Should We Encourage Children To Be Involved in Sports? Part 1

Most parents living in the Western hemisphere must eventually address the matter of their children’s involvement in athletics. This may seem a moot point for children who rank joining an athletic team only slightly higher than a visit to the orthodontist. Other parents are driven nearly insane by their children’s obsession with sports. But what seems to escape many parents is the reality that a child’s involvement in athletics is a weighty spiritual matter that demands skillful parental leadership.

Parents—and most particularly dads—need to actively steer their children’s involvement (or non-involvement) in athletics in such a way as to purposefully magnify the splendor of God. Parents who merely respond to what their children want to do (or not do) athletically are guilty of spiritual negligence. A child’s participation in sports constitutes a crucible in which a parent’s moral skill and loyalty to God are put to the test. We must proceed in the conscious fear of God or we will proceed as idolaters. As always, there is much at stake.

In an essay to follow, I address guidelines by which athletic participation may redound to the glory of God. In this article, I address only secondarily parents who enthusiastically support their children’s athletic interests. I speak more directly here to parents minded that athletics are a waste of precious resources and generally to be avoided. I address those who think the spiritual temptations and/or physical risks inherent in athletics render such involvement unjustifiable. I also address parents who simply respond to their children’s desires without consciously appreciating and strategically tapping the benefits of athletic involvement. To such readers I offer the following apologetic for children’s athletics.

Stewardship of the Body

One of the primary reasons to encourage a child’s athletic involvement is the realization that our bodies are a stewardship from God. God did not give us a body to do with it as we please. Our bodies are a sacred trust, deposited into our care for direct investment in the cause of Christ. Parents who rightly embrace this stewardship will recognize the need to steer their children to develop the discipline of routine and vigorous exercise. Such discipline constitutes an essential contribution to the health and strength of our bodies which are indispensable to the service of God.

The passion that should drive parents to encourage their children’s participation in sports is not their love for sports, but the prospect of their children serving Jesus Christ as adults. God can use any body he chooses and obviously ordains that some of his servants function through the ravages of disease and physical malady. Physical fitness provides no immunity against genetic malfunction. However, it is generally the case that the more physically fit one’s body, the more energetically and efficiently that person is able to serve God. Fewer sick days, fewer doctors’ visits, greater stamina, heightened alertness, better sleep, and delayed retirement combine to heighten an individual’s capacities for good.

Athletics serve as an invaluable tool by which parents may promote the physical health of their progeny. The stimulation of teamwork, coupled with the adrenal effects of competition, fairly beguile children to push their bodies harder than they would if left to their own devices. Once the discipline of bodily exercise is established, a treadmill in the basement may suffice. But how many ten year-olds relish several 30-minute treadmill sessions each week? Athletics provide ideal stimuli for children to learn the discipline of physical exercise.

I respect the objection that some children are not athletic. Yet I suspect this objection is more often raised than merited. The missing ingredient accounting for some children’s aversion to sports may be patient, parental guidance. Let it also be said that athletic involvement need not come through organized sports. A child may profit from participation in ballet, bicycle riding, recreational swimming, jogging, skiing, skateboarding—even motor-cross or hunting. In any event, a child’s aversion to competitive sports must not be permitted to justify a child’s aversion to exercise.

Life Lessons

A second primary benefit of athletics is the environments they create in which children may learn vital life lessons. Athletics help a child learn to function in a competitive world in which there are winners and losers. Sports place children in a setting in which they must learn to compete fairly against stiff opposition. Athletics teach a child that winning is never guaranteed and is usually hard-earned.

Team sports particularly teach a child to handle the disappointment of defeat and the frustration of working with self-centered people. It provides character-building discipline as a child responds to the realities of competition: sitting on the bench, being misjudged or mistreated by a coach or superior player, persevering through physical exhaustion and pain, having to perform despite cheating opponents and distracting fans, competing within the rules of the game despite imperfect referees who blow calls and occasionally display prejudice.

