How To Ruin Your Kid’s Life In Sports

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Picture it. A spunky 5th grader dribbles the ball across midcourt and loses her dribble. The defender scoops it up and goes in for an uncontested layup. In the two following trips, the same flustered girl throws ill-advised passes that have no hope of reaching her teammates and four more points are tacked on the scoreboard for the opponent. Trailing by ten points now late in the 4th quarter, all hope of winning the game is lost.

This young player, she knows exactly where her dad is sitting. After each turnover, she catches him out of the corner of her eye as she turns to sprint back on defense. His body language depicts anger and frustration. He leans back in his seat with excessive drama, throwing his hands in the air. She looks to her coach on the other side of the floor. His reaction is no better. He jerks his head back, rolls his eyes and stares angrily at his point guard.

She knows what went wrong. But she’s also smart enough to know that she’s not big enough or strong enough to make all the plays that are going to win every game. She needs more practice. She needs encouragement and patient teaching. And she needs freedom to have small failures without shame.

The game is lost. But more importantly the slide toward losing the kid is already in full motion. The steps toward confidence building just ran into a brick wall.

Somewhere in the gym sits an innocent bystander. He has no interest in the game’s outcome on the scoreboard. As the game unfolds, he watches intently, but his eyes aren’t on the same things as the coaches or the overly excited parents. His focus is on the looks on the players faces. Their reactions when plays don’t go their way. Their reactions to the coach’s instructions. Where their eyes turn when they know they’ve made a mistake. How they react to the words and body language of mom, dad, and coach. He wonders to himself if each player will be ruled by fear or by confidence as they grow older.

He’s watched enough kids in enough games that he’s disturbed by it all. To him, the kids are obviously overwhelmed by it. What should amount to simply playing and competing in a game, quickly evolves into playing to please adults. The joy and the freedom of children is stolen from them. When the atmosphere of this game is multiplied by 60 or more times a year for multiple sports over the course of grades 3 through 8, where does this leave a young athlete? Just messed up in many cases.

Fear, doubt, and lack of confidence. These things exist and grow pretty well inside the minds of kids without being fertilized repeatedly. There’s an awkward stage that may not go away until…….well, never for some. For youth coaches and parents alike, we’re all somewhat guilty. So much of what we do and say consistently over the long haul only serves to make it worse.

In the end, kids give up on sports and walk away for the wrong reasons. Not because of lack of ability, but because the fun left long before it should have. The doubts and fears eventually become too much. The pressures of misguided parents and youth coaches take their toll. Parents try to claim the level of excellence their child will reach. Efforts of youth coaches focus on simply winning. Player development and mental approach to the game are neglected by all.

So how do we change it? First of all:

Parents, please just shut up. 

Really, just stop talking and start cheering. That conversation you’re in danger of having with your kid in the car after a game, it’s worthless. The cumulative effect of your words, game after game after game X300, about what they can do better………is that they want you to shut up. They live in danger of reaching the end of their high school career someday, believing that they never played a single game that pleased their mom and dad. What you’re saying isn’t necessarily anywhere close to what they’re hearing.  And all that coaching you do from the bleachers, just stop. Most of the time, it’s just instructions on how your kid can score more, and not tips on how the whole team can fare better. You’re not helping. You’re cultivating selfishness and confusion. Just let them play. Just let them be coached. Just let them have fun. Just let the experience be theirs. In the end, you can’t pick your kid’s level of excellence. But you can help cultivate a love for the game, boost their confidence, and teach the values of work ethic and being a great listener. Yeah, it’s good to focus on those things.

Coaches, just smile more.

Be a cheerleader during the games. Don’t obsess over outcomes. See what you need to address in practice. Address it in practice. Games are the times when we all tend to wreck our kids’ heads. Instead lead their hearts and heads every bit as much as you coach their actions.

