Cheering Without Criticizing

 

Kids and sports go together just as naturally as chocolate and peanut butter in a Reese’s®.

Kicking a soccer ball, gliding through the water, spiking a volleyball, skating on an ice rink, sliding into home plate, dribbling a basketball, hitting a lacrosse stick, throwing a football, and running across the finish line fill the dreams of even the smallest of children.

Watching preschoolers play T-ball or soccer is witnessing pure joy.  There are flowers in the outfield to pick or a big huddle of kids move in unison down the soccer field not noticing where the ball is.  Just being on a team and wearing a colorful shirt produces smiles and a sense of belonging.

Children grow and yell, “What sport are you playing this season?” on school playgrounds.  Almost never are the questions uttered, “What’s your team’s record?  Are you a good player?”  It feels good just being on a team.

As a mom I’m in charge of rushing kids to practice, bringing team snacks and drinks, buying truckloads of expensive water bottles because they seem to evaporate on the field, sitting through countless hours of games, washing dirty socks and uniforms, cheering, and trying to keep the right perspective.

And yet somehow I stand on the sidelines emotionally unprepared for the turmoil running bodies can conjure up in my insecure heart.  I tell myself, “This is just a game.  It’s important that they’re learning about being a good sport, playing fair, taking turns, trying their best, and allowing God to develop their character.”

If only I could’ve truly believed this, and only this, when my children first started playing sports.  I loved going to the games, watching them play, and cheering for good plays.  Still creeping through my heart was the expectation my children would play great.

“What harm could giving them a little instruction during the game or some helpful hints after the game bring?” I asked myself.  “They can do better and I’ll just share my great ideas with them.”

My daughter was nine, playing in a soccer game, when I yelled from the sidelines, “You need to play up more.  Charge the ball.  Push it to the goal!”  My sweet obedient daughter did what I told her, and ran up the field.  The only problem was the coach had placed her on defense.

He was only in first grade when my son started playing basketball.  From my lofty position in the stands it just didn’t seem he was trying hard enough.  “Come on.  Let’s hustle.  You can do better,” I shouted.  The truth that he was only seven got lost in the moment.

As we drove home from games, I spoke genuine words of praise.  “You did a great job.  I’m so proud of you,” poured from my mouth.

If only I had stopped there, and pondered how criticism produces a bitter fruit buried deep inside a child’s heart.

Instead I told them what they could have done better, how to try harder, run faster, and kick the ball more precisely.  Little did I know my children were sitting in the backseat hearing that they weren’t good enough.

I would have probably continued on my path of giving affirmation and seemingly valuable instruction had my Lord who created my precious children not intervened in my life.

It was during one particular soccer game when I heard a mom scream, “Come on!  You can do better than that.”  The intensity and severity of the words shocked me.  “That’s how I sound.  I must really hurt my children’s feelings,” reverberated through my mind.

It was so clear to me in that moment.  God’s role for me as a mom was to encourage, cheer, and build up.  The coach can instruct.

Driving home I told my three treasures from God, “I don’t want to tell you how to play anymore.  You are such good players, and I just want to enjoy your games.”  With sighs of relief, they agreed it would make their lives better.

It’s a new soccer season, and I’m a new soccer mom.  Embracing my God-given job gives me joy and peace.  I clap, cheer for the entire team, simply appreciate that I have three healthy children who are full of life, and enjoy knowing they want to show Jesus’ character and love on the field.

It took me too many seasons to get here.  I wish I had not criticized from the beginning.  But my children have a mom who struggles just like they do to understand my worth is found only in Jesus, not in others, what I achieve, or what others think about me.

This Saturday my children will not hear what they should have done on the soccer field.  Their eager ears will hear, “I liked the way you tried.  You were so kind to that other player.  I can see God is using you on your team.  I really love you.”

One day they will walk their own roads away from our family home.  As they endeavor to embrace who God has made them and make an impact on this world for Him, I want them to hear in their memory, “You’re doing great.  I’m so proud of you!  You are allowing God to use you.”

I know they will remember whatever they hear.

Copyright © words and photographs by Jane Carole Stein

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