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Blessed are the meek, for they shall lead their teams to championships

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Today at my church, the pastor, as usual, brought the kids to the altar for a little conversation. She began by asking them if they played on any sports teams, and if so, if they would rather be the star, or the person in charge of carrying the equipment or some role other than star. Of course, the kids wanted to be stars, although I think some of the wiser ones, who didn’t raise their hands, knew the trick that when asked something by a pastor, the answer is always B) Not the One You’d Pick.

The reason she brought this up was that today’s lesson was about one of the Beatitudes, Jesus’ eight Big Statements from the Sermon on the Mount.

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“Blessed are the cheesemakers?”

The Beatitude in question is: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.” Now I’ve been sufficiently smart-assed about people using the Bible for their own youth sports purposes, but you don’t have to play Jesusball to see how this line, and my pastor’s lesson to the kids from it, fits in snugly with sports.

From the professional level on down, just about every coach preaches (speaking of pastors) that playing for your own glory doesn’t cut it. True success comes when, in whatever role you fill, serving your teammates. While meek might mean gentle, it doesn’t necessarily mean sitting back and saying nothing. In this context, meekness is about servitude.

If you want a rule of thumb of how to identify a championship team at any level before it actually wins a title, look for two things. Is the team’s best player a good teammate, trying to make everyone better and more confident, and complementing what the coach is trying to teach? And is the coach slow to credit himself or herself, instead working to improve his or her team and giving all credit to that team for any improvements? If the answer to both questions is yes, you have a team that already is in championship contention. Certainly, talent and knowledge help, but if your top player or the coach is only out for personal glory, as San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary famously ranted: “Cannot play with ’em. Cannot win with ’em. Cannot coach with ’em. Can’t do it.”

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Samurai Mike’s infamous 2008 Vernon Davis rant, from which the above quote is taken. Given Singletary’s Christian bent, it’s safe to say he’s familiar with “Blessed are the meek,” though that might be argued by running backs he nearly decapitated.

It is very easy for me to figure out if a team I’m coaching is going to have a good season. Not necessarily a championship season, but one that at least the kids enjoy themselves and each other’s company. The simple formula rests on the team’s best player, and if you don’t think even first-graders figure out in a hurry who that is, you’re deluding yourself. They know. If the team’s best player has a good attitude, listens to his or her coach, and dedicates himself or herself to making teammates better, then it will be a good season.

A few years ago, when coaching my oldest son’s fifth- and sixth-grade coed basketball team, I had a kid who was a great, talented, hard-nosed player. One practice I noticed him talking to another kid while I was talking, and I busted his chops for it. Turns out what he was doing was relaying, in kid language, what I wanted so the kid could play better. Later on, midway through the season when one boy scored his first-ever basket, this great, talented, hard-nosed player was the first to run over to congratulate him. I just about broke out in happy tears right on the spot. That year we won our league championship, no doubt because every kid on that team knew their best player had their back.

By the way, referencing my chops-busting earlier, the key to whether a team reaches or exceeds its perceived potential isn’t just the best player being a good person. That’s a big load to put on a young kid, and I’ve coached kids who wanted to do this, but just weren’t ready to handle that kind of responsibility. But the other key is the coach also not being a glory hound. Early on in coaching, I made a mistake common to many coaches, a mistake that many coaches can’t get over — worrying about outside perception of my own genius.

When I started coaching, I worried about that not so much because I wanted everything telling me what a great coach I was, but because I didn’t want everything telling each other what a dope I was. That manifested itself into being way too concerned about discipline, too concerned that everyone marched in lockstep to what I was telling them. (I started at the late elementary levels — even I, in my deluded state, wouldn’t have been so worried about this had I coached first-graders.)

What I had to get over, and I’m not sure I totally have, is that I’m coaching kids who may or may not care, and that I can’t make them care, or make them great teammates, just because I demand they do. I’ve had to learn when to push, and when to back off. Like with the kid I mentioned earlier helping translate me to his teammate. Instead of worrying about OH NO SOMEONE IS TALKING ON MY TIME, I should have let it go. That’s because at that moment I was doing it because I was exerting my authority instead of serving my team.

At the ages and skill levels I coach, my job is not to worry about whether I look good because we’re winning, but to teach a sport to the best of my ability so the kids can make an educated decision as to whether they enjoy it and would like to keep playing it, or whether it’s not their bag. Would I like to be a star coach? Who wouldn’t? But a little meekness in that position can take a team a long way.