Spring Sports and Sunday Church
Five Suggestions for Parents
Her father-in-law played professional ice hockey for the Canadian National Team. Her three sons are all accomplished athletes, two in hockey and one in volleyball. One of her sons, Matt, is a former NHL hockey player. Mary’s husband, Brent, is a bi-vocational pastor and serves as an Athletes in Action chaplain for pro football and soccer teams in Canada. He also works as director of a physical therapy sports medicine rehab center. With so many sports connections, Mary says, “We have professional athletes through our home all the time.”
With decades of experience, Mary is conversant with the amateur athletic world (as well as the professional), so I value her wisdom in helping parents navigate the high-pressure, specialized world of youth sports. In anticipation of the upcoming spring and summer seasons, I asked Mary Kassian questions about the costs of team sports, the value of travel teams, and the tensions that come along with sports and church attendance.
The first area of caution she offers is a check on parental drive. Are the athletic aspirations driven by the child? Or are they driven by mom and dad? She’s concerned about kids who carry the vicarious ambitions of parents who take amateur sports too far, too fast.
“I fear we push our children to be far too busy, and to specialize far too early, and to commit far too much time. And it can be parent-driven, rather than driven by a parent discerning a child’s natural bent and inclination and abilities.”
Before long, kids grow weary of the over-specialized sport.
“I’ve seen 13- and 14-year-old boys burned out by a sport, and sick of it. Or they feel that they need to excel at it in order to please their parents, and their parents have communicated that their worth and value are wrapped up in how well they do at a particular sport. They get to high school and they’ve already had so much of it, they don’t enjoy it anymore.”
But obviously a lot of sports are driven by the aspiration of the child, which raises questions about the cost of the sport on the family.
Weighing the Costs
As sports specialize and demand year-round practices or training, the costs add up quickly. The price tag is a huge consideration, an expense some families attempt to justify because of potential college scholarships. “Given all these team costs — training, registration, travel, hotels, equipment — the amount of money that you pour into sports to get to the level where you’re going to get a scholarship, you could have probably paid for a lot of college tuition by the time your child turns sixteen,” she says honestly. And that’s no exaggeration, especially compared to the small sliver of high school athletes who land major-college scholarships.
But the cost is not only a drain on the budget; it’s also a glut to the schedule. Serious amateur athletics come with intense practice schedules, training, and weekend competitions at distant places of various range. Travel sports is not just a question about Sundays (more on Sundays below); it also may cost a family its summer vacation time together and needed downtime. Summer-sports travel is hardly relaxing, especially when you add in the adrenaline — the wins and thrills, the losses and disappointments. A full schedule of sports tournaments can be a taxing abuse of the summer months.
Parents must weigh whether a summer without all these demands on their kids is better for everyone. “Whenever you say ‘yes’ to sports, you must say ‘no’ to other options,” she says. Sports commitments always come with a price. “Often that means saying ‘no’ to giving your child the time and space to simply run around in a field till their feet turn green, or time to kick back and enjoy a childhood that’s not regimented and scheduled.”
Team Travel on Mission
But good reasons remain to take up spring and summer athletics. Travel teams provide missional opportunities for us to enter the lives of other families and athletes in ways often not otherwise possible. Sitting in the stands with the same families offers new opportunities. “Everything we do is missional, or ought to be,” Mary says. “So when we’re sitting in the stands with parents, or doing team fundraisers, and the weekend travel — in all of this, you invest a concentrated amount of time with people in a way that you will not spend time with people again in your life.”
Even without mentioning the potential of Christian athletic coaches, simply being the parent of a child on a travel team can push us into the lives of people we otherwise would not know. Travel sports can “take our families out of the Christian bubble, into the real world, and into people’s lives, and into the broken places of what those people’s lives are really like,” she says. “You need to take that into account when you’re making your decisions, because it definitely is an amazing, concentrated season for sharing the gospel, for displaying your faith, and for just being present and ministering to people where they’re at in terms of their needs. I still have friends from those sports years — hockey-mom friends and volleyball-mom friends. We spent so much time together in the stands, that we’ve remained friends over the years.”
Christian Life on Display
Sports can be a place to share life together with others. To be real. With the pressures of travel sports, sports tournaments compress life and raise the stakes for kids — and for parents.
“All the emotions in your own heart come out when you’re watching your own son or daughter treated unfairly. These pressures really bring out what’s on the inside of the heart. I’ve seen Christian parents — and I’ve been the Christian parent that’s fumbled the opportunity at times — getting so caught up in the game, and wanting your child to excel, and to do well, that you lose sight of greater, bigger, more important things.”
