . How ya been ? Also was wondering how I could get my hands on one of your daily devotional books?
·        Roger, I wanted to reach out to you to thank for giving me your prayer devotional, Heart Of A Champion. I won't lie and said that I've even looked at it since you gave it to me. I have recently, over the last year, started my relationship with God, and through his will he has allowed me to keep your book at a close distance until the time was right. I started the devotional yesterday. I thank you for reaching out to me in a time I didn't trust God and providing a tool to strengthen my relationship with him. I hope all is well with you and your family!!
The first message was from a former college football player. He has been gone from our program for over two years. During his years with us I had no thought that he was paying any attention at all. I was stunned to receive the message, and was thrilled to send him the book he requested and another one to boot.
The second message was from a shortstop who played for the professional baseball team I serve. He played one season for us, six years ago. I have had limited contact with him since he left the club and is out of baseball. I saw him briefly last year at a celebration of that team’s league championship. I was thrilled to hear of the seeds sown in his life through conversations around the batting cage, candid conversations about relationships, Baseball Chapels on Sundays, and occasional attendance at Bible studies, have come to full fruition in a new, growing relationship with Christ Jesus.
May I encourage you with a simple thought? The Lord is not in a hurry. He calls people and he carries them into relationship with Himself. We have a part to play in that process, but we cannot make things grow. Let’s commit ourselves to serving the Lord’s purposes in the lives of those we serve. Let’s trust the Lord Jesus to produce the results. Let’s trust Him to produce fruit that remains, regardless of the timing.