NEWS FLASH! Your son is not going to play Major League baseball. And, your daughter is not going to be on the Olympic team in volleyball or soccer either.
So, why in the world, and for what possible eternal reason are you sacrificing a vital aspect of their spiritual development in the formative years of their lives in the hopes they will become a sports superstar? What is the best result that can come from that choice? And what is the worst?
Now, come back from the ledge and let’s talk about this.
If you know me, you know I played a lot of ball in my day and went to college on a baseball scholarship. I have coached baseball for many years since my playing days, and love the positives that playing a sport can bring to a young person. But this thing has taken on a whole new form that I believe is harmful to many of our kids. I’ve seen it over and over in the places I’ve served.
Our churches are full of people like you or someone you know, who have children that are playing sports year round. And in the off season of their local league sports, they play on travel teams – some around the country – to play their sports. Many of these are families of faith, like yours, who are making this decision in full conviction that the passing on of their spiritual legacy is not affected at all by this choice. After all, you read the Bible and pray together in the hotels – sometimes you even go to a chapel service at the tournament location or a local church, if the tournament bracket schedule allows. Sure, your kids never do the church camps or go on a student ministry mission trip, and they miss most Sundays during the travel season, but isn’t there more to Christianity than that?
And, you argue, some sons and daughters do play pro sports and find Olympic glory. Why couldn’t it be yours?
My fear for you is this – your kids will gain far less from this experience than you could have ever imagined, and it will cost them far more in their spiritual and personal development than you could have ever feared. Many aspects of Christian maturity are only learned in community with other believers. They are not going to get everything from you – they have to have other people speaking into their spiritual development. And there are no “do-overs” in parenting. You get one shot.
The truth is, if they are gifted and passionate about spending their energy to develop a skill in a sport, they will do that with or without a total focus on it when they are 13 years old. And if they don’t give their lives over to being great in one sport, they might find other interests they can develop as well…that can be part of their lives long after their athletic careers are over.
In sports it’s called “cross-training.” It’s when an athlete trains by doing activities outside of the particular sport they compete in. And I believe that as young people develop, they need “life training” – lots of varied experiences and interests that help them explore where their passions are and how they might spend their lives as adults.
But all too often, parents choose a sport for their child when they 8 or 9 years old and seemingly sacrifice everything else for that child to succeed in that sport. What happens when it’s over?
When my daughter was in high school, we traveled a little ways down this road. Her volleyball coach in high school gave special attention to the girls that played travel ball in the off-season. So, like many families, we made the choice after her sophomore year to join a travel league in the off-season in hopes it would bolster her high school career.
It’s a crazy life these travel ball families live. The low point for me was when she was playing in a tournament in Atlanta – all of our family was there – and we were watching game after game – on Easter Sunday – I knew that day we had fallen victim to the religion of travel ball.
I have a high school friend who is a sad case study in this subject. He was a wonderful athlete in high school and even competed on the college level. But being great at his sport was all his life was about. Now in his early 50s, he sits and reminisces about his athletic accomplishments of long ago. His life has been marked by a failed marriage and a strained relationship with his kids. But he has never found real purpose beyond his college playing days. So sad, indeed.
Here’s another news flash – if your son or daughter has unique athletic gifts and are passionate about playing a sport, they will become great at it without travel ball. And perhaps, being involved in the student activities of church or in some family mission journey could help them become passionate about something that will matter beyond their 18th birthday.
So, how about this – what if – instead of spending the energies of your family to build a “super-kid” in some sport or skill, why not let them have a normal experience of playing different sports and spend those extra resources of money and time investing in their spiritual and personal development? Why not pour your family effort into service and missions at your church and beyond?
It’s time for parents that are serious about discipling their kids to stand up to the travel coaches that dominate the growing up years of their children. It’s time to realize that kids don’t have to be great at something – all they have to do is be.
God has already made them great.
Director, LifeWay Worship