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Sports, kids and family values

Will youth sports reinforce your family’s ideals?

By David King and Margot Starbuck

We love sports. We love our kids and other people’s kids. We love God. We’ve also got lots of questions about the direction and demands of the youth sports movement today, and we know lots of parents are asking the same questions. We’re convinced that sports provide some of the richest experiences in which we can learn about ourselves, other people and God and what happens when those three intersect. Sports themselves are neither good nor bad. It is up to us to decide whether we’ll use sports or be used by them.

Though sports have great potential to help your child grow further into the image of God and into mature, compassionate adults, inherent in today’s youth sports culture is also the likelihood that—unexamined—your child’s experience of sports might ingrain values to which you do not ascribe.


Loss of community bonds

While strong relationships can be built on travel and elite teams, the setting doesn’t afford the same kinds of opportunities to develop and deepen friendships as sharing life “on the ground” might. Members of school teams share the whole day together. They experience the same lunch menu, school assemblies and daily practices. Members of travel teams typically get together for one or two practices and then spend the weekend at a tournament. The focus of travel team ball in the older childhood years shifts to the exposure of players to college coaches. Too often the special bonds of friendship that have developed in neighborhoods and churches, through years of going to school and playing together are dropped for the individualism of the team culture.


Detachment from faith community

Competitive youth sports are pulling families away from their houses of worship. As a college athletic director, I (Dave) have seen parents who have driven their children from tournament to tournament, weekend after weekend, year after year, become distraught when their child goes to college and leaves the faith behind. Yet for years the parents have been communicating to the child that their faith community, communal worship and church life aren’t important. Parents rarely intend to communicate that and following Christ might be very important to the parents themselves. Regardless, they have sent a clear message to their children that their faith community is not more important than their athletic schedule.

We don’t want to reduce the conversation about youth sports and faith to a formulaic question of whether a child misses church to play a game. That’s very simplistic, and it doesn’t help families. Too often we make the conversation about youth sports and church into a value judgment between a particular practice or game and a church event. Faith formation in our children happens all the time—yes, it happens on Sunday morning and Wednesday night, but also on Monday afternoon and Thursday evening and Saturday morning. Arguing about church attendance can cause us to miss the point. It is the cumulative effect and decisions about sports and church involvements that communicate to children what we value and what we hope they will value.

 Sit down with a practice and game schedule the day the coach sends it home. Let the coach know right away which games or practices your child will miss because of the commitments—to church, to family, to others—that you already hold. This is a conversation that has to include your child. There may be reasons that your family decides to forfeit an occasional Sunday worship or Wednesday church supper to accommodate your child’s athletic schedule. But if you never loop your children in on your processing or the logic you’ve used to make your choices, they could understandably assume that whatever you’ve opted against has less value than what you’ve opted for.


Endorsement of the macho ideal

Too often sports promote a macho ideal, which scorns any show of weakness or emotion. The “suck it up” culture of sports forces children, especially boys, to “armor up” emotionally to survive on the diamond, the gridiron, the court or the field. One emotion is allowed: anger. This explosive, aggressive emotion is the single emotion tolerated in sports.

Parents know that showing sadness or fear is actually a sign of being human. We’re also aware that our kids will inevitably deal with coaches, officials, players and players’ parents who will say things like, “Get your game face on and get back in the game!” The machismo of the sports culture may not align with your family’s values, and it may require parents to be intentional about creating space for healthy emotional development.


Demonstration of poor behavior

Even as our children approach adolescence and turn their gaze toward peers for the esteem and approval they once sought from us, parents remain the most significant influence in children’s lives. Some of the values we want them to live into we communicate verbally. Other values they pick up from observation. They see the kinds of people we spend time with. They notice the ways we spend our money. They watch the way we use our free time, whether we serve ourselves or serve the needs of others.

And even when they’re on the field, the diamond, the gridiron, the ice, the mats or the bench, they watch and listen to the ways we behave at athletic competitions. Specifically, they notice the ways we behave toward players, coaches and officials. When parents blast the refs from the sidelines, they communicate that it’s acceptable to be arrogant, rude and disrespectful. On the other hand, parents who behave graciously toward officials, coaches and players equip children with the kind of attitudes—humility, compassion, kindness and understanding—that will serve them throughout the rest of their lives. 


Loss of quality family time

What do we as parents communicate to our children when we designate youth sports activities—the entire family driving three hours to sit through three soccer games, for example—as “family time.” If we’re honest, it’s “sit in a van and sit on bleachers to watch one person perform” time. This isn’t family time. It’s four people watching one person perform. That’s not true family time.

