When I Became “That Little League Parent”

high school basketball

As a former athlete who now parents an athlete, I can see that youth sports have changed dramatically. When I was a kid, most parents dropped their kids off at practice and came back at the end to pick up. The field or the court was the kid’s domain – well the kids ­and ­the coaches. Now, with the rise of travel sports leagues, competition is fierce, and parents pour lots of time and money into kids who are specializing in sports at very young ages, some even as young as six years old. The bar is higher if a parent wants their child to have an opportunity to play at the same level that they once did.

I have thought to myself, “I’m not one of those parents who tries to justify their own failures in sports through their kids.” But because I am a former high school athlete myself, my own competitive side comes out. Knowing that I can’t play in the game myself, I have to watch and hope that someone else “gets it.” There are times when sadly, I have failed to check my emotions when watching my own son play competitive basketball.

One such time occurred during the second half of a close game. Someone on his team stole the ball and passed it to my son. He was dribbling on a fast break, and I thought, this is his chance. He was side-by- side with his opponent and rather than try to take the ball all the way to the basket, he parked at about eight feet out and took a hard step to the right to set up for a jump shot. The defender recovered quickly and the shot was blocked, never had a chance. Wanting him to go all the way and get a lay-up or a foul, I screamed, “NO, DON’T DO THAT!”

I wasn’t sitting in the 400 section at the Capital One Arena. I was right next to the court right behind the baseline with the other parents where the incident occurred. They all heard, everyone heard, and sadly, I know that my son heard. Another parent from the other team tried to offer some encouragement, “it’s all good, he’ll eventually get it.”

So many thoughts and feelings went through my head:

  • “I can’t believe I did that in front of all of these people.”
  • “Even though he didn’t do everything right, he tried to do what I taught him, to side-step to avoid a defender. He just didn’t realize that the defender was not in front of him.”
  • “You are putting your son in a very competitive league. Why be surprised that kids can make highly athletic plays like that?”
  • “At the end of the day it’s about fun—why ruin it for him by expecting perfection? How good were YOU when you were ten?”

Those thoughts are all fine, and for most non-believing parents they work, but as Christians we have to go one step further. We must ask ourselves, “what kind of idol is living beneath the surface, such that those words come out of my mouth? Jesus said in Mark 7:23 that “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” As parents in these types of situations, we have to think: is this about my child or me? What kind of idol am I making out of my child?

Idolatry is a sin often ignored by many modern-day Christians, because we often equate it with building a statue and falling prostrate before it. But an idol is anything that can interfere with total allegiance to God. In ancient Israel idols were made of stone, but today we have all kinds of intangible idols: money, social media status, job titles, and even our own kids’ success. We may cloak it as “motivation,” “coaching,” or “wanting them to do well,” but deep down we are trying to supply some inner need that was meant to be filled by Christ himself.

In Galatians 2:20, the apostle Paul says “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” When we stand before the eternal God to give account for our lives, we will not be summoned to discuss athletic, academic, or job performance.  I should hope that we all seek no other means of justification than the blood of Christ himself poured out for sinners.

Believe me, I know that this is hard to do, because society prizes athletic prowess and getting college scholarships. But God has extended such grace to us in Christ’s death on the cross that we don’t have to tirelessly work for our salvation, or work our kids to death in sports for the same reason. Our sin and efforts at self-justification have been covered on the cross, and because of that we live for him and him alone, not for our children.

More than knowing who we should worship is understanding how much the one we worship loves us.  Paul includes the phrase “who loved me and gave himself for me” for a reason. He didn’t just stop at saying “the son of God,” but the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. A life lived in Christ starts with that understanding. A great grace and love was shown to me: the God of all creation sent his son to die for me while I was a sinner and His enemy. The more we understand the depths of that reality, the easier it will be to extend that grace and love to others, including our children. We learn that we don’t need to seek approval and affirmation from any other source, especially not in our kids’ athletic, academic, artistic, or vocational performance.

When we can settle within ourselves who we truly worship, it will be easier for us to model to our children the example of Galatians 2:20. When our kids see us pass up the potential trappings of the world to be satisfied in Christ and his saving power alone, they can begin to follow suit and not be caught by the popularity trap, the latest social media craze, or the need to perform to impress mom and dad. I am by no means perfect in this area of little league parenting, I am only passing on what I have learned through his Word. But even when we fail, it is our duty as parents to show our kids who really has our back and who we really should worship: the son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.

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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