The greatest skill that youth coaches need is the simple willingness to smile and clap their hands.  The kid that just missed two straight wide open layups? That kid that just got a scowl from their mom? The one whose dad is gonna tell him, on the car ride home, all the corrections to be made so he can rack up 30 the next game? Yeah, every time those kids hit the inner turmoil of failing to meet their own or their parents’ twisted expectations, they need to see an assuring look from their coach. This is where your body language shines. Smile, clap your hands, and belt out one of these magical phrases:

“It’s alright”

“Keep shooting, the next one’s going in”

“It’s okay, just keep playing”

“We’re good”

“Hang in there, just keep fighting”

“Keep you head up”

“Put it behind you. Just be ready to make the next play”

I could drag out these points for pages and pages because I’ve made every parenting mistake along with every coaching mistake.  So maybe this is the most important point to end with in summary.

Look at your little 3rd or 4th grader on the court today. Give some thought about what your hopes are for them when they’re 18. If your goal is athletic greatness, I suggest that you adjust that just a bit. Maybe you can lead your kid in this direction:

“I hope my kid is able to play totally without fear of any task or any opponent, without fear of making a mistake, and with complete determination to simply do their job the right way every single time”.

Is this the direction we’re leading our kids in? I don’t think it is. I know I failed miserably in this area. And I know every court and every field is full of fearful kids. Most every time I look at the face of a kid in competition, they look like they’re afraid to make a mistake and most don’t respond well when they do. The fun is leaving. Let’s change that.

Smile. Clap your hands.

“It’s alright”

I Never Thought It Would End THIS Way

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For anyone who has ever coached youth sports of any kind, from pee-wee to middle school, and even high school sports in some cases………I have a deep question that has been floating in my mind in recent days. Just give me minute to circle around to it.

My youngest daughter wrapped up her high school soccer career tonight.  The days leading up to it flooded me with memories of all her games past, both far and near.  Thoughts of different leagues, cities, coaches, teammates, hotel rooms, victory, defeat.  Reflections of how she changed over the years as a player, a competitor, and a person.  Wondering how and why things have played out exactly as they have.  Thinking about influences both good and bad that could have or would have made things better or worse if they’d been different.

And I started thinking about the kids that I have coached as my kids have grown up, from youth soccer to travel soccer, Upward basketball to middle school basketball.  And I just can’t help wondering……

If all coaches could see into the future, to that very day when a kid puts away the cleats or the hi-tops for the last time and walks away from a game………would they choose to coach individual kids differently than they presently do?

Every kid walks away from their chosen sport someday…….then what?

Effective youth coaching is psychiatry and it is parenting.  Each player is unique, and they have specific needs that team sports can bring them.

Many coaches fail to fill those needs because they falsely assume they are training the next state champs.  They fail to see each child beyond that day when the sports equipment goes in the yard sale or the closet.

Shouldn’t the journey of sports teach these things and more to prepare kids for life beyond sports?

  1.  Standard of excellence
  2.  Work ethic
  3.  To believe in themselves
  4.  To trust others
  5.  The value of encouragement
  6.  To know they aren’t the center of the universe
  7.  To know that success does not come overnight (or in one practice)
  8.  To lose with dignity
  9.  To accept temporary failures without blaming others, and to realize these failures aren’t permanent
  10.  To be pushed to their physical limit, time and time again
  11.  To love and to be loved
  12.  To sacrifice for others
  13.  To respect authority and rules
  14.  Teamwork/unselfishness
  15.  To never give up

These things still matter when the cheering stops.

Maddies last stand

The cheering stopped for Maddie tonight.  Her team lost in the regional semi-finals.  In a game where she and her teammates truly “left it on the field”, the score was tied at the end of 80 minutes of regulation.  Two 5-minute overtimes later, the score was still tied.  Penalty kicks would now decide the match.

Maddie stood over the ball, ready to attempt her shot with her team facing a nearly hopeless 3-1 deficit.

If she missed this shot, the game was over.  The season was over.

Sitting on my knees beside my wife, I simply mumbled, “Maddie needs to be to one to take this shot.”

Not because it could be the game winner………because it would be the shot that would seal the loss if she missed.

I don’t know what kind of reaction or look Kristy gave me, but I went on to say, “Maddie needs to be the one to take this shot, because I know she can handle missing the shot to end the game.  She can handle it.  That’s my daughter!”

