Article  Marriage and Family  Sports

Please say more than six words to your kids about sports or any performance

religious liberty

Brad M. Griffin from the Fuller Youth Institute posted an article, “The Only Six Words Parents Need to Say to Their Kids About Sports—Or Any Performance.” I am sympathetic with some aspects of the article. He is rightly concerned that too many parents simply obsess on their child’s performance in sports. He writes, “All kinds of parental anxiety and dysfunction plays out on the sidelines and in the bleachers, and you only need to walk to your local park to catch a glimpse for yourself.” Anybody involved in youth sports has seen the people Griffin is describing and perhaps we’ve even seen that type of person in the mirror.

My problem with his article is that his response to the problem he describes is woefully inadequate. Griffin suggests based on psychological research that the three healthiest statements moms and dads can make as their kids compete in sports are:

Before the competition:

  • Have fun.
  • Play hard.
  • I love you.

After the competition:

  • Did you have fun?
  • I am proud of you.
  • I love you.

While all of those statements can certainly be helpful they are far from adequate in utilizing a child participation in sports as a tool for cultivating Christian discipleship and cruciform worldview. The Bible is far from silent on sports and athletic competition (Gen. 30:8, 32:24; Ps. 19:3-6; 2 Sam. 2:14; 1 Cor. 9:24-27; Phil. 3:13-14; Gal. 2:2; Eph. 6:12; Heb. 12:1-4). The Apostle Paul consistently uses the language of athletic competition for talking about the demands and discipline of the Christian life.

I wonder if Griffin would provide the same advice to parents regarding a child’s work in school? What if the child has fun in school because they enjoy being the class clown? What if the fun they have competing in sports is because they play selfishly or do not execute what the coach tells them to do? Should a parent always be proud of a child after competition no matter their effort or lack thereof? It seems to me that his advice trades a self-centered parents obsession about performance for a self-centered apathy about competition and the priority of team.

There’s a danger in telling children the most important thing about sports is that you have fun and feel good about yourself. The danger is that they might believe it. Sports do not build character; they dramatically expose character and provide Christian parents and coaches with a valuable opportunity to develop Christian character. Our culture says, “Believe in and focus on yourself” and Jesus says, “deny yourself and follow me.” No one can do both. Our Christian lives demands courageous, self-sacrificial, Great Commission gospel warriors, and at its best, athletics provide Christian parents and coaches a limited but genuine theater for the examination and cultivation of Christ-honoring characteristics.

Children who are taught to simply focus on having fun and are rewarded for intentional underachievement are being cultivated in a worldview that is antithetical to self-sacrificial Christian discipleship. If youth sports participation simply becomes another vehicle to prop up the notion that our children’s desires and feelings are more important than the good of others (the team), we should not act surprised when they someday conclude that their desires and feelings are more important than the good of their family, church and everything else, too. Narcissistic laziness and self-protection are not fruits of the Spirit.

Griffin and I are in agreement that Christian parents should not focus on performance and success in youth sports. We also agree that a wonderful thing to tell your children is, “I love to watch you play.” But I would call Christian parents to say far more than Griffin advises. I suggest parents say, “I love to watch you compete because it gives us a window into your character that we can shape and form as we focus on Christ.” Paul’s admonition, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31) demands self-sacrificial focus and effort. Playing sports heartily, as for the Lord (Col. 3:23), will often be visible in sweat, bruises and occasionally blood.

One of my favorite stories related to the cultivation of Christian character in youth sports comes from a friend of mine whose son is a fantastic baseball player. His son’s team was playing a big tournament game. He was playing first base and made an uncharacteristic error that cost his team the lead. His son’s response was to drop his head and slump his shoulders in self-pity. When he was in the dugout during the rest of the game he sat on the bench and pouted.

My friend’s son ended up coming to the plate in the final inning with the bases loaded and his team down three runs. There were two outs and the game was on the line. His son hit a grand slam walk-off home run to win the game for his team. His coach awarded him the game ball to celebrate the victory. But his father was far more concerned with his son’s character than he was his son’s performance. He told his son that he would have to give the ball back to his coach and apologize to his coach and teammates for his self-centered attitude during the game. The father told his son he was not proud of his selfishness but that he hoped he would learn from this how to respond in a self-sacrificial and others-centered way that would honor Christ.

If the dad would have responded, “Did you have fun?” then his son would have certainly said, “Yes!” and learned that his “fun” was contingent upon playing for his own satisfaction. If the dad would have said, “I am proud of you,” then his response would encourage a self-centered, performance-based attitude. But, my friend proved that he loved his son enough to use sports to teach him about something much more important than sports. Likewise, my friend also proved that he loved to watch his son play, so he could learn the priority of self-sacrificial, others-centered effort.

Before the competition:

  • Enjoy the opportunity to compete.
  • Play in a self-sacrificial way that places your teammates and coaches ahead of yourself.
  • When you make a mistake, respond by cheering all the harder for your teammates.
  • When your teammates make a mistake, encourage them.
  • Honor the officials/umpires/judges by showing respect and thanking them after the game.
  • Cheer as hard if you are on the bench as you would if you were in the game.
  • I love you.

After the competition:

  • What did you learn about yourself?
  • Did you compete to the absolute best of your ability with no regrets about your effort?
  • In what ways did you self-sacrifice for your team?
  • How did you respond when you failed?
  • Were you others-centered?
  • Did you honor your coaches and the officials/umpires/judges? Did you thank them?
  • I love you.
  • I love to watch you play and to see what you are learning through competing about living for the glory of God in Christ.

This was originally published here.

religious liberty

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