“You don’t have to be a ‘perfect Christian,’” Mary reiterates in these moments. “These are great opportunities to show what you do when you mess up. It provides opportunities to confess to the other parents and to say: ‘You know, it was wrong for me to lose it like that at the ref, and I’m really sorry. And I ask your forgiveness, because I’m sure it was offensive to you as well.’ These are gospel opportunities to be a real Christian who admits their sins and to be transparent in a way that many families would never otherwise see.”
Five Ways to Navigate Sundays
With the potential of amateur sports, we come back to the question of weekend games and travel sports. How do you balance the demands of travel sports with the priority of the weekly gathering of the local church?
For the Kassians, the question was amplified with Brent serving as a pastor every Sunday. They had to get creative and think about youth athletics in ways that could balance the unresolvable tensions.
1. Consider a rec league with fewer demands.
Mary says that parents can step back and consider whether playing recreational league sports is better than higher level sports, which require more travel. “Our son Matt got to the NHL in a way that was really unusual. Because Brent was pastoring at the time, it wasn’t until our oldest son started driving that we could consider higher-level leagues that required significant travel. Our son never attended summer hockey camps. He never went to the developmental programs. Yet he had a lot of natural athletic ability that he developed by playing lots of different sports — baseball, basketball, and football.” All locally.
2. Weigh the specific costs with each team.
Parents should go into any sport or team with an up-front knowledge of the cost in terms of practice time and travel. Mary stresses this point. “Even when you’re in grade school, some of the commitment levels that are required are astronomical. Never commit to a team blindly. Ask, Is this team commitment going to cost us five Sundays at church? Eight Sundays? Twelve Sundays?” Be realistic up front.
3. Embrace the consequences of missing practices or games.
Consider absorbing the consequences of missing sports on Sunday. Even the recreational league featured Sunday practices, and this posed a problem. “Because it was a rec level, we felt free to tell the coach that we were going to miss some Sundays,” Mary says. “There were times when we went to church and missed hockey practice, and that meant that our son was sitting out the next game.” The consequences were worth it.
4. Find creative ways to prioritize church attendance.
You may have some flexibility with church. For those who are not pastors, “If you have a Sunday morning game, see if you can attend church on Saturday night. And maybe you go to church on Saturday night in another city as you travel. Or, if a game is at noon, there may be time to go to church first.”
5. Draw your child into the conversation.
Maybe most importantly, before you make any decision about Sunday morning sports, and before missing church because of travel, bring your child into the tensions.
“Your child will sense what is most important to you. So I think it’s really valuable for a child to watch his or her parents wrestle with keeping Jesus at the forefront, making the planets of our lives revolve around the sun of Christ at the center. Let them know that whatever we decide in the end, they should see a parent wrestle with the tension, asking, ‘You know what, this team is a really great opportunity, but missing church is hard, and we must pray about the costs and the opportunities.’”
There’s a teaching moment here for our kids, educating them on the family’s greatest priority. “The bottom line about these hard church questions,” Mary says, “is that we don’t have pat answers or easy formulas. I think you can have a professional athlete, who must play on Sundays, who upholds Christ as supreme. It can be done.” Yes, and when appropriate, we can work that logic back into youth athletics, too.
In this conversation, there’s no doubt that amateur athletics have claimed a central place in the pantheon of our culture’s false gods, and youth athletics is a further subset of the idolization of children. A Sunday morning drive past any youth sports fields will show just how far-reaching these idols have become in our culture.
“Athletics is such a competing god,” Mary says soberly. “I think that it’s so critical that the parents are always checking their own hearts. I needed to check my heart through our process. Where are you drawing your identity? Where are you drawing your sense of meaning? What is in your heart? If this were to end tomorrow, what would be left in terms of your sense of wholeness, and well-being, and who you are? Are you drawing that from the Lord? Is hockey a bigger delight for me than God is? I asked my son to wrestle with that question on an ongoing basis, too.”
For Christian parents, the questions over teams and leagues and travel opportunities require a lot of humble wisdom and prayer — exposing our motives, evaluating the missional potential, and reaffirming the family’s love for the local church. Given our culture’s love of amateur athletics, and the increasing specialization of these sports, these questions will only become more complex for us and for our kids, requiring greater wisdom — which is what our Father is eager to give us when we come to him in faith (James 1:5–6).