Count the Cost: Advice for Parents of Athletes 

“We unfortunately have to back out of your event because John has a game.”  

“Katie really wants to come to the end of the year bash, but her travel soccer team just made the finals.” 

“Lucas wants to be a part of the small group, but that’s the same night as wrestling.” 

“We’ll get her more involved once the swim season is over.”

I can’t tell you how often I have heard these phrases from parents during my time as a youth pastor, so much so that much of my planning now involves trying to dodge major sporting events. In the United States, youth sports is a multi-billion dollar industry and serves as a major competing factor in church attendance among young people. 

Some parents and students have their eyes on scholarships, while others just want their child to have the camaraderie of being a part of a team. Whatever the motivation, youth sports can stealthily become an idol that takes residence in the hearts of both parents and their children, drawing them away from rich fellowship with Christ and other believers. 

There is nothing inherently wrong about playing sports. Exercise is good for your health and there are several social benefits to paying on a team. The apostle Paul even uses sporting analogies in 1 Corinthians 9 and 2 Timothy 2 to explain how a Christian can pursue Christ.

But often, it’s the good (or neutral) things that can distract us from our relationship with Christ. Our ultimate goal as parents is to teach our children to place their faith in Christ who loved them enough to die for their sins. Knowing Christ should be the highest aim in our parenting, not our children’s’ athletic success. 

If you are the parent of an athlete, consider these five suggestions to help discern if you are compromising your teenager’s faith in the name of sports stardom. 

Count the Cost

In Luke 14:27, Jesus makes a bold statement: “whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” He then illustrates his point with two stories. He tells a story about a man who decides to build a tall building and a king who decides whether or not to go to war. These men think long and hard about the project they desire to undertake. The architect sits down and estimates the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it. The king counts his soldiers to see if he really wants to engage in a war or make a plea for peace. 

Before engaging in a sport, parents would do well to sit down and have a long talk with their child to consider if whatever may be gained through the sport — recognition, a scholarship, camaraderie — is worth the risk to their faith. 

There are three main categories of costs that parents should consider when their child wants to focus on a sport, especially if they want to participate in a travel team.

Spiritual Cost

This one is the most obvious.  We don’t want to be legalistic about church attendance, but we can’t forget that teenagers are products of their environment. In most cases, the environment with the most exposure shapes the teen, whether that’s the athletic field, the church, or a house party.

In addition to the time commitment, parents need to also consider the influence of peers. My son once remarked that at his basketball camp, many of the kids would tell dirty jokes during breaks. Especially for young males, but even so among many female teams, the culture of participating in a team can involve peer pressure for debauchery, revelry, coarse joking, and immature behavior. Parents would do well to consider the overall makeup of the team and personalities that inhabit it, including the coaches.

Emotional and Physical Cost

Sports involve direct competition: there is always a winner and a loser. There are tryouts and cuts every season. There is immense pressure to succeed.  At high levels, such as travel and elite, sports are no longer “just for fun.” Kids are competing for playing time and scholarships, so every dropped pass, every missed shot, and every strikeout can be an emotionally debilitating experience. It’s no wonder why high-level sports are also linked to mental health problems in teens.

Injuries are also an effect of contact sports. Even less “violent” sports such as basketball, soccer, and baseball carry injury risks such as concussions and leg injuries. Parents must ask themselves: does my teen have the emotional stability to endure the physical toll? Can they handle losing out on the ability to play due to an injury? Can they withstand the pressure of playing for an elite coach? Parents (like me) can unknowingly put performance pressure on their kids. A lack of awareness in the emotional and physical costs associated with youth sports can quickly spiral into spiritual compromise. 

Financial Cost

Sports, especially travel sports, are expensive. The league fees, the travel expenses, and the investment in training and development can burn your bank account. There are many articles that explain why the goal of a college athletic scholarship is not the most sound investment strategy.

We are called as members of a church to faithfully steward the money the Lord has entrusted to us.  If you spend $12-15,000 on travel sports every year, the typical amount of those who achieve college scholarships, consider how much remaining financial bandwidth you have to tithe and support Christian causes. 

I am of course not saying it is inherently wrong to be part of a team, but in the evaluation process, parents should consider whether they can still give to the church and other causes while supporting their child’s (or children’s) travel sports career.

Be Involved in a Consistent Community

 If you determine that the cost of sports are worth the risk, you must have some strategies to help build your teen spiritually during this time. Finding a consistent church community is perhaps one of the most important. 

I emphasize the word consistent, because while it may be more convenient to watch church online during tournament season, it defeats the overall purpose of the Church. God designed the Church to keep us accountable in our growth into becoming like Christ, so appearing in person with a consistent group of people is crucial. As Paul reminds us, the Church is a body, and every “member” has an important part to play (1 Cor. 12). 

It may mean your family has to make some sacrifices in order to maintain that consistency. Your son might have to go to church in a uniform or come to church sweaty after a game. You might have to tell your daughters’ coach that she won’t play games on Sunday mornings. It may even mean finding a church or service that meets at an unusual time. All are part of the sacrifice of keeping Christ above all else while playing sports.

Find Christian Parents and Teammates on Your Teams 

It’s tempting to just drop your child off at practice and go on your way. But you might miss an opportunity to find other parents who may be believers and similarly struggling to keep their kids spiritually healthy. These bonds can encourage you and your kids on your faith journey. Especially if you are involved with a travel or elite team, you will spend a lot of time watching practices and games. These can be a great opportunity for fellowship with other believers.  

Take an Active Role in Spiritual Leadership of Your Children

When speaking to parents about the importance of passing on God’s commands to their children, Deuteronomy 11:19-20 says, “teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”  Parents have a prime opportunity to take the lead in spiritual mentoring their kids than when they play sports. 

If you are a travel sports parent, then you have a lot of car time, maybe even plane and airport time too.  You have hotel time, restaurant time, pre and post-game time. There are plenty of times to do a Bible study or devotional, or just to have a simple conversation about God with your teen. Don’t think it has to be a professional sermon each time (most teens hate that from their parents anyway). Little 3-5 minute discussions done consistently can have a lasting impact for years to come.

Encourage Your Child to Think of Themselves as a Light

Jesus tells us in Matthew 5 that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Assuming your teen claims to have some level of faith in Christ, there are plenty of opportunities for them to be salt and light among their teammates.  

Parents can advise our children on how to best use the opportunities that they have to bring glory to God during the sports season. Teaching them to respect the referees, to honor the coaches, to avoid godless chatter and coarse joking, and to react to defeat the right way can point their teammates to a greater purpose in Christ and show them why he is worth the pursuit. 

Whatever activities teenagers are involved in, whether it be sports, music, or robotics, they all need consistent spiritual community, parental discipleship, and parents who are willing to count the cost. How parents handle these years are crucial to the long-term spiritual development of their children, so parents would be wise to consider the spiritual impact before the athletic one.

 But parents must first remember that there is a limit to what they can provide for their children. Ultimately, students need the transforming power of the gospel and only Jesus Christ can give that. God and his purposes for our children are far greater than any impact, positive or negative, that sports might have on them. Our job as parents is to expose them to that power as much as we can, and trust our children to submit to his ability to change them.

For more gospel-centered parenting resources, check out our current Rooted Parent Podcast season: Parenting, Technology, and the Truth

Steve Eatmon has over 12 years of experience in youth ministry and a Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary.  Currently, he serves as the pastor to high school and middle school students at the Chinese Bible Church of Maryland. He is married to Heather and they have two children, Ryan and Rachael.  

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