– By Walt Mueller
©2008, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

Last May, my 22-year-old son walked off an athletic field for the last time. I had tears in my eyes because it was over for him. I had a smile on my face because he had been given the gift of play. A college senior, Josh had played his final game of collegiate lacrosse. Seventeen years in organized sports had suddenly come to an end.

What choked me up was watching the door close on something my kid had loved doing his entire life. When he was a pre-schooler he showed normal boy interest in toys. But when given a chance, Josh always opted for activities that included throwing, bouncing, catching or hitting a variety of balls. The arrival of kindergarten brought enrollment in T-Ball and soccer. That led to years in a variety of sports including football (“Sorry son, not until you’re in middle school.”), baseball, soccer and lacrosse. At times we had to set limits because he wanted to do more. He still bemoans the fact that we drew a line and didn’t let him play ice hockey. Games and practice weren’t always easy for Josh. He put in a lot of hard work. But Josh would tell you he loved every minute of it. In hindsight, this last day that I knew would arrive—but “sometime far into the future”—showed up in the blink of an eye.

Seventeen years later I look back to gain perspective, wondering what dividends an investment of thousands of hours of practice, hundreds and hundreds of games, a huge amount of money (uniforms, equipment, gas, fees, French fries at the concession stand, etc.), and lots of energy has paid. Because he was blessed to be led by coaches who—for the most part—put life lessons, teamwork and character building at a premium, I know his years as a player have shaped him in powerful and positive ways. Now that he’s planning on someday moving into coaching, the inheritance will be passed on.

But Josh isn’t the only one who came out a winner. My years spent with my son while coaching and spectating have shaped and molded me. As a Christ-follower raising a son who competed with others and found some success, I’ve had to face challenges and temptations that when embraced, leave me looking less and less like an inhabitant of the Kingdom of God, and more and more like a faithful follower of our culture’s rapidly ascending idol of sport. It hasn’t always been easy. And, I haven’t always done a very good job at assimilating Kingdom priorities into my role as a coach, spectator, fan or athlete’s dad. The demons of pride, pushiness, diversion, escape and vicarious living are always knocking on the door of my life. At times I’ve allowed them to move in. Perhaps it’s that constant pounding from these beguiling enemies at the gate that’s combined with my role as a culture-watcher to force me to stare our culture’s idolatrous obsession with sports in the face and ask—over and over again—“What’s going on here?” and “Is there a better way?”

With the advent of another school year upon us, our kids are not only heading back into the classroom, but onto the playing field. Fully two-thirds of America’s children and teens play organized team sports. Their parents will be in the stands. Then, there’s our ongoing obsession with following our teams. The start of the college and pro football season is upon us. Baseball playoffs are right around the corner. Talking about the intersection of faith and sport with your kids is not an option. It is a necessity. To lead your kids into a deeper understanding of what it means for Christ’s Kingdom to come and assume its rightful place in our play and spectating, it’s necessary to first come to terms with the changing place sport holds in our contemporary culture.

Our sporting landscape

There are several trends related to children, teens and sport that must be recognized and understood.

Amateurs no more. When was the last time you saw a kid riding through your neighborhood with a baseball glove hanging off his handlebars and a bat resting on his shoulder? There’s been a huge shift in the when’s, where’s and how’s of youth sports. It used to be that kids hurried home from school, changed into their “play clothes,” and went outside to wear holes in their knees through, well, play! My own little neighborhood gang of boys met every day after school and all day on weekends in backyards and driveways for pick-up games of baseball, football or basketball—depending on the time of year. Adults never organized or watched. Occasionally a dad or mom would come out to play. We structured and monitored everything ourselves. Captains would “shoot” it out for first pick. Somebody would inevitably get picked last … I know. But you’d suck it up, forget about it and play. Any structure that existed in our play came as we umpired ourselves and mediated any conflicts. The only matching jerseys we had were made of either fabric or skin. (“Dear God, please let me be on the shirts team!”) Games rarely ended with a last inning or final whistle. It all stopped when the dinner bell rang, but not before we would agree on a time and place for it all to begin again once more “after supper” or “tomorrow after school.” Of course, many of us also played organized community and school sports, but that happened in ways very different from the experience of today’s emerging generations.

