Like Everyday Teens, Olympic Athletes Crave the Gospel

Olympics in Rio
Olympic athletes need to feel special, known and safe, too. (Photo courtesy of Josh Griffin)

I have one of the coolest roles in the world right now. I get to hang out with, encourage and support Team USA athletes during the Olympics.

As I explained in my first blog post, I was selected to be one of two former Team USA athletes to serve our current Olympians in Rio. While my primary role is to act as an athletic encourager and not a chaplain, I'm learning a lot about how supporting our nation's best athletes will help me become a better youth pastor when the games are over.

Some of the most frequent questions I get from family and friends are, "What do you talk about? What do you say to (insert amazing athlete here)?" After having spent some time with them, I've come to realize that there are a lot of parallels between how I communicate with Olympians here in Rio and how we all try to communicate with teenagers in our ministries.

Be Present

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These athletes don't need anything from me. I can just exist with them, be proud of them and cheer them on. I don't add pressure and expectation. I want all of the athletes I interact with during the games to know that it is a safe place. I work to treat every athlete the same, whether they have 10-plus gold medals or rank lowest in their sport.

They all need to feel special, known and safe. While expectations can be good motivators, almost everyone in our teenagers' lives needs something from them. Teachers need teens to get good test scores. Coaches need teens to perform on the playing field. And often times, we as youth directors need teens to appear to have it all together. What if our expectation for teenagers what just that ... for them to be teenagers?

Our teenagers are kids who are cognitively struggling to figure out who they are while battling the temptation to be who the world needs them to be. If you want to know how to talk to an Olympian, or better yet a 14-year-old girl, be present and fight the temptation to lay heavy expectations.


Athletes appreciate other athletes. The best conversations we have are when three or four Olympians are in the lounge sharing stories about their lives. Every athlete experiences adversity, defeat and victory while training to be the best at what they do. Sharing those struggles, those victories and challenges with each other is so freeing and fun.

I believe the same is true with our teenagers. That is why small-group Bible studies are so very important. Creating a safe space where students can share highs and lows in their life can be extremely powerful. If everyone is sharing, being honest and willing to be vulnerable, something special and unique happens ... community.

Ask Good Questions and Be Willing to Listen

Everyone from an elite athlete to a 12-year-old student loves to talk about themselves. Each opportunity I have for quality time with a U.S. athlete, I ask them questions and then I listen. I ask about their sport, how they got started, their favorite moments in life, the moment they first became an Olympian, questions about their teammates and training, and so on. Then I listen.

I don't interject my story until they ask. Even the shyest person in the room enjoys sharing their story, and I believe that people are drawn towards good listeners. So when you are hanging out with students, ask them good questions and then listen. Don't make every conversation about you—make it about them, then God and their relationship with God.

Our society forgets to value listening, but everyone still wants to be heard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about how people are looking for real community and real community is being in a place where you can be heard. I believe this principle holds true for gold medalists and teenagers alike.

You want to know how to talk to an Olympian or a teenager? Be present in their lives, don't need something from them, be with them, foster community, ask good questions about their story and then listen.

David Thompson is a youth pastor from Birmingham, Alabama. For the original article, visit

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