No genius is required to see the parallels between these common challenges in the sports world and life as an adult. One frequently discovers adults in this world who would certainly benefit from being sent back in time to join a sports team in order to compensate for deficiencies in their childhood training. Sports not only teach vital life lessons, they create the opportunity for children to learn those lessons in broad daylight, on a field of play, before their parent’s watchful eye. Such opportunity provides for a level of instructive dialogue between parent and child that is difficult to duplicate.

Educating the mind is of utmost importance in a child’s development, but theoretical learning does not offer much opportunity for life coaching, particularly for younger children. But when I sit on the sidelines and watch my kid get passed up by a selfish teammate, or get the raw end of a blown call, or suffer the heartbreak of failing to make the game-winning play, or suffer the disappointment of not getting into the game at all—ah, now we have real life stuff to talk about! I’ve just watched my kid strive on the field of competition. I’ve watched him fail. I’ve watched him live.

And when the game ends and his coach has finished with him, my child rides home with his other coach—the one who brought him into this world and is pointing him to the next. It is then that the real coaching starts. He may not know it. It’s usually just sports talk to him. But I know it is something much more. And some day when he is contending as an adult for the glory of God in a hostile world, I trust he will understand this as well. In my thinking, it is in the interest of that future day that he is playing sports now. And it is for that glorious day that I keep coaching as a dad.


Dan Miller has served as the Senior Pastor of Eden Baptist Church since 1989. He graduated from Pillsbury Baptist Bible College with a B.S. degree in 1984 and his graduate degrees include a M.A. in History from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and the M.Div. and Th.M. from Central Baptist Theological Seminary. He is nearing completion of D.Min. studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Dan is married to Beth and the Lord has blessed them with four children: Ethan, Levi, Reed and Whitney.
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There are 11 Comments

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I think parents miss out on so many opportunities to disciple their children in 'everyday' things like sports. We are more of a 'hobby' family than an athletic family, but there is no question that providing our children with a variety of ways they can be challenged and guiding them through those challenges is essential to their mental, emotional, and spiritual growth, not to mention their overall health.

Mike Harding's picture

Dan,

Thanks for taking up the subject. I have raised four children (3 girls and a boy). They were all heavily involved in church, music, academics, and some sports (not much time for TV and no time for video games). My three daughters all exercise faithfully and my son played in all the major sports. Currently, as a math major and music minor/Bible minor, he plays 3rd base for Clearwater. All the lessons you have mentioned he has experienced in our sports program at Bethany and College. There are dangers as you well know. I look forward to your forth coming articles.

Pastor Mike Harding

Ed Vasicek's picture

I don't buy the "stewardship of the body" stuff. Sports enthusiasts participate because they LIKE sports. Rarely do they do so out of conviction! They would be participating in sports even if they were lost. The whole "stewardship" stuff is just a justification or a spiritualization. But sports involvement does not NEED to be justified. We are free in Christ unless prohibited or restricted for some other reason.

I think sports is good for those who enjoy it because it teaches TEAM PLAY and the importance of PARTICIPATION in society. There are other avenues to attain this, but, particularly for the competitive, sports is one way.

My gripe is that athletic/sports-oriented types make little allowance for the non-competitive, non-athletic, and uncoordinated. For us, we exercise by walking or bike riding and socialize by playing cards or joining clubs.

Whatever keeps kids from sitting in front of the tube or video game and gets them out and with (decent) others is good. We have to get back to making our own fun. We just need to be careful not to be so narrow as to say our way of making fun is the only or best way. There is a lot to be said for inherited temperament.

"The Midrash Detective"

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I thought Bro. Miller's point was that sports is a way that kids can get needed exercise before they understand their need for exercise. Kinda' like watching educational DVDs or playing Scrabble- you have fun and learn at the same time.

While I'm an advocate of finding the pleasure in learning and working, sometimes I'm just a mean mama- my kids do calisthenics every morning while I run on the elliptical. http://www.freesmileys.org/smileys.php ][img ]http://www.freesmileys.org/smileys/smiley-char029.gif[/img ]

rogercarlson's picture

There are other avenues to learn teamwork. Yet, I have met pastors who were not involved in team sports and had no clue how to be a team player on a pastoral staff or in the church.

