As an athletic coach over the last 10+ years, I have had the opportunity to ask many different students, athletes, and teams a very important question: “Why are you here?” This question, depending on the context, has presented many different teachable moments for my student athletes. On the surface, we may produce responses such as, “To learn…To play soccer…Because we are required to be in school, etc.” Each of these responses may be correct in their own right, but it isn’t until we dig much deeper that we find the biblical truth hidden within this question. As referenced in the Westminster Shorter Catechism question one: What is the chief end of humankind? We find the response to our question of “Why are we here?” “To glorify God, and enjoy him forever.” Thus, approaching athletics from this perspective changes our goals dramatically.
When we sit back and reflect on the nature of sports in our secular society, we cannot help but think about all of the negative connotations that (all too often) come to light within the context of professional sports. However, when we examine sports within the context of itself, we can note that by themselves, sports are neither good nor bad. Merely, how we utilize athletics to teach biblical, social, or moral principles determines the impact on an individual’s life.
I believe that athletics, when utilized correctly, can provide young people great opportunities to learn lifelong lessons. These lessons include (but are not limited to) responsibility, work ethic, self-sacrifice, perseverance, cooperation, collaboration, how to win/lose appropriately, setting and working toward goals, how to handle and work through stress, how to manage time, how to work through difficult situations, how to trust others, how to respond when others (teammates) let you down, and respect (for the game, for teammates/coaches, for officials). As parents, we play an important role in the development of these important attributes through our approach to our child’s involvement. If we are approaching athletic opportunities from a growth mindset, with the focus on enjoyment from participation and the development of skills, our children will focus on the same. If we merely focus on the score, our children ultimately see their value only in the win or the loss.
This begs the question then as to how young our kids should be when they begin to be involved in athletics. Kids are wired to play. From the earliest ages, kids develop the desire to play with many different things: balls, tractors, babies, books, rocks, sticks, etc. Thus, the involvement in athletics is merely derived from this notion that play is natural. Thus, I believe that the appropriate age is not set in stone, but determined by what is best for each participant. There is not any research that supports those who push their children into athletics having any advantage down the road in regards to playing time or professional status.
The focus of participants at the earliest levels should be about fun derived from the participation, the relationships developed with teammates, and the development of individual and team skills. I believe that a child’s interest and desire to participate will help one gauge when might be the best time for them to start participating.
As students move throughout the ranks of school, there becomes increasing pressure to participate in many different activities. Are the expectations for Middle School and High School athletic participation too high? This is a fantastic question that can only be answered by the participants and families involved in each particular sports program. I have had the opportunity to serve in a school district that has experienced success in many different athletic and extra-curricular programs throughout the last 10 years. I don’t think that there is any special formula that makes or breaks each of this opportunities. However, I do believe that students find the demands of participation in various activities challenging. At times it may feel like a balancing act to keep track of everything and keep up with the demands. Overall, I do not believe that the demands of High School and Middle School athletics are too demanding if coaches keep the appropriate perspectives regarding their activities. If coaches lose sight of the real goals of athletics, the demands can become overwhelming quickly, because the end goal is all about the win. If coaches share the love of the game and value the athletes that are within their care, they can keep the demands low, create positive relationships, and teach life lessons through the game that they love.
Athletics provide a great avenue to teach young people the biblical values society so desperately needs. Our kids possess the natural desire to play, compete, and succeed. We must do all that we can to help them understand that the success of athletics is found more so in the lessons that are learned throughout the season than the final numbers in the win/loss column at the end of the year. As many of us read this and reflect back on our own athletic experiences, our teammates and the relationships that we created through our participation in the games is what truly brings the smile to our face. So “Why do our children play?” Let’s do our best to help them understand how to showcase their gifts and talents to glorify their Heavenly Father.
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Thanks for sharing these insights, Mike! Thanks for serving well and helping students and parents understand these fundamental ideas of how we can learn and grow to be disciples.