We encourage families to take seasonal breaks from their child’s sports. Skip some games and practices and say to your son or daughter, “Hey, we’re going to take a break this winter. Instead of going to the indoor training facility on Tuesday nights, we’re going to invite another family over for dinner, and we’re going to play games.” Or, “We’re going to go to the soup kitchen and serve there for a couple of weeks.” Now those give you true family time.

Christian families can be more intentional about the time they do give to youth sports. 

If the goal is to reach out to other children and families, why do so many of us all hop in our minivans and drive the three hours to the sports alone? If sports take you and your kids out of town on weekends, consider seizing opportunities to love and serve families right where you are. Offer to take a player under your wing for the weekend so his family can stay home and support other kids. Reach out to a team family who’s hurting by taking them meals or providing childcare. Serve a family in economic crisis by secretly slipping the coach a check for their child’s gear. Invite another family to attend a church potluck in the off-season. 


Homogeneous environments and economic disparity

Hunter’s rec league coach believes that Hunter, a senior in high school, is a more gifted player than 90 percent of the boys who made the high school basketball team. The high school coaches, though, already knew the other players from Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) teams. They didn’t know Hunter because his family couldn’t afford to have him play on elite teams.

Hunter’s experience isn’t atypical for children whose families have limited economic means. In fact, research shows that children in families making less than $35,000 per year begin organized sports two years later than children in families making more than $100,000 per year.

We don’t believe that families who sign their children up for youth sports intend to self-select a fairly homogeneous environment for their children. But for families who value diversity, who believe that all children deserve opportunities for growth, this disparity becomes one more place where sports may not truly reflect a family’s values. 


Important values youth sports do reinforce

If we agree that parents can’t assume that the values they hold will be reinforced in youth sports, we might also agree that there are important values that youth sports can develop in children.

Self-awareness: When children compare themselves to other players—discovering their role on the team, identifying their strengths and weakness, learning whether they’re a big fish in the pond or a small fish—they gain self-awareness. They begin to notice who they are in relation to others and how they can help others shine or hinder them. They learn to recognize areas where they need to grow and develop. Through sports, children can begin to feel comfortable in their own skin.

Socialization: Something great happens when children learn how to play with other children. It happens in backyards and on playgrounds, and it can also happen in organized sports. Kids benefit from the opportunity to relate to a variety of personalities as they develop their own. They also have a unique opportunity to discover how to be themselves within the construct of a group. Sports can connect them with a diverse spectrum of people. Sports provide rich opportunities for kids and families to embrace relationship with others.

Commitment: In sports, children learn that practicing is how they’ll improve. They discover what it takes to reach a goal. They discover not only what they have to do to become better players themselves but also what they need to do to help the team reach its goal. Sports can develop the deep value of commitment as children learn to sacrifice self for others.

Character: On the field, on the court, in the gym, on the ice—there are countless opportunities for your child to make small decisions that will build or diminish his or her character. Too often we forget, or maybe never even realize, that that’s why we play the games. It really isn’t about the score, satisfying adult egos, determining which town is “better” or impressing any college coaches who come to watch. The reason we play is to provide everyone—players, coaches and spectators—with opportunities to learn about themselves, others and God.

Whether we’re athletes who’ve just gotten a bad call, the coach who helps the player recover from it or fans in the stands tempted to yell at the ref because we care about the player who just got the bad call, sports give all of us this unique opportunity to live out the values we claim to possess.

David King, director of athletics at Eastern Mennonite University, has taught and coached at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Margot Starbuck is the award-winning author of six books and is a widely sought-after speaker and columnist with Today’s Christian Woman. This article is reprinted from Overplayed: A Parent’s Guide to Sanity in the World of Youth Sports. ©2016 by Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Va. Used with permission.


Dinnertime conversation starters

Use these scenarios to start conversations with your kids. In each case, discuss what the scenario might look like for your child’s sport. Recall a real-life situation when this happened to your child, a friend, a teammate or an opponent. For each question ask, “How have your responded? How might you respond?”

1. The official in charge of your athletic competition makes a bad call or decision.

2. You notice a teammate cheating in a competition.

3. One of your coaches is behaving badly.

4. You are worried that the parent of one of your teammates is behaving in a harmful manner toward your teammate.

5. You and one other athlete are competing for the same opportunity.—King and Starbuck



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