It’s been a glorious month of high-octane drama at the festival of football that is the FIFA World Cup. 3.4 billion people, around half the world, watching 32 nations slowly being whittled down to just one, France, holding aloft the 18-carat gold, 14-inch, 5 kilogram trophy.
While the tale of teams steadily knocking each other out of the tournament played out, a quite different story of a soccer team was running on the news channels.
A squad of young boys in Thailand had managed to get themselves trapped by rising flood water four kilometres inside a cave. It took over two weeks to find them and get them out. On the same day as the first world semi-final the last of the boys and their coach were bought to the surface.
This was the real life and death story as opposed to the magnificent melodrama in the opposite hemisphere.
“The cave rescue showcased the best of humanity. Resourcefulness, resilience, team work, collaboration, care, love, diligence, thoroughness, optimism and hope. It has lifted the spirits and hopes of the whole world.” Ben Fogle.
This parallel and contrasting story served to highlight and remind us that there are far more important things than football and sport no matter how big the scale.
In terms of significance, lifting a young boy out of a cave will beat lifting the Jules Rimet trophy every time.
What are your recollections of the tournament?
Who can forget the wonder strikes from France’s Pradev against Argentina, or Neymar rolling around on the ground spawning countless memes and adverts for fried chicken.
Maybe for you is was Diego Maradona’s bizarre behaviour in the stands as he watched his team play Nigeria, culminating in his obscene gesture to the opposition fans as Argentina went on to victory.
Personally, an image that has stuck with me is of the Japanese fans staying behind to clear up the stadium after every match they were involved in, including their heart breaking last-minute defeat to Belgium. No trashing of streets or opposition furniture stores there. The Japanese team left their dressing room spotless with just a single word note to their Russian hosts ‘Spacibo’. Thank you.
With the exception of a few, these memories will fade into insignificance, merged with thousands of others from some previous twenty world cups and countless other sporting events.
It may sound harsh but the players at the World Cup, even the winners, while successful have not necessarily achieved anything of significance. Putting a ball in the back of a net (or over one if you preferred the tennis) is not an act that is going to change life for the better.
This is because success (sporting or otherwise) does not equal significance.
Being successful at something that matters, that’s significance. Like caring for the sick, educating the young, rescuing a group of boys from a cave, or introducing someone to a Saviour.
This is not to knock excellence.
Those who achieve can use the platform to make a real difference in someone’s life. However winning, in and of itself, is insignificant, in the sense that it makes not a bit of difference to the world, even if it’s the World Cup. Likewise using a club to push a ball in a hole, driving an expensive car or earning a large salary.
In the context of the global and local challenges we face, all of these achievements pale into insignificance. Success in these terms is simply not important or relevant to the world we live in.
Those coaching and playing sport need to know this.
It is a difficult lesson to learn for young people when up to 10,000 people are cheering you on in a schoolboy rugby match. It is hard to see, given the adulation and fanfare reserved for players who make the Springbok squad. Impossible to understand perhaps when some professional football players overseas can earn more in a week than many South Africans earn in a lifetime.
Despite these challenges it is important that our students know that success alone does not equal significance.
Christians are called to be transformational.
Paul wrote to the Romans, the originators of epic sporting events like the World Cup, “…do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. As followers of the Way we have to think differently to the rest of the world about these things.
If you are a coach or work with young people you have a golden opportunity in this respect. The Journal of Coaching Education found that coaches were ranked as the no 1 positive influence on today’s sports playing youth. So how do you use this advantage to break free “from the pattern of the world” in this arena?
Joe Ehrman in his book ‘Inside Out Coaching’ frames the difference as transformational, as opposed to transactional, coaching. A transactional coach has “their focus solely on winning and meeting their personal needs”, whereas a transformational coach “helps young people grow into responsible adults, they leave a lasting legacy.” Given the critical role coaches play Ehrman says that each coach needs to ask themselves four questions:
These questions can guide you to a wider perspective that can help you to help your students leave a lasting and significant legacy. Without this your team and you stand to lose a lot more than just a game. If you can shift your coaching and teaching from transactional to transformational then your class or team performance will be “good and acceptable and perfect” even if you don’t win.
As Paul said you won’t then get a prize, 18-carat or otherwise, that will fade away but rather one that will last forever.