3 Rules To Combat Parental Sports Idolatry

Keiichi Hirano, left, a Japanese major league baseball player pitches to a local kid during a friendly game at a baseball clinic Jan. 24 on Camp Kinser. This was the first baseball clinic held on Camp Kinser. Approximately 50 Japanese and American children participated in the event. The clinic consisted of Hirano teaching fundamental skills and techniques followed by a game. The day ended with prizes, lunch and a cake for all who participated. Hirano is with the Orix Buffaloes. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Rebecca Elmy/Released)

I’m under no illusion that one of my kids is going to be a professional athlete someday. I look at these kiddos, these gifts from the Lord, and I see so many beautiful talents they’ve been given, but it would be the shock of my lifetime to see one of them standing on the gold medal stand, or playing in the NBA, or even competing internationally in ping-pong. Part of that is because of their natural athletic talent, but the bigger part of it is their interest.

They enjoy sports for the most part, but not like that. Not like the “I’m going to be on a travel team for 4 months out of the year and practice every afternoon” kind of way. It just doesn’t float their collective boat.

At the same time, we live in an area of the country that is very concerned about kids’ sports. Very. Let me give one example.

I was recently at a school event with my kids, sitting at cafeteria tables with a bunch of other dads and their kids, and the speaker at this event asked each dad to turn to the table and say one thing they were proud of their own children for. If there were 12 kids at the table, then 8 of the statements of pride revolved around some kind of sport. And I had 3 of the kids. That’s pretty symptomatic of suburbia as a whole (which is where we live). Three out of four families with school-aged children are engaged in some kind of sport. That’s roughly 45 million kids in this country.

Now this is where I can get really judgey, perched high atop my own principles with a very nice view down the end of my nose. So I must also say, in truth, that there was this piece of me, ashamedly, that wanted to talk in that moment about how tight my son’s spiral was, how many goals my daughter had scored, or how many free throws my other son can make consecutively. I get it. I like sports, and I like them a lot. And we have encouraged our children to play sports. But because of my own sinfulness, I very early saw my own tendency to idolize them in the life of my kids. For me, at least, it became necessary to put in place a system – some key metrics for defining success.

And these metrics should be the kind of things that are not so much tied to their performance as tied to the true benefit that can come from things like sports for kids. That’s not to say we don’t want our kids to win or that we tell our children that winning isn’t important. We want them to win, and we do think it’s important. But for me at least it was helpful to step back periodically and truly “define the win” for and with them. Doing so has helped, by God’s grace, keep us from parental sports idolatry. And hopefully, these lessons will transfer over into the realm of adulthood, long after these kids have put away their bats and hoops and helmets.

Here, then, are the 3 rules we have imposed on our kids for sports in particular, but also now extending to their other extra-curricular activities like the school musical, dance, and music lessons. I hope they’re helpful for you, too, regardless of whether your kids play sports or not:

Rule Number 1: Try hard.

Paul reminds us that whatever we are doing, even if it’s something as mundane as eating and drinking, that we can and should be doing that thing to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). One of the most practical ways we can do something, like sports, to the glory of God is to actually try hard. To give it everything we have. To leave it all on the field. What’s more, effort is not dependent on talent. The least talented kid can try as hard as the most talented kid, albeit with different results.

Practically, then, we would tell our kids that trying hard means never walking when they are on the field or the court. It means when it’s their turn to shoot or hit or run or whatever, they do that thing with all their might and leave the results to themselves. This rule of sports for our kids is actually personally convicting for me in a variety of different environments. As I seek to work and parent and be a church member and be a friend to the glory of God, I should be asking myself the same question. Am I truly trying to do this thing, right now, with all my might?

Rule Number 2: Pay attention.

This rule is about authority and focus. The earlier we can begin to realize that God puts authorities in our lives for our good, and because He sets up coaches just as He sets up presidents. As we honor those in authority, we are really honoring God who put them there: “Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). One of the ways, then, we honor our authorities are by paying attention to them.

But this rule goes beyond authorities; it’s also about being on a team. Paying attention means you know the names of the other people on the team, you know what’s happening during the game, and you can cheer, by name, for someone when they perform well. Conversely, you can encourage someone verbally, by name, when they haven’t. This rule of sports is also personally convicting for me because it reminds me not only of the call to respect those in authority over me, but also that one of the greatest gifts I can give to a single person at a single moment is the gift of my attention.

Rule Number 3: Have fun.

This is a genuine, for real rule. Sports should be fun. So should playing the piano, being in the play, or most any other extracurricular activity they are involved in. Joy is a good, good thing, not only for sports, but also for life. And ultimately, I think making “have fun” to be one of the rules by which we define the “win” at sports teaches, by God’s grace, our kids the discipline of not taking themselves too seriously.

I love a passage like Psalm 8, when David is gazing at the majesty of creation, and then turns his attention to his own smallness with what I imagine to be a chuckle. We are hilariously small creatures, and yet we live like the future of the cosmos is dependent on which burrito joint we go to for lunch on a given day.

It does not. And one of the ways we can remind ourselves not to take ourselves so dramatically seriously all the time is to simply have fun.

Try hard. Pay attention. Have fun. These are the rules for sports in our home (at least for right now). By God’s grace, may they keep us focused on building character instead of score sheets so that even though they might not grow up to play for the Braves, they will nonetheless have learned something about what it means to grow up.

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  • Laura says:

    Hi Michael!
    It sounds like you’ve read our playbook! We used to coach middle-school volleyball at our kids’ Christian school and our motto was “Do your best and have fun.” It was great to drill that into the kids, and we would ask after every match if they did those things. If the answer was yes, then we said that they had succeeded! This proved to be most important after losses or for individuals who maybe had a bad game. I thought you would also appreciate our scripture motto that appeared at the end of all our correspondence (emails, mostly) with parents, in large bold type: “Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” Eccles. 9:10a. We found it just as helpful to share our mottos with the parents too, to help teach them to keep it in perspective. Blessings on your ministry!

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