For today’s kids, the overwhelming reality is that they play in a culture where the “professionalization” of youth sports encompasses every minute of play from the time they are enrolled in three-year-old soccer leagues, all the way through until high school graduation. The youngest of the young experience sports that are organized for them complete with regular practices, fancy uniforms, skill clinics, expensive equipment, summer camps, the best playing fields and arenas, coaches, paid officiating, aggressive game schedules, out-of-state-travel, weekend tournaments, and, perhaps worst of all, screaming and yelling fans (more on that in a minute). The price they pay for all this “privilege” may be some of the very things that make childhood what it is … like just being allowed to be a kid. In addition, our kids miss the important opportunities to play, to learn how to make their own fun, or solve conflict. And, all the running around cuts deeply into time together as a family.

The pressure’s on. In Go Tigers!, the documentary about high school football in Massillon, Ohio, viewers learn that when a boy is born in the town, a Massillon football is placed in the infant’s hospital crib. Sadly, that football isn’t just a fun little decoration. Rather, it represents a pressure-filled expectation. One undeniable reality of youth sports in today’s world is the incredible amount of stress our kids feel to succeed. At the youngest levels of youth sports tryouts are held. Pushy parents are disappointed when their five-year-old has to play on the “intramural” or “rec” team instead of the “travel” soccer team. Kids quickly learn that their value and worth to both their parents and their community depend on their on-field performance rather than on who they are as a son, daughter or neighborhood kid. This pressure has led to early “specialization” as kids focus year round on developing their skills in only one sport—a reality critics say can lead quickly to burnout.

Researchers at Michigan State University report that 70 percent of kids who play youth sports drop out by the age of 13. Sadly, many of these dropouts are gifted athletes who should be exercising their athletic gifts and abilities long into their teen years. Others are late-bloomers whose discouragement leads them to hang it up, causing them to miss out on the years of successful play that could be theirs if they would only be encouraged to hang in long enough for their bodies and skills to develop. Then there are those who continue on while allowing the pressure to excel to lead them to try to get an edge through cheating and/or performance-enhancing drugs.

Parents, ugh! I recently shared a cab ride from the airport with a dad who was more than happy to tell me about his athlete-daughter. He informed me that she was so highly regarded as a soccer player that their family’s summer would be centered on traveling around the country to various showcase tournaments where she would be able to display her skills. In addition, he told me that his daughter was a highly successful baseball player. “Baseball? Not softball?” I asked. “Do they let girls play that down in Georgia?” “Yes,” he enthusiastically answered. “She’s leading the league with seven home runs.” I was impressed. Then I asked, “How old is your daughter?” “Six,” he replied. Ouch. God bless that little girl. The pressure’s even greater when parents live vicariously—trying to find redemption for their own athletic failures, unfulfilled dreams, or empty lives—through their kids. Many pressure and push in the hope that their kid will score the college scholarship that will lead to a professional contract.

The reality is that college scholarships are few and far between. A pro career is highly unlikely. According to research from Dan Doyle at the Institute for International Sport at the University of Rhode Island, there are 475,000 fourth grade boys playing organized basketball in the U.S. At the same time, there are only 87,000 high school seniors playing basketball. Of those 87,000, only 1,560 will win Division I scholarships, 1,350 will win Division II scholarships, and 1,400 will play at non-scholarship Division III colleges. Of those 4,310, only 30 will make it to the NBA. Still, parents push, push and push some more. Do you want to know how bad it’s gotten? Go to a local soccer field where elementary-aged kids are playing an organized game. Don’t watch what’s happening on the field. Turn sideways and look down the sideline. And, just keep on looking and listening. Be prepared. It might break your heart.

Character? Or characters? When a culture slowly slides into worshipping the idol of sport, those who have achieved the highest levels of success in their sport are revered as heroes and role models. Looking up to heroes and role models can be a good and positive thing if those heroes and role models exhibit the high standards of character and sportsmanship we’ve been told are the end result of participation in sports. But in recent years the output of this character-building machine seems to be progressively more populated by shady characters than people of high character. Kids are now able to look up to and emulate a growing number of professional athletes who trash-talk, taunt, perform arrogant scoring rituals, fight, spit, bite, cheat and retaliate. Then there are their highly publicized antics off the field! The National Institute for Sports Reform says that “at the professional level, there is no question that sportsmanship is at an all time low. Likewise, the behavior of many scholastic, collegiate and professional athletes off the field is both disturbing and disappointing.” If someone ever did something shady during our neighborhood games we’d protest with chants of “Cheaters never prosper!” That doesn’t seem to be true in today’s culture. These shady role models prosper with big contracts, endorsement deals and championship rings. Increasingly, the heroes our kids follow embody everything but high ideals of good sportsmanship and fair play. As a result, the American sporting machine is producing fewer and fewer young men and women of high moral character. Not surprisingly, the Josephson Institute for Ethics found that athletes cheat in high school at a higher rate than do non-athletes. Maybe all of this should be expected in a culture of relativism where sport is played to the glory of me, myself and I.