Not only do sports help physically, they can also be a great evangelistic opportunity. About 70% of our contacts for the gospel here have been from our involvment in community sports. People send their kids to our day camp b/c they know my family. I am not saying you have to bee involved in sports, but you need to interact with lost people. For us, sports, plays and things like that have allowed us to teach our children how to be evangelistic and how to Honor and Glorify God in tough and fun circumstances.

Roger Carlson, Pastor
Berean Baptist Church

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Found a post a few years ago that I agreed with much of...
http://hatrack.com/osc/reviews/everything/2007-07-29.shtml

Of course, the writer is a Mormon, so that proves we're both wrong. Smile

Actually, I've enjoyed soccer for as long as I can remember. And I think sports are great for some kids. For my part, I don't think I gained much from them that I didn't also get from singing in choirs and participating in fine arts competitions... and similar events. But my son, for example, is much more athletic than I ever was and non-sporting venues for learning these kinds of life lessons may not work well for him. Time will tell.

I appreciate the thoughtful look at the topic here. Part 2 posts tomorrow and rounds the subject out very nicely I think.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Ron Bean's picture

Having played, coached and officiated sports for many years, I have observed both the positive and negative aspects of Christians and sports.

The pleasure of "playing the game", developing skills and friendships, learning teamwork, and mutual encouragement are positives.

The negatives include the reactions of some to authority (i.e the referees or umpires) when that authority is perceived to be unjust (Romans 13 evidently doesn't apply to sports authorities).

Personally my favorite has been cross country running (not that I was any good at it) and what it did to develop character in my sons among others. For an example see

http://sharperiron.org/curious-fellowship-of-distance-athlete

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Matthew J's picture

We live in a culture that is heavily influenced by sports. I was required by my parents to try a variety of sports, and I am grateful for two things. First, they never let me give up no matter what. I hated little league baseball and to this day, I don't care for baseball, but they made me play (or rather sit on the bench) for the entire season. I tried wrestling and was not good, I won one match in two years, the very last match I wrestled. But I was not allowed to give up, but I still had the choice as to whether I would continue each year. Tenacity and sticking to a decision is not very high on our current culture's list of priorities, and I don't think when historians speak of my generation, endurance will be something mentioned-so I am thankful for those lessons.

The second reason I am so grateful I was involved in sports was that it now enables me to interact intelligently with a large portion of men in the church I now pastor. I have been able to show intelligence (at least I know the basic rules) in almost every American sport. That has presented a plethora of ice-breakers and ways to begin discipling other men.

I don't think sports is the only way to do that, but I want my boys to try sports, arts, hobbies, not for them to be able to sit on the couch and eat potato chips in their mid 30s while yelling at the quarterback on TV, but rather to learn that much of life can be used to build relationships with people and be able to socially interact with other men thus allowing for greater ministry opportunities. That means trying and involving themselves in boring sports like baseball so that they can host a world-series get-together and minister to others as adults.

Ron Bean's picture

If we're going to let our children participate in sports, why not introduce them to sports that they can enjoy throughout their lives? (Are you listening Christian school Athletic Directors?) Let them run, play tennis or golf. Let's face it, the majority of them are not going to be playing much baseball, basketball or football beyond high school.

And speaking of golf, there's a game that will reveal a person's character.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

rogercarlson's picture

Matthew, my first 2 yrs of wrestling i only one a few matches.....after that I was all state....you should have stuck to it..LOL... By the Way, good post!

Roger Carlson, Pastor
Berean Baptist Church

Kent McCune's picture

Pastor Miller's second point (life lessons) nails it as far as I'm concerned. I would have to say that nothing prepared me for the grind and stress of a demanding secular job like my time spent in athletics (especially college football). It also helped prepare me for child rearing and home leadership. I've done all the music and drama stuff there is to do (short of being a full-time professional) and they don't compare to playing a competitive sport (at a reasonably high level) in developing mental toughness, endurance, and resilience --- qualities sorely lacking in this day and age.

The physical activity and discipline of athletics is fine, but that can be developed any number of ways (as others have pointed out). But the grind of off-season and in-season preparation and the tough, marathon-like aspects of playing a full season with demanding coaches is nearly impossible to replicate in any other setting. Priceless character building in my estimation.

Kent McCune I Peter 4:11

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