When I was kid, organized youth leagues were intended to be an activity that exposed young children to the world of sports. The intent was to teach kids the rules of a sport, learn basic skills, be part of a team, practice sportsmanship and maybe discover something a kid could enjoy playing. When my oldest reached the age of playing sports, I quickly discovered the environment had changed. For the last 10 years all of my boys have been engaged in playing sports. Organized sports, and everything that goes with it, will continue to be a part of our family routine for at least the next 7 years. I have seen first hand (and continue to see) that youth sports programs and high school sports can create challenges that frustrate the family instead of help it.
Don’t misunderstand me, team and individual sports has the potential to teach children, teens and adults many valuable life lessons; but I believe the potential is rarely utilized. I could give you a laundry list of reasons why, but that would make this blog a bit of a downer. I could also attempt to encourage parents to avoid these challenges and just keep their kids at home, but I think that approach is unrealistic and not helpful. Youth and high school sports (along with other extra-curricular activities) are valuable, but we need to be realistic about their limitations and the unhealthy distractions they can create. Instead of shouting how bad things are, let me try to share with you how Cherry and I have navigated the harmful side of sports.
Life on a sports team is not fair. There are always going to be players who get special treatment, more playing time and all the accolades. Likewise, there will be players who seem to be expendable, overlooked and undervalued. When parents see this happen, it feels ugly…especially if it is your kid being ignored. When this happens parents have a unique choice, they can begin to complain about coaches (which creates entitlement issues), pressure their kid to do better (which makes the child feel like a disappointment) or encourage their young athlete to do their best and enjoy the experience (which teaches the valuable lesson of being accepted for who they are and not what they can do). As a parent I’ve done all three and I can tell you the first two options never end well.
With four boys playing sports, my family has seen different levels of success on the field. I have had the blessing of seeing my boys be the star and riding the bench. I noticed when they were succeeding; I was happy and giving a high-five. When they played little or not at all, I would leave the game full of angst complaining about coaches or negatively pressuring my son to do better. When those conversations ended, no one was happy.
I don’t remember when it happened exactly, but somewhere along the way God began to give me a different perspective. It came full circle one day after one of my boys didn’t get to play much in a game. As he approached me I could see the worry in his eyes…Is dad going to complain or get on to me? I could tell he was disappointed. He didn’t need the same old response from me. In that moment God gave me some new words and by His grace I used them. I looked at him and said, “I am proud of you. I want you to do two things when playing this sport. First, please God with your attitude and actions. Second, do what you need to do to help your team succeed.” A weight was lifted, the air cleared and we both began to enjoy the moment and each other.
If we can use sports to teach our kids to live for God and help others succeed, then the potential for sports to teach valuable life lessons is being reached. I realize how backward this sounds, but that is the point. The dangerous side of organized sports is striving to be the best for the sake of being recognized and rewarded…to stroke the ego. The good side of sports is found when we remember to play for something bigger than ourselves. Life works the same way.
The demands of youth sports have changed. When I played, coaches created practice and game schedules that were church friendly. That day is over and it is not coming back. Parents who are committed to passing their faith on to their children must learn to adapt.
When church activities conflict with sports, the trend is to skip the church activity. Faithful families often make this choice and I understand the reasons why (team commitment, punishment from coaches, money poured into the sport, etc.). With four boys playing sports, this has been and will be an ongoing challenge (and I pastor a church). The problem with letting sports regularly (or seasonally) take priority over church activities is that we are inadvertently teaching our kids that faith is a hobby and the sport is the priority. They begin to see and accept that practicing faith at church with others is what we do when there is nothing else going on. We set them up to minimize or walk away from the faith.
The solution to facing this challenge is to sometimes say no to the sport. Or, work harder as a parent to get our kids to church activities. I realize both of these options are painful. Saying no to the sport may mean missing a practice, a game, or maybe even a tournament for the sake of serving or worshipping God. Working harder means parents spend the extra energy, time and money needed to make sure their child attends that service project, bible study or weekend retreat when the calendar is already full. Trust me, I understand the pain of these sacrifices. But when we do it, when we prioritize the importance of practicing our faith; it teaches our kids that life is never too busy to worship God. Also, for God to be first in our lives we have to sacrifice something for Him to get there (and remain there). The sacrifice will always sting and cost something. Kids do not naturally know how to make a sacrifice for the Lord; parents have to teach them.
Here is one goal Cherry and I have strived to follow: we seek to have the whole family together at one church event at least once a week. Only a few times in a decade have we not been able to do this. And surprisingly, only a handful of times have we had to sacrifice a sporting event to practice our faith together.
According to CBS News, only about 2% of all high school athletes will receive a full-ride athletic scholarship. Yet, if you talk to parents at the ballpark, football field or soccer game, one could walk away thinking 98% of the players are on their way to a free college education. Parents are talking about the latest greatest sports camp and the personal trainer that “has never seen an 8 year old with so much ability.” Instead of the sport being an opportunity to play, it becomes an expensive lottery ticket or early college education payment plan. When something is given that much priority, pressure is placed on performance and the joy of getting to play, be on a team and enjoy neighbors is lost in the shuffle. Truthfully, 98% of all high school athletes pay for college some other way.
Imagine a kid being told for a decade they have talent and “a good shot” at a scholarship only to discover when they graduate that no college came calling. Now what are they suppose to do? They followed their passion and all they have to show for it are participation trophies. For a decade they have chased a sport and missed other opportunities that might have helped them to discover their real talents. They enter college or the work force not really having any direction. Here is the point: a sport, by itself, cannot help a teen discover their purpose. Purpose is discovered through talking to the Creator and spending time with people who know the Creator. Many times opportunities to discover purpose are lost because the sport became the god. All sport gods make promises they can’t deliver. Kids are often not mature enough to see this, but parents should know better.
Cherry and I want our boys to have the opportunity play sports; but ultimately, we want them to know God, hear His voice and follow His plan for their lives. Our job is to point them towards that goal no matter what activities they pursue. We are not perfect at doing this, but we are intentional about reaching that goal.