Winning … the only thing. When my dad was coaching me in Little League Baseball his coaching style and expectations spoke this message loud and clear: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s how you play the game.” Sure, when we compete we should play hard and do our best in order to win. And, losing hurts. But when we fall into the trap of idolizing sport, losing is not an acceptable option. Our coaching, play and spectating become directed at that one goal, no matter what the cost. Scroll through the news headlines on the Web site of The National Alliance for Youth Sports and you’ll gain more than enough evidence of the place winning holds in our culture: “Soccer mom assaults coach with folding chair,” “Angry parent chokes referee,” “Parents brawl at youth football game,” “Coaches brawl at PONY league baseball game,” “Youth baseball coach arraigned for role in beating of player” and, believe it or not, “Little League parents attack umpires with pizza.” There’s nothing left to say.

What about the church?

While the church has increasingly gone to great lengths to address how a biblical world and life view speaks to things like our teens’ blossoming sexuality, disordered eating and concern for the poor, we’ve done very little thinking or talking about what—if anything—our Christian faith has to do with sports. Sure we can read inspiring books and magazine articles about Christians who are professional athletes. And, there are those evangelistic ministries that work to reach young athletes. But relatively little thought, writing or time has been dedicated to developing—with any depth—a theology of faith and sport. Maybe we like it that way. If we haven’t thought through a biblical theology of faith and sport, we don’t have to be challenged to live out that biblical theology of faith and sport. After all, the aforementioned cultural attitudes are just about as prevalent among people of faith, as they are in the culture-at-large. Sadly, there is little or no difference, except that we may start and end our competitive “fellowship” with token prayers. At the very time we should be saying something prophetic and different to the world, our sports practices betray attitudes that indicate we’re speaking and living with the world on this one.

A Christian friend who’s a college basketball coach recently told me about taking his team to play at a Christian college. On the ride back to campus after the game, his players—none of them Christians—asked a question prompted by the behavior of the host team’s players and fans: “Are all Christians hypocrites?” I wonder, what conclusion would they reach after attending a few typical church league softball or basketball games?

What now?

If we are really about facilitating total life discipleship in our kids, it’s time to start addressing these issues. Here are some suggested steps and strategies to enlist that will enable the kids you know and love to embrace and live an approach to faith and sport that will reflect “on earth as it is in heaven” priorities and commitments.

Teach a theology of sport. Our mistakes in the past have been to either embrace the prevalent cultural attitudes without thought or question as to how those relate to our faith, or—to a lesser degree—to react against those realities with a pendulum swing that demonizes and ultimately dismisses sport as apparatus on the devil’s playground. We’ve already addressed the dangers of the former. But the latter is just as bad. Just because the good structure of sport (remember, God made all things good) has been polluted by our depravity, that doesn’t mean we throw out the baby with the bath water. As with all things, God has given us sports as something to celebrate, play and enjoy … to His glory. Our goal should not be to eliminate sport, but to cleanse sport of darkness and depravity wherever it exists. In this manner, we can begin to redeem sport and fully enjoy it once more.

Play properly. No doubt sports and play make up a huge part of our lives—from pick-up games, to organized youth group games, to church leagues, to student participation in interscholastic athletics. The play we organize and facilitate should emphasize competition marked by grace, rather than cut-throat war. It should take into account the varying abilities of kids, encouraging those less gifted and able to achieve athletically, while encouraging those more gifted and able athletes to be encouragers rather than discouragers. And when the games are over, we should be able to embrace each other as everyone says, “Now that was fun!”

