The necessity of encouragement

During the fall of my sixth grade year, I tagged along when my parents took my younger brother to sign up for rec league basketball. When we arrived, I shocked my mom and dad – and myself, for that matter – by declaring that I wanted to play ball too. I was bookish. I was freakishly short. I had never shown an iota of interest in anything athletic. To their credit, my parents only exchanged brief glances, asked me once if I was sure, and then filled out my registration form.

The picture of athleticism.

I was terrible at basketball, as it turned out. I wasn’t fast. I was clumsy. I had no arm strength, so I had to shoot free throws underhanded, which was humiliating. I also wore glasses – not the sporty kind – that required me to use a very sexy [snort] croakie to keep them from being knocked off my head. I put my hair up with a tie that had a tiny piece of metal on it and went into a game with newly-pierced ears, both mistakes that prompted the referees to stop the action on my behalf. (I had to change out the hair tie and put medical tape over my earrings to avoid harming self and others.)

That sixth grade season was not pretty on my part. The only points I scored that year were in one game, when my coach told me to camp out under our team’s basket and wait for my teammates to lob defensive rebounds downcourt to me so that I could (hopefully) hit an unguarded layup. But I was having the time of my life.

After the season I had an idea of what I needed to work on (everything) to get better. So I started conditioning. I shot baskets and ran ball handling drills for hours in the driveway. I attended camp at a university known for being a powerhouse basketball program in the NAIA. And I improved. I made my school team in seventh grade. I didn’t start, and I didn’t always see much playing time, but I persevered. In eighth grade I developed my arm. No more granny-style free throws for me – in fact, I was pretty reliable from three-point range.

But I was getting discouraged. I was working my butt off without seeing my efforts translate into playing time. I could shoot and play in-your-face defense, but my ball handling was still weak, and you can’t be 4’10” with a case of the fumbles and not expect to make gluteal indentations on the bench. Before my ninth grade season, with honors courses and all the homework that accompanied them piling up, I decided to focus on what I was best at – studying. I still traveled with the school basketball team as a statistician and played church league ball, but any hope of a varsity (or beyond) athletic career vaporized.

Several years later, I ran into my eighth grade coach. We caught up a bit, and then she said, “I wish you hadn’t stopped playing. With your work ethic, you could have been an All-American.”

Record scratch.

I mumbled a “thank you” and scooted out of there before my brain exploded. This coach had never told me that she saw my potential. I thought I was forever destined to be a benchwarmer, and to me Rudy is the saddest-sack movie ever made.

The coach’s statement was no doubt hyperbolic, and yet I wonder if I would have made different choices if I had been given a slow drip of encouragement. “Keep at it – you’re improving.” “You’ll get your chance.” “You work at least as hard as anyone else on this team, and everyone notices.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy with my life as it has unfolded. And it turns out I might have given up too soon on an outlet I was passionate about.

Everyone wants to know that he is not invisible, that she is valued. To be sincerely appreciated for who she is and what he does. To have her gifts-in-development called forth. This goes for loved ones, colleagues, volunteers, community leaders, and the people who serve our food and collect our trash and protect our neighborhoods and teach our kids. Intentional eye contact or a handwritten note plus specific feedback go a long way toward strengthening relationships and encouraging dreams in people who previously did not dare to entertain them.

Who around you needs encouragement this week, and how might you offer it? And who provides you with much-needed encouragement to keep moving forward? Thanks be to God for all of these people.

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