And my voice cracked at the enormity of what I was saying in a trailing voice……..”that is OUR daughter”.

She missed.  Game over.  Season over.  High school career over for her and her senior teammates.

Maddie played her heart out.  And I was so proud of her.  But when those words came out of my mouth, “that’s our daughter” it hit me so clearly.  I was not proud of her effort or her performance.

I was proud of who she has become.

She met her mother and me after the game with head held high.  That’s our daughter.

Do your best.  Have fun.  Train and play to win.  In the end it’s just a game.  The end came tonight.  I’m thankful for all those who have prepared her in the right ways to go beyond this “end”.

If you’re coaching your 1st game or your 1000th, take an occasional peek toward the end.  Winning is a by-product of doing all things the right way.  Some lessons can’t be cast aside for the sake of early wins or just because you ARE winning games.

And while your players are dreaming of making that dramatic game-winning shot, you better spend some time preparing their toughness and character……for missing it.

Watching Me Watching You

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If we expect our children to become adults who work hard when nobody is watching, it’s important to take time when they are children, to notice when they are working hard and doing their best.

I spent some time Friday night watching my nine year-old son Kal participating in the Center Shot archery program at our church.  It’s his second year in the program, but he has no other archery experience.  More potential than skill.  What he knows about archery, he has learned through this program (his dad knows zilch).

I always watch him shoot at the target, but sometimes two kids are shooting at the same target.  I can’t always tell which arrows are his from a distance.  So I usually just watch his body language and facial expressions and see how closely he’s listening to instructions.  Sometimes he looks my way in the back of the church gym during the night, but usually not.

I wasn’t paying particularly close attention at one point because he had just finished shooting all of his arrows into the target.  I might have even been distracted by casual conversation with someone seated next to me.  But I looked up just in time to see Kal, looking back at me proudly.  He was pulling his arrows out of the target, but he was saving the best for last.  His hand waited on the arrow that stuck perfectly in the middle of the target.  Kal wasn’t going to pull it out until he was sure his dad had seen it (“look Dad, I did it”).  As soon as we made eye contact and I gave him a thumbs up, he pulled it out and went about his business.

I didn’t carry out any notable “dad feat”.  I just sat in a folding chair.  But it made me think of kids that hit a bullseye and turn around looking for encouragement or approval…….and nobody’s there, time after time.

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Today I watched my daughter Maddie run in her regional track meet.  The 800M run is her top event and her best chance to advance to the state meet for the first time (1st & 2nd place qualify).  She came into the meet as the 5th seed in region (I think?).  As a 16 year-old junior, Maddie and I have shared hundreds and hundreds of athletic contests, many of those with me as her coach at youth and middle school levels.

But in high school, I have tried to be a quiet presence of support, hiding in the shadows.  As a father of a teenage girl, the thought enters your mind that your daughter probably won’t even notice anymore if you’re not at her events (and does she even care if you come?).  When Maddie was on the track today, I had no reason to believe she even knew where I was.

I stood by myself at a spot just outside the track, about 75 yards beyond the finish line.  She looked strong as she passed me on the 2nd and final lap.  She moved up from 5th place to a strong 2nd place finish on the lap, finishing 5 seconds better than her season’s best time.

Silently from a distance I watched.  I wondered if she would look my way.  I delighted in the joy in her face, felt a sense of pride in her laughter and sportsmanship among the other runners.  And then she shocked me.  Maddie looked across the track at me like she knew exactly where I was the whole time……grinning at me from ear to ear giving me a big thumbs up (“I did it Dad!!!”).

I know it sounds cliche’ and cheesy but don’t underestimate the value of just being there.  Kids just want to be noticed when they do something good.  They need encouragement to continue on when they think they’re doing poorly.

As our kids grow older, will our kids choose us as parents to share their triumphs with?  Will they give up on something too soon because we weren’t there to help them believe in themselves?

Some kids feel constant pressure to be the best on the court, track, or field.  Kids that are playing to please somebody else are miserable.