View the scoreboard in light of eternity. The sting of loss is very real, whether you’re the fan of a team that just lost a championship (I know, because I’m a lifelong Phillies’ fan!) or you and your team just came up on the short end of the stick. We oftentimes put too much emphasis on winning, as somehow scoring more points than the other team will make us feel better about ourselves in the end. A win can never be our redeemer. A loss isn’t the end of the world. We must gain and teach perspective that is eternal in nature. As with all of life, we must view all things in light of eternity. And, we must realize that if our priorities are right, any sting or joy that exists right after the game will quickly disappear.

Disciple kids into integrating their faith into their play. How often we forget this little principle in our youth ministries. Because of the time commitments required to play a sport, we see our student athletes and their respective sports as competition to conquer, rather than arenas in which to encourage them to play to the glory of God. We win if we can somehow convince our kids to drop the sport and get more involved in youth group. But are we really doing them any favors if they’ve been gifted by God with the skills, abilities and talents to play a sport? A more biblical response would be for us to take the time to disciple those athletes into understanding how to use what they’ve been given to bring honor and glory to God. Eric Liddell, the runner subject of the film Chariots of Fire integrated his faith into his sport. His perspective—“When I run I feel God’s pleasure!”—should be one we instill in our student athletes. Few youth workers take this challenge seriously, but it’s time to start.

Put God in His rightful place. One of the first things I learned when I was a high school sophomore on the football team was the place that my team and the sport were to hold in my life. After every practice and before leaving the field our coaches had us circle up to recite our team creed. I don’t remember it all, but I do remember the horribly skewed message of the first few lines: “My team is my best friend. It is my life. I will love it as I love my life.” The North American idol of sport needs to crumble. No, sport doesn’t need to be abolished. We shouldn’t be lazy when we play. Nor should we forsake watching and cheering for our favorite teams. What we must do is realize that the “created thing” cannot take the place of the Creator in our lives. The “created thing” of sport has been given to us to enjoy, not reverence. Teach your kids through your words and your example that there is a huge difference between the idolatrous error of worshipping the god of sport, and the right response of worshipping God through our involvement in sport.

Remind parents of a thing or two. I was excited when my youngest son Nate followed in his older brother’s footsteps and allowed us to register him for Pee Wee Baseball when he was seven years old. I was already a 10-year coaching veteran and I was looking forward to 10 more years with Nate and his peers. Throughout the season Nate was largely disinterested and he complained that baseball was “boring.” I thought that time and some fatherly persuasion would heal his misconception and everything would work out just fine. We had to win our last game of the season to make it into the playoffs. We were ahead in the last inning, but the other team was mounting a comeback. From his position in center field I heard Nate yell, “Let them win! Let them win! If we win we have to come back and play tomorrow.” I knew right then and there that there was no sense in trying to encourage Nate to play a sport he didn’t want to play. We lost and that was Nate’s last-ever organized baseball game. Youth workers are uniquely positioned to remind parents like me that we shouldn’t push our kids beyond their athletic interests or abilities, that scholarships are few and far between, that play is meant to be done to the glory of God, and that their own parental identity must be found in Christ—not the athletic achievements of their kids.

We’ve forgotten that all sports are games. Games are meant to be played. Play is meant to be fun. I’m glad my son had the opportunity to enjoy 17 fun-filled years of play. Sure, he’s got some wonderful memories of significant moments, accolades and great victories stored up in his head. But it’s ultimately not about memories and stuff that hangs on a wall. Our prayer is that, more than that, it’s been his heart that’s been molded and shaped by his time on the field.

When his college lacrosse team and their families gathered for a final banquet of celebration, his coach addressed the crowd. He encouraged his players to step back and see their four-year experience in light of the whole picture. “God is very concerned about victories,” he said. “The one He cares about the least is the points on the scoreboard.” That’s some bright truth for our kids to grasp, love and live as they grow up in an increasingly dark culture of sport.

One week later, his team, coaches and all their families gathered with the college’s entire athletic community for the school’s annual sports’ banquet. We drove out to campus, and at Josh’s request, brought along his baseball glove. When we walked out of the building after the banquet and into the dark night, my wife and I went to our car. I watched Josh walk over in his coat and tie and was reminded once again that my little boy had become a man in the blink of an eye. After grabbing his baseball glove out of the car and telling us “goodbye,” he walked to his bike, put his glove on his handlebars, climbed on his bike and rode off in the darkness back to his dorm. It was a picture that I’ll never forget as it served to sum up 17 fun-filled years of deep learning as the man—who’s still my boy who loves to play—pedaled away on his bike.


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