5 lessons about evangelization from my time as a figure skating coach
Bryant Park’s Winter Village is one of the most iconic New York scenes in wintertime. Dozens of shops sell cute trinkets. There are long lines outside stores selling overpriced (but very good) hot cocoa. And a full-size ice rink sits at the center of it all. I have found myself there more times this year than before, now that I am coaching beginner ice skating at the rink.
This is far from my first rink, or even my first experience teaching others how to skate (although it is the first time I am getting paid rather than paying for my time on the ice). And as always, there is more to coaching than the simple motion of moving my feet and instructing the student to do the same.
In some ways coaching skating isn’t far from teaching others about the church: It requires a knowledge of the rules involved, but it also means that I, too, must be willing to learn and listen and respond. Here are five lessons I’ve learned from being a skating coach that might also help me be a better evangelizer.
Explaining something in a different way can be tough, but it’s rewarding. Each person is different, and I have to keep that in mind every time I step on the ice for a lesson.
1. What works to explain something for one student will make no sense to another, and I have to adapt in response.
Explaining something in a different way can be tough, but it’s rewarding. Each person is different, and I have to keep that in mind every time I step on the ice for a lesson. One of the first lessons for children new to skating is teaching them how to march on the ice. Often, especially when they’re young, I can say, “Let’s march like a penguin!” because they need to walk on flat feet, not stepping heel-toe. But sometimes that will cue a child to wobble her entire body side to side, not just march her feet. Time for another tactic.
I had one student who resisted picking up his feet at all, so we had a game where I told him he had to break the ice by stomping his feet (his “stomps” were pretty normal steps), and it worked to get him moving. Of course, I would not tell an adult student any of these things, so I instead tell them to keep their weight on the balls of their feet.
All three of these approaches bring my students to the same spot: figuring out how to move on the ice. The different methods were equally effective, but I had to figure out which was the best match for each student. While having only one way of teaching a move would be simple, it would not be as effective for every skater.
Similarly, when talking about faith with others, it is important to consider whether someone might be more drawn to a conversation about art or doctrine or history, or maybe a shared prayer or an invitation to Mass. Each of those things might get someone to the same spot—closer to Christ—but not every way is right for every moment.
When we have the chance to consider questions about our faith, it reinforces the basic (or not-so-basic) teachings we’ve learned throughout our lives, enriching our own faith even as these answers inform the faith of newcomers.
2. Teaching is the best form of learning.
We hear it all the time, but I am reminded of it every time I teach, whether that’s with skating or with an academic subject. I’ve been skating for two-thirds of my life—there’s not much that I could learn in terms of new skills from the child who is marching or gliding for the first time. But each time I coach a child, I am again reminded of those basics, as they ask questions for which the answers come second-nature to me. I remember that, yes, my weight should be at the ball of my foot, and a little further forward when skating backwards. And my crossovers are improved when I follow my own advice to bend my knees and push with my blade, not my toe pick.
Similarly, when we have the chance to consider questions about our faith, it reinforces the basic (or not-so-basic) teachings we’ve learned throughout our lives, enriching our own faith even as these answers inform the faith of newcomers. And sometimes the people asking the questions come up with things that have never occurred to me to ask, deepening both of our faith lives at the same time.
3. Children are a lot smarter than we give them credit for.
Children are very curious and love getting answers to their questions. While skating with 6-year-olds, I found myself having to answer how exactly leaves got stuck under the ice after the Zamboni cleans the ice, and just how skate blades make marks on the ice, and what those numbers on the wall, showing 10:08 and then later 10:25, mean.
Sometimes they needed what I considered the “adult” way of being taught, and only then were they truly able to grasp a concept and move with it. In the church, too, we should be able to explain difficult topics seriously even with children. Especially with people new to the faith, simple explanations of church teaching may not be helpful. “Jesus loves me, this I know” is true, but the church has a richness to its teachings on the why and how of our faith that are worth exploring.
This is the kind of childlike joy that I’d like everyone to have when skating, or when doing anything they love.
4. Embrace joy.
The joy on a child’s face when they are enjoying skating is like no other. I taught a 3-year-old (and her parents) one day this season. Helping a child whose skates are half her own weight is always a fun experience, even if I have to keep picking her up off the ice. And sometimes all those falls will make children start to cry—I would not want to land on my backside that many times in a row, either! But this kid could not have been happier. Every time she fell, it became a giggle-fest until the next fall. I’m sure that half the reason I couldn’t get her to stand up by herself was because she was laughing too hard!
This is the kind of childlike joy that I’d like everyone to have when skating, or when doing anything they love. Things we love often turn into a chore after we do them for a while, and even if we enjoyed them early on, the slog of doing it over and over sucks the joy out of it. But teaching kids who are viewing the sport through fresh eyes renews my joy for it, too.
In our faith, we sometimes focus so much on the rules or the hardships, and we can forget the joy found in God, in experiencing church with others around us. Jesus continually reminds us to be childlike in our faith, and joy, as countless saints have reminded us, is part of that faith. Although there are difficulties in life, we can face them with the joy that God is always present and never changing.
5. Stay centered in the midst of the noise.
With Christmas music and top-40 pop songs alternately blasting over the speakers at Bryant Park, not to mention the shouting of people both on and off the ice, you wouldn’t think that there is much that is meditative about skating. But skating is a spiritual exercise, involving a lot of focus and meditation.
For me, skating is a place to pay attention to my body’s movements (the good ones and painful ones) and to leave the stressors of the world off the ice. The focus needed to skate—to bend my knees, hold my arms in a certain position, turn here, not there, put the other foot down, turn the other way—frees my mind of everything else. Even though I’m not actively praying as I skate, it often has the same relaxing and quieting effect on my mind as prayer.
Teaching the faith can be centering, too, and we must focus on that conversation or moment while we do it. Even when a million things are happening, in the world, in our lives, in the classroom, there is a security in the act of evangelization itself that centers both the teacher and the learner in it the love of a God that unites us all.