But kids that look over their shoulder for support, encouragement, and direction…….and always find it, are something else entirely.

SECURE!

Whatever your kids are doing, just find a way to be there.  They don’t need you to be there to tell them how they can do it better.  They just need you to celebrate when they do it well (or give a a great effort, of course).

Daddy, Are You Crying?

R.J. Hunter, Ron Hunter

I first saw Georgia State head coach Ron Hunter when he was injured in a post-game celebration after leading his team to an NCAA tournament berth by winning the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.   I’m pretty sure his injury was the result of an embrace with his son, who happens to be a high-scoring guard on this team.  In post game interviews, he seemed like a breath of fresh air.  Little did we know how much better this story was going to get in the coming days.

When the big dance tipped off on Thursday afternoon, instead of loosely following my bracket picks from work, I was home in bed with a migraine by the time the first game reached halftime.  I was rudely awakened later in the afternoon by the loud yelling from another part of my house by my high school freshman son.  I was disoriented but I knew what must be happening…….the first huge upset of March Madness.  Obviously, it’s frowned upon to make loud unnecessary outbursts when dad has a migraine.  But when I finally arose from my slumber, and my son excitedly told me about 14-seed Georgia State’s improbable upset of 3-seed Baylor on R.J. Hunter’s bomb in the final seconds (and Ron’s topple off the stool) I decided to withhold my wrath.

I fell in love with Ron Hunter’s coaching style, his fashion style (or lack of over-concern for it), his child-like excitement, and his humility.  But what has drawn me to him most is his bond with his son.  It’s easy to fall in love with the underdog stories each year, as most of us do.  And each year it seems that a new coach wins over the country with a colorful personality.  Perhaps the most lovable thing about Ron Hunter is his absence of “swagger”.

If you’re an 18 year-old prospect, maybe swagger is high on your list of coaching qualities.  But if you’re just a dad, and a basketball fan and a fan of integrity, your ears perk up when a Ron Hunter shows up in the spotlight.

The phrase that keeps coming up in interviews is

“I love this kid”.

Over and over.  He loves his son.  He loves all his players.  His love is not based on their ability to pull out last second wins.  The last second wins only provide him a national stage to proclaim his love and pride for his players.   He pours his energy into taking them to a place they never dreamed possible…..with the passion of a coach and the heart of a father.

There’s something special about March Madness.  And there’s something special about a father coaching their son (or daughter).  When you combine the two, it creates special moments to go beyond basketball.  

I’ve coached all four of my kids on some level of sports.

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One lesson that you hope every player walks away from their sports experience with is this:

At the end of each game, take pride in your effort.  Win or lose, walk off the court or field with your head held high knowing you did all you could do to help your team win.

I sat watching Georgia State vs Xavier on Saturday night, trying not to let myself get too excited about the possibility of a Ga St. win.  But I couldn’t help myself.  This was my team.  I was emotionally attached to this father/son combination and underdog story.  I found myself yelling at the TV and reacting with dejection each time Xavier made a big shot down the stretch.

My oldest daughter, a freshman college soccer player was home for spring break, and happened to be the only one in the room with me as the game wound down.  Ron Hunter took his son R.J. out of the game in the final seconds of their disappointing defeat.

R.J. raced off the floor with his head held high, knowing he’d given his all.  He also knew he’d made his father proud.  Father and son embraced.   All I could say was “Aww”, but I guess my voice cracked.

My daughter Macy said, “daddy, are you crying?”……..”shut up Macy”

I wasn’t the only one.  In the postgame press conference what caught my attention most was the shift in Ron Hunter’s voice as he was talking about the game and his team’s unlikely postseason run.  He completely broke down……..when his words changed from coach to dad.  The same……but different.  And so special.

I love this man…….

You can watch the interview below if you haven’t already seen it.  Hope to see him back next year.

Keep Talkin Even When Nobody Seems To Hear

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Some things are worth repeating, even when your audience doesn’t seem to care or understand.

Some messages don’t bring immediate results or even draw the attention of your listeners.

