The Joys and Challenges of Youth Sports: Gospel Guidelines for Parents

Here we are halfway through summer time! For many families, this means the commitment of youth sports is ramping up, and you are likely in the throes of planning to travel for tournaments near or far (or near and far!). The time, energy, and money that we are expected to spend on increasingly competitive teams and opportunities for our kids is practically a full-time job.This is incredibly challenging to balance for any family, but it is especially so for families that desire to make their faith the center of their lives.

We seem to be moving away from a “for the love of the game” mindset towards a “for the scholarship money” approach. We think all the sacrifices will be worth it if our children can just earn a full, or even partial scholarship. There is certainly a need and desire to protect our kids and teenagers from the pressures of mainstream sports contexts. At the same time, there is no denying that participating in sports comes with a host of developmental benefits for young people. Thankfully, with the wisdom of Scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, there are ways to faithfully engage in youth sports culture.

The Joys

I’m a good news first kind of person, so let’s start with the joys of youth sports. On a personal note, to this day, many of my closest friendships are with women with whom I originally connected through soccer. Many of my favorite memories revolve around the various sports teams I played on, whether it was going away for camp, big wins in big tournaments, or even simply chatting on the bus rides to and from games. Finally, there’s no doubt in my mind that I am more confident and have better leadership and life skills than I would have if I hadn’t played on sports teams growing up. I attribute much of this to my parents who helped me balance the pressure of pursuing scholarships while continuing to have fun. 

But don’t just take my word for it. According to Project Play by the Aspen Institute, regular sports participation as adolescents predicts better physical, social, and mental health into young adulthood. Their studies have indicated that sports participation leads to better performance in school, increased expectation to graduate from a four year college or university, and even greater success in corporate contexts.

The Challenges

Only 2% of high school student athletes will receive an athletic scholarship. And according to the NCSA College Recruiting website, those students who receive athletic scholarships rarely receive full-scholarships. So how is it that, despite the reality that most youth athletes won’t receive any scholarship money at all, the youth sports world has become so centered on ID camps, scouting tournaments, and all-things-college-recruiting? I don’t believe there’s any one perfect answer to that question, but the intense pressure on both kids and parents needs to be addressed.

Scripture doesn’t specifically lay out the perfect plan for how to help our kids healthily engage in youth sports. However, there is nothing in life that Scripture can’t speak to on some level. God’s Word is eternally relevant. The Lord is not surprised by the prevalence of youth sports in our culture, and therefore, by the work of the Holy Spirit in us, we are fully equipped to use his Word to approach our kids’ sports with wisdom.

A Few Guideposts
Identity Matters

Those of us who believe in Christ are adopted as children of God. As kids grow into teenagers and approach adulthood, one of the biggest questions they must answer is, “Who am I?” Consider these words from John chapter 1:

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (Emphasis added)

There is no question of identity that cannot be answered by the fact that those who believe in the name of Jesus are children of God, receiving all the benefits won for us through Christ. None of us will find true freedom, belonging, or love outside of the work of Christ. 

If our children base their identity on what sport they play, instead of basing their identity on who they are in Jesus, they will always be met with disappointment. 

To help prevent such disappointment, consider these suggestions towards a healthy relationship with sports: 

1. Consider waiting to choose one sport to specialize in until later in life. Chances are, if you have a kid who loves one sport, they probably like other athletic activities as well. I live in the Northeast, and snow sports are a fun part of winter up here. It’s not uncommon to hear from a teenager that they can’t go on a ski retreat because their coach will “be so mad” if they get hurt. That a kid would avoid doing things they would enjoy because they’re so invested in one specific sport is robbing them of their childhood. Instead, especially through their early teenage years, try having your child experiment with a few different sports so that their world and experience aren’t tied up in just one thing.

2. Encourage your kids by noting who they are, not what they do. If our children believe that the thing we love most about them is that they are great at their sport, that will become the thing they most want to develop. When we focus on praising them for showing great love for others, or incredible patience or forgiveness towards their siblings, they will learn to believe that those things are of greater importance. Most importantly, encourage your children that you love them simply because they are your child— just as Jesus does. Remind them frequently that like Jesus, your love for them does not change with their behavior. 

3. Remember the Gospel. Ultimately, it is believing the good news of Jesus that teaches us to root our identity in him. When this is the priority for us as parents and youth leaders, our kids notice. How much time are we spending breaking down the play-by-play of the game they just played, and how much time are we spending dwelling on Christ and his word ? The play-by-play conversation is really important! But the Gospel, the fact that we have life because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, is eternal.

Sabbath is Vital

In three of the gospel accounts of his life, Jesus declares himself as “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mt. 12:8, Mk. 2:28, Lk. 6:5). He is the ultimate Sabbath rest, because in him we find eternal rest . This frees us from the striving that Levitical Law required of Jews for keeping the Sabbath, but it also further emphasizes the fact that we are beings who require rest. And we all know that the world of youth sports is not a world that allows room for much rest.

Ultimately, each family needs to make a decision as to what Sabbath rest looks like in their own house, but I can offer a few ideas that may help in making those difficult decisions:

1. Don’t miss gathering weekly with the Body of Christ. We can’t make it without our community, which is a reality that the writer of Hebrews knew when instructing readers not to neglect meeting together (10:24-25). The most obvious gathering is church services on Sunday morning, but I believe there is potential that other gatherings of the church, in addition to Sunday, help fill the need for community. 

2. Make sure your family has weekly time to rest together. Rest looks different for everyone. Some families love hiking together, and others may prefer sitting quietly at home reading or lounging outside. Some families need to have a full continuous day, and others may need multiple evenings at home together during the week.

3. Rest is something we get to do. It’s not just a necessity for our health, it is something that genuinely makes our lives better and more fulfilling. When we frame rest in this light, instead as an obligation, it becomes something that we can look forward to.

Know Your Heart

Because we are still living under the effects of sin, we are susceptible to following sin into harmful decisions. Jesus has called us out of our sin and into his righteousness, and that means we must live in the tension of living in this fallen world while we wait for total redemption in the next. For parents, and for anyone leading young people, we have the added responsibility of helping our kids learn to live in this tension wisely themselves. 

It is easy to push boundaries with sports in a way that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but that ultimately leads to great dangers. There are countless ways that we elevate things of this world over the Lord and the things he has called us to. Skipping church on a Sunday so our kid can make their game may not seem like a big deal the first time, but it very quickly can become a routine. Building a family vacation onto or around a sports tournament is a great idea, but it may unintentionally send a message that a sport is of greater priority than resting together as a family… especially if it becomes a trend over time.

Be encouraged with this closing thought: God’s grace is more than sufficient to cover our mistakes. As you work to discern what is healthy for your kids and for your family, know that he will guide you into all truth and give you the wisdom you need for these challenging decisions (Jn. 16:13). All we must do is ask! By his grace and through his Spirt, we can offer our children a more encouraging and fruitful way to live in the world of youth sports. 

Interested in learning more about gospel-centered parenting? Join us November 2-4 in Nashville, TN for our 2023 Rooted Conference. We are offering a one-day pass for parents for Saturday, November 4th. You’ll have a chance to hear workshops on Social Media, video games, gender, and more.

Elayna is the Director of Young Adults at Christ Community Church in West Chester, PA. She married her husband Phil in 2021, and they live in Coatesville, PA. They both love to be outside, whether that’s exploring new hiking trails with their dogs, snowboarding in the winter, or simply sitting around a campfire. Elayna is especially passionate about introducing the next generation to Jesus in a way that sticks with them as they grow into adulthood.

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