Growing up watching coaches like Bobby Knight and Woody Hayes, I learned that some athletes are motivated to perform better in their sport by getting yelled at, hit, or publicly shamed. But that’s not most of us—especially kids. In the game of life, our chances of being victorious correlate better when our mentors are caring, forgiving, and understanding.
Team sports are a great metaphor for education and for life: work hard, do your best, play fair, practice, encourage teammates, count on one another, win humbly, lose with dignity… On the field or court, we realize that, together, we can accomplish great things. We discover our strengths and weaknesses, and we learn to take risks. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail; even when we fumble or strike out, we can get another chance; and when we get knocked down we are to get back up and rejoin the game.
Whether our team is our school, our church, our family, our nation, our religious denomination, our cultural race, etc., most of us care for those in the game who make mistakes—even big mistakes; we problem-solve with them to offer better options, and we patiently direct them to learn from their blunders. Some, however, think that we ought to expel from the team those who embarrass us through their bad behaviors, excommunicate those who falter, and turn our backs on those who let us down through their carelessness. Though Jesus made situational allowances to expel those who do not possess the capacity to love or who willingly hate, He is clear that, if ever in doubt, we should err on the side of compassion and patience as we learn from our mistakes because the kingdom of heaven is on the side of mercy. Nevertheless, we should always to do our best and give our all.
When I served in the inner city twenty years ago, a few seasoned dad-coaches from Saint Thomas More, led by Danny Welsh, helped our school (Saint Monica) to start a junior high football team. Most of the kids had never played a league sport before and the culture of my urban neighborhood didn’t lend itself to structures that are required to be successful. Danny and crew were wonderful in teaching these kids and their families. Though coaches on the opposing side ranted and raved at mistakes, I saw him, in similar situations, put his arm around the kid that messed up and help him understand his fault so that he would do better the next time. It was a long season but the boys improved significantly, learned some good life lessons, and had fun, because of their own perseverance and the caring support they received.
Similarly, years later, I had the privilege of serving as pastor of STM and working with John O’Connor, now principal at Cristo Rey High School in Kansas City. He, too, was masterful at helping students who messed up to learn from their blunders and discover ways out of their bad situations. He often mentored children to realize the ramifications of their destructive decisions, take responsibility for their actions, and make wiser choices in the future. Nan Bone, president of Saint Teresa’s Academy, is another tremendous example of one who assists youth develop into the people God created them to be, even when they make crucial and harmful mistakes along the educational journey.
Catholic Schools, historically, had a notorious habit of getting rid of problems by expelling students that do incredibly stupid things or excommunicating members that embarrass our institution. Regrettably, that sometimes ends up being the proper action to take; but, usually, there is a better way. It is the way of Christ, the way that many leaders in our churches, schools, and sports teams show us: the way of patient perseverance that points us to higher expectations and directs us to do better so that we can grow into the people God intended. Let us pray for principals, coaches, pastors, presidents, parents, godparents, and other mentors of youth: that we will serve and lead in ways that help young people find the holy path to victory.