But concepts that are modeled and “preached” consistently still stand a chance of becoming a part of someone’s character.

Such is the case when coaching kids in youth sports.

At younger ages, the mom/dad/coach figure gets by with fumbling through teaching the rules of the game and basic fundamental skills.

As players get older, the pressure to win often creates an unhealthy mix between learning and winning (winning now!).  Teaching of fundamentals, good work habits, team-building, and strong character often gets shoved into a corner while practices and instruction are centered on winning now and developing the next superstar.

Coaches at any age have the responsibility to help kids become their best…….at life.  Work ethic, determination, a competitive spirit, accountability.  They all come into play along the way.  And somewhere along the way, coaches have to realize that the kids they’re leading aren’t going to be playing the game much longer.

I’ve been privileged to coach two of my kids in basketball through three years of middle school, most recently my son.  As my son passed through his final middle school season, I became very aware of the future of him and his teammates.  They weren’t all going to be high school basketball players, but they were all going to be high school students soon.

The talks before, during, and after practices and games began to take more of a tone of developing strong character and making good decisions.  Most of these subjects were met with looks of “can we just start practice?” or kids not even listening as they put their shoes on to leave after a game.

A lesson I learned early in coaching was this: If at least one kid is listening, then I will keep saying what is important for them all to hear (but everybody else has to shut up for that one kid to hear).

The man who shared coaching duties with me also shared in leadership philosophies.  So we kept preaching.  And we may have bored some kids to death at times.  But we harped on concepts that applied on and off the court.

-Make good decisions.

-Be a good teammate.

-Decide that nobody will outwork you in practice today.

-Don’t just settle for whatever falls in your lap.  Work hard.  Compete hard.

-Earn the respect of your coaches, opponents, and teammates.

-Success and improvement doesn’t come overnight.  Do your best every day.

-If you don’t like where you’re at or how things are going, do something about it.

-The world doesn’t revolve around you, think of others.

-Never be a blamer or an excuse maker.

– Be a leader.  Do things to make the people around you better.

My son and some of his teammates have moved on to the world of high school basketball now.  I watch as a parent, and not a coach, for the first time since he was a 4th grader.  But the “nervous parent locked in on his own kid” has left me.

I watch all my former players closely now, observing as both a coach and a parent.  Cheering for small triumphs for each one.  Seeing how hard they compete.  Seeing how well they respond to coaching at the next level.  Trying to get a gauge on how well we prepared them for the “nexts” in life.

At a recent JV game, I got an unexpected glimpse at a lesson learned……one of those lessons we were often selling and doubted anybody was buying.

A two-on-none fast break.  Ballhandler approaches basket from the left.  He has a teammate on the right side of the basket, about two steps behind him.  Player with the ball hasn’t scored or even shot in this game (a big lead with minutes left).  In fact, he has scored very few points on the season.  But his open teammate on the right has just scored what may have been his first points of the season minutes earlier (with much celebration from the bench.

Instead of shooting a wide-open layup, he hesitates slightly and shovels the ball to his teammate for 2 more points.  Another small eruption from the home bench and a good response from the crowd.

I watch in silence.  It was my son that gave up the ball.  I looked at my wife without speaking.  He gets it.  My reaction would have been the same for any of the kids that may have made the same play.

I’ve been more excited at sporting events for my kids.  My daughter scored an unlikely acrobatic last minute goal to tie a regional semi-final soccer game……….and I may or may not have screamed like a madman and raced down the sidelines.  My other daughter made a free-throw with no time on the clock to send a game to overtime in a huge upset win……..made greater because I could see that she was a nervous wreck after missing the first one.

But I’ve never been more proud of one of my kids in a sporting event than I was at that moment.  “Son, people notice those things.  It’s not a big deal if you take that shot, but it is a big deal that you didn’t. People will remember what you did.  Those are the things that build teams and make them better.”

It’s not a big deal.  But it is.

“Make good choices.  Be a leader.  Do things to make the people around you better.”

He listened.  I know others did too.

Parents and coaches……keep preaching it.  They may not seem to be listening.  It may not help you win the next game.  But it may show up when you least expect it.

