Keeping the Faith in a Sports-Obsessed Culture

Parents, show your kids that knowing God is more important than making the team.

The world of kids’ sports has exploded since I was a child nearly 50 years ago. More children are competing — up nearly 50 percent over the past 25 years. More girls compete — nearly a tenfold increase in their participation in high school athletics between 1970-2000. More children start earlier. More kids focus on one sport year round. More is demanded of these athletes — more practices, more games, more travel. More is demanded of their families — more money, more involvement, more expectations.

The question that arises from these statistics is this: How does this flood of “more” impact parents’ goal to raise children who love God with all their hearts? The answer starts with parents — we must love God ourselves before we can help connect our child-athletes to God. We can’t pass on something we don’t possess.

Don’t: elevate sports above your children

I am a recovering sports addict. My childhood was filled with sports — playing them, watching them, dreaming about them. Though it is not wrong to enjoy sports, my challenge has been to be more temperate about them — for myself and my three watching sons.

Champions_FrontOne year when my boys were still living at home, I asked my wife to record a Dallas Cowboys playoff game for me because I had another commitment. Since I enjoy the unexpected in sports, I made it clear to my sons that I wanted to watch the game without knowing the outcome.

When I came home, my long-faced, six-year-old son greeted me, “Dad, I won’t tell you the score, but I don’t think you will want to watch the game.” I immediately knew my team had lost. I responded sharply, “Andrew, you weren’t supposed to tell me!” My values were showing. I was more concerned about a trivial football game than my treasured son.

When parents value sports too highly, they may try to fill themselves up through their children’s achievements. I overheard one father explain to another that watching his son play football “was almost like I was competing myself again.”

I know it might be tough to swallow, but parents have to understand this: your childhood is over and your child still has his to live. Appointing your child to fulfill your dreams puts a burden on him that he is too small to bear and too young to comprehend.

As a coach of a select soccer team, I have frequently reminded over-zealous parents that it’s alright to occasionally miss their child’s sporting events — and some of those parents look at me as if I am advocating child sacrifice. But if a relationship with God is truly your priority, won’t you need to occasionally miss a child’s ballgame to attend a retreat or a home Bible study? If you always sacrifice those activities for your child’s athletics, what are you teaching your child? Good friends of ours decided to travel with their son to weekend hockey tournaments all winter long for five or six years and were mostly AWOL from church. You can build your life around God or your child’s sporting life — but you can’t do both.

Do: Teach your kids about God’s purpose for their lives

As parents, our highest purpose is to steer our kids toward a love for God. Unfortunately, many parents say they want their children to love God but allow sports to fill their kids’ summers. The kids don’t attend church camp — instead they take part in two or three sports camps. The kids don’t participate in a mission trip — instead they compete in a baseball tournament that week. Parents defend these choices by claiming that their hands are tied by coaches’ threats of lost playing time or even a spot on the team. But even if those threats materialize — which they seldom do, did Jesus ever say that following him wouldn’t involve sacrifice?

But when parents truly love God, they can also help their children learn to love God. Our son, Jered, was playing behind a boy on his high school basketball team who wasn’t nearly as experienced or talented as our son. (This was not just parental prejudice. A local college coach agreed.) After one game, he grumbled, “I work hard, practice extra, play well when I am in the game, but get little playing time. Other guys never practice, play just OK, and get lots of playing time. I’m not sure I want to keep playing.” Our dejected son needed our guidance.

Initially, we reminded him that his extra practice had paid off — he was leading the team in field goal percentage. We also pointed out that his team had been playing weak teams and he would have an opportunity to shine when they faced stiffer competition. Finally, we encouraged him to think about God’s purpose in all of this. Was God teaching him how to be content in all circumstances, to love his teammates, to trust God for playing time?

The following week, the boy Jered was playing behind was injured and wouldn’t play in the next game — a game against a team ranked second in the state. We asked several people to pray for our son. We prayed together as a family. The result? He played little and poorly.

Did God answer our prayers? Definitely. As a result of his discouraging performance and season, he went to his closet and dug out information he had received at a Christian sports camp about how God helps us in our adversity. Jered was learning how to connect with God in his pain.

Our son wanted to be successful in basketball. But he had to learn that in God’s world, he is successful when he is faithful: “It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2). We reminded him that he was successful when he practiced hard, when he refined his God-given skills, when he didn’t grumble about his coach’s decisions, when he cheered on his teammates — even the one playing ahead of him. His performance might not look significant in the team’s final statistics, but God keeps a different set of books.

As parents, we need to remember what is truly important for our kids. They have important skills to acquire — they must learn how to care for others, connect with God, manage money, think critically. To help our kids meet these needs, my wife and I made sure they were involved in a broad mix of activities: household chores, church camp, family vacations, mission trips, family gatherings, gardening (at home and with grandpa), growing and selling produce, helping neighbors, family Bible study, and more. We believed these activities would help prepare them for the complexity of adult life. Kids today need parents who have a larger vision for them than the next championship trophy.

Read more about how sports impact the development of children on the author’s blog:

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Dr. Bernie Schock
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