by Shannon Caughey
I had a basketball coach who was extremely sarcastic. Under the guise of being funny, he regularly cut my teammates and me down. We were a work-in-progress as a team, and our coach’s words certainly didn’t help. We played with less and less confidence, always bracing ourselves for the next biting remark to come out of the coach’s mouth. While I love basketball, it wasn’t a whole lot of fun playing for this coach.
Our team was probably short on the skill needed to win a championship on the court. However, that season still had great potential. It was an opportunity for us as young men to be guided toward success in qualities that matter in the bigger picture of life. I’m sure we grew through the adversity we encountered, but for the most part this potential opportunity was missed. A key factor was how our coach chose to speak to us.
The words of a coach matter. In this series of devotions on “coach speak,” we’re considering the impact of the way coaches talk to their athletes day by day. As followers of Jesus, we want to make sure our words honor him and bring about good rather than harm in the minds and hearts of those we coach.
In the last devotion, we looked at the Bible’s charge to be careful with how we speak. Continuing with this theme, here’s another dimension of Christ-honoring “coach speak”: use words that build up. Listen to how the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:29 puts it: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
The word “unwholesome” could also be translated “worthless” or “rotten.” You may have heard the saying, “One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.” As a coach, you can say a lot of positive things to your players. But the few words that tear down or belittle will be what rings loudest and will tend to overwhelm the positive things you’ve said. That’s why Paul emphasizes vigilance in not letting anyunwholesome talk come out of our mouths.
Not only do we guard against using words that tear down, we also choose to speak in ways that “build others up according to their needs.” Two thoughts on putting this into practice: First, for most coaches it’s a lot easier to see and point out what’s wrong. Christ-honoring coaches intentionally spend more time looking for and celebrating what’s right – and not just in your athletes’ performance. Continually look for opportunities to affirm your athletes’ character, attitude, and efforts that display biblical values.
Second, the goal is to build up “according to their needs.” This requires investing time and energy in really getting to know your athletes: their backstory, their dreams and fears, and their joys and challenges beyond athletics. This enables you to give them more than the generic “good job” input. You can speak specific words of encouragement and affirmation according to their needs.
Using words that build up does not mean you can’t point out what your athletes are doing wrong. This is still an important part of coaching. However, you give constructive criticism with careful words that give hope for improvement rather than with condemning, belittling words. As you share what the player is doing wrong, you also look for things you can affirm. Even as you point out their flaws, you reinforce your commitment to them as a person.
As you coach, make it your goal to live out Ephesians 4:29. Don’t speak words that are rotten and harmful. Speak in ways that build your athletes up according to their needs. Let your words be truly beneficial and life-giving. Practice Christ-honoring “coach speak.”
For reflection: Think about how you tend to speak to your athletes. Would they say your words build up or tear down? Ask the Lord to help you consistently practice speaking in ways that are truly beneficial and life-giving.