We’re not really raising ballplayers……we’re raising winners.

If it’s worth repeating, keep repeating it.

The Good Coach

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In most of life’s situations, it’s fairly easy to see what we SHOULD have done…….

after we’ve already messed up.

When it comes to the trial and error nature of parenting, we find plenty of situations where we don’t really figure out how the heck to do something……

until it’s no longer necessary to do it.

Such is the nature of coaching in youth sports.

Three short months ago, I watched my daughter drive away to college four hours away.  I felt like the dad in the Subaru commercial talking to his little girl in the driver’s seat.

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I choked back tears as I gave her simple parting instructions, knowing that I would no longer be a powerful daily influence in her life.  What kind of influences would she have in her life in college?

Today her mother and I watched her final soccer game of the season.  On a cold, rainy day in Circleville, Ohio, after a hard-fought loss we parted ways once again with her mother choking back tears this time.

Macy had a long bus ride back to Knoxville ahead for her.  And we would have loved to have her home with us for the weekend.  But these were tears of joy (mostly).

Macy and her coaches had stopped by our car to chat after the game.  Smiles and laughter masked the exhaustion of a 90 minute game.  A great player/coach relationship was easy to see.  Mutual respect.  Comfort, not fear.

They walked away in the cold rain.  One of her coaches put his hand on her shoulder, just like dads do to their daughters after tough losses.  My wife, through teary eyes, just said, “look, Karrick.”

I know who influences my daughter.

Macy loves her coaches.  She loves her teammates.  It’s plain to see.  It’s a blessing that we’re so thankful for.

If you are a parent of a kid involved in youth sports, it doesn’t matter if they’re 7 or if they’re 17, don’t underestimate the value of having a coach that your child loves and respects.  And don’t ignore the treasure of having a coach that treats your kids with love and respect.

Macy isn’t exactly a kid anymore and this is college soccer I’m talking about.  But it’s an experience that is either going to be good or bad, depending on the direction of the leadership.  They won 2 games and it was as enjoyable as any other “successful” winning seasons she’s had at other levels.

If you’re a coach, whether it’s your first try at pee wee soccer or your tenth year of middle school basketball, don’t forget why you’re there.

Coaches are there to lead, to influence kids.  Winning is a by-product of leading the right way and teaching the right things.

Every team that you coach isn’t going to possess enough talent to win in a given season, but every team you coach is made up of kids that are going to be adults someday.

Win or lose, what are you teaching them along the way?

1)  Plan practices well.  Give clear instructions.  Be consistent.  Build credibility.

2)  You are under a microscope.  Do and say the right thing….always.  Apologize when you’re wrong.  Be a positive influence…..always.

3)  Don’t “over-coach”.  Make sure your spoken words have value to your players.  If you talk too much, players quit listening.

4)  Make sure your players know you care about them.  If they think you don’t care about them, they quit listening.

5)  Teach them the value of giving maximum effort, every practice, every game.

6)  Look into the future.  Be bold enough to make decisions based on building character and teaching fundamentals, work ethic, teambuilding, and accountability.  See the bigger picture and don’t cave in to outside pressure to “win now”.

7)  Keep all players engaged in practice at all times.  All players should have equal opportunity for improvement in practice.  What they choose to do with those opportunities may determine how many game minutes they get (depending on age and competition level).  “If you don’t like where you’re at, do something about it.”

8)  Motivate!  Great coaches keep their players excited about playing.  They encourage.  Their players love and respect them.  They don’t fear them.  They want to do well for these coaches.  Be intentional each day to catch your players doing something right and praise them for it.   Tasks not done well are teaching moments, not shaming moments (see 9).

9)  Mistakes happen.  Kids can’t play in fear of their coach and they can’t play in fear of making mistakes.  Not giving a maximum effort or listening to the coach is not a mistake, it’s a choice.

10)  It’s ok to yell.  It’s not ok to yell AT kids.  Speak loud enough to get a team’s attention.  Don’t scare the life out of them (especially younger ones).  Never single out a kid and go Bobby Knight on them.

