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What To Do When Students Don't Meet Their Potential


This post starts with a story about a baseball player, but it's not a post about baseball. So if you are not a sports fan, don't leave. This is a good story for anyone who works with teenagers.

This is a cool story about Brandon Phillips, the All-Star 2nd baseman for the Cincinnati Reds. Phillips had a 14-year-old send him a message on Twitter asking him to come see this kid play. Phillips had never met this teenager. It was a case of a kid goofing around, asking his hero to come watch his little league game. Imagine this teenager's surprise when not only does Brandon Phillips show up to his game, but he talks to the whole team, and actually watches the entire game, signing autographs, and interacting with the crowd. (Read the full story here.)

When is the last time you've heard of a major athlete doing that?

This reminded me of how Phillips found his way to the Reds in the first place. Phillips road to the majors wasn't easy. He bounced around between teams, and up and down between the major leagues and the minors. He was regarded as someone with a lot of potential, who for whatever reason, wasn't fulfilling it. Phillips was playing for the Cleveland Indians, who by most accounts, had grown tired of waiting on him turn into the player they thought he should. So, they traded him to the Reds, where he immediately made a huge impact. In his first season as a Red, he led the league in hits, led the Reds in multi-hit games, and led second baseman with steals. He is an All-Star, a Gold Glove winner, and one of the more vital members of the Reds.

The question I want to ask you today is who are the "Brandon Phillips" of your youth group? Who are those students who you know have potential, but have just yet to blossom? We've all encountered these students. You look at them, and know there is something more there. They have those moments where they show a spark, only to retreat back into themselves. It's the classic "one step forward, two steps back." The question is, how do we respond to this? The way we react to these students usually falls into two categories:

We Can Get Frustrated And/Or Give Up

This is easy to do, especially students that you know have the potential to make a big impact. Maybe they have great leadership potential. Or maybe they show flashes of real spiritual maturity. Maybe there are occasions where they demonstrate a heart for the lost. But they never build on them. In spite of your and maybe their parent's efforts, they seem to fail to meet their potential. And this can create frustration. It's a frustration born out of love, but it's frustration nonetheless. And sometimes, this frustration can lead to us giving up on a student. It's a natural reaction. But if our goal is to see these students blossom, frustration doesn't help move them forward. And giving up is the last thing we need to do. (Ask the Indians if they wish they could have Phillips back . . .)

We Can Be Patient, But Challenging

Some people just take longer to reach their potential. And with these students, if we truly want to help them grow, we need to be patient. Patience, however, doesn't necessarily mean that we stop challenging, pushing, leading and providing opportunities for them to move toward their potential. It just means we do so in a way that is understanding and adapted to fit the needs of the individual. Many times, our presence in the life of a student struggling to live up to his abilities is the very thing that pushes him past the tipping point.

Your faith in them creates confidence. And confidence is one of the keys to students blossoming into the person you know they can be.

Brandon Phillips made a pretty big impact in the life of a 14-year old kid. (You can bet that teenager will never forget the day his hero walked up to his dugout to watch him play.) Phillips might not have been there unless a team was willing to take one more chance with him. Just think what kind of eternal impact your students might have in the future if you're willing to walk with them until they've begun to meet their potential.

Don't give up. Resist the urge to become frustrated. Lead well, and lead patiently.

About the Author


Andy Blanks is the co-founder of youthministry360. Andy has been teaching the Bible and discipling teenagers pretty much weekly for the last 14 years. He lives in Birmingham with his awesome wife and their four children. Andy is an avid runner and loves just about anything involving being outdoors. Follow him on Twitter (

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I really liked this post because I can relate. A parent who is heavily involved with the youth group told me once that she learned with her sons not to "put them in a box." If they are a certain way, don't assume they will always be that way. Have patience, give them time, and encourage them. I have a boy in my youth group who, for the longest time, just couldn't sit still and acted out a lot. I really wrestled with what to do. I prayed a lot about him and really had to learn some patience. This past Sunday he delivered the sermon for Youth Sunday and did a superb job! His growth has been encouraging even though it was a long time coming. Anyways, I hope that brings some hope to those who are struggling with a similar situation.
by: Vickie May 23, 2011 10:19 am
i wonder sometimes when we confuse "OUR" expectations for a kid with GOD'S expectations for students. Sometimes, we set the bar too low. Example: one of our 15 yr old boys at church, whom also has a rep for being a pest made a decision based on John 1:1-5 and John 5, that he wanted to follow Jesus. He was baptized Sunday morning. Earlier in the week, his mother called me and asked me if I was shocked. EMPHATICALLY, the answer was NO! We serve a God who gives us high expectations. God reminds us that we can do all things through Christ...The bible says we are more than conquerors.... We are to encourage our students with these truths. Also, we need to give them opportunities to spread their wings as well.
by: David Kennedy May 23, 2011 1:59 pm
Great example, Vickie. Boy patience is tough . . . but, is usually pays off!
by: andy@ym360 May 23, 2011 2:30 pm
Great word, David. I look back over my ministry experience and realize how often I set the bar much lower for students than God had set for them. Thankfully, He knew their potential and helped guide them there. Thanks for stopping by, as always.
by: andy@ym360 May 23, 2011 2:31 pm