It’s nice to learn from your own past mistakes.  It may be even better to learn from simply watching somebody else doing it right.  Keep your eyes open.

I’ve coached plenty of games in the past, but I’m not presently coaching anything.  If given the opportunity again, I’ll welcome the chance to LEAD more and coach less.

The Danger of Leading From the Rear

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I’ve always been a “lead from the rear” kind of guy.

A firm believer in letting my kids, basketball players, or co-workers learn from their own missed steps off the beaten path.

I don’t have to choose every step for them.  I just have to watch from the rear and make sure they’re safe.

But there’s a big difference in the ones that are simply safe and the ones that are scared or hurting…..those needing guidance or encouragement.  I suppose I’ve missed a lot of those opportunities by watching over the whole flock without looking closely at individual faces.

Some lessons take a while to sink in.  I learned this one while helping with my church’s VBS this past summer.

I had the easiest volunteer job available (crew leader 4th & 5th graders).  This is the age where kids are on the borderline of being too old and cool to attend VBS.  My job was simply to follow them around to various craft, snack, story, and worship stations/activities and keep them safe (or just inside the church building)……a shepherd of sorts.

On the first night, my group went from opening worship time into the craft room with me “leading from the rear”, just counting heads.  I looked casually around the room during crafts to make sure nobody needed help.  It seemed that kids ranging from 2nd to 5th grade were placed together for this activity.  My own 2nd grade son was in the room, so I mostly walked around the room fist-bumping kids I knew, small-talking with other adults, and giving little notice to the kids I didn’t know.

Something was different on the 2nd night as we entered the craft room and the kids began working on a slightly more challenging project, a bead bracelet.

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Before I ever started surveying the room for kids that might be having difficulty with their project, the voice of a single child caught my attention.

My eyes followed the sound of a voice that seemed a bit deep for a 4th or 5th grader.  I spotted a boy whose body matched his voice.  He was just a bit larger in size than the other kids in his age group and he was seated at a table next to my 2nd grade son Kal.

His loud conversations with Kal told me that he was probably more comfortable talking to Kal than with the kids his age.

I continued to watch and listen as they began their bracelet project.  There was something heartwarming and special in the way this boy interacted with my much younger son…..a kindness and innocence that usually disappears by the time boys reach the age of entering middle school.

I could see that he was having trouble threading his beads onto the string bracelet.

So I just pulled up a chair.

The boy’s name was Gabe.  I helped him string his beads and finish his bracelet.  And we talked.  Gabe was starting middle school in a few weeks.  He seemed very nervous about it.  I assured him that I had three kids who had recently finished at the school he was starting and that they all loved it there.  I told him I had coached basketball there and I knew the teachers there were great.  But I doubted that I eased his fears.

As my group of kids (14 of them) filed up the church stairs for our closing worship session in the auditorium, I trailed behind them once again.  The first kids through the door sparked and enthusiastic question (a joke of a question because of my reserved personality with kids) from my pastor’s wife,

“Who thinks they have the greatest crew leader here tonight?”

Silence……except for Gabe.  He shyly raised his hand.  And quietly said, “I do.”

I understand now that my actions that night had little impact on his life.

But this special young man found a place in my heart and perhaps served a great purpose in my life.

To follow Jesus means that we are willing to make changes to our sinful, selfish self in order to be more like our Savior.

Jesus was a shepherd.  But I’m pretty certain now, because of Gabe, that Jesus was most definitely a “pull up a chair” kind of guy.

Jesus found the person in the crowd that needed Him most, and met them where they were.

If you’re only looking at the crowd as a whole, you’ll never notice that person that needs you most.  The one that may truly need your love, kindness, encouragement, gratitude, or prayers.

Leading from the rear has its value.  But just being safe isn’t enough.

You can’t tell who needs you if you aren’t willing to look at the faces you’re leading.

I pray that middle school is kind to Gabe.  I’m certain that there are people there who will “pull up a chair” if he needs it.

And I’m certain that I’m thankful for lessons learned in my short time with this special young man.