Remember, it’s only a game.
That’s an important prompt in youth athletics — not just for the kids, but even more so for coaches bent on winning and parents pressing to live vicariously through their children.
Against the backdrop of our societal obsession with sports is the craziness that has become youth athletics. Once it was just a game; the goal was a good time. Now it can feel like life or death. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for kids to play simply for enjoyment, rather than feel dominated by the desire to “make it big” or appease their overzealous supporters.
“Kids can’t just play anymore,” laments Ed Uszynski, “they have to excel.” Uszynski senses the pressure, not only as a parent, but as an observer of sports in American culture. He has been on staff with Athletes in Action for more than 20 years and has a doctorate in American Cultural Studies. He also is an elder in a local church and is the father of four little athletes. For Uszinski, youth sports isn’t just an exercise in his vocation, but in his Christian parenting and worldview formation.
Sports, he says, have come to have as much a grip on our cultural imagination as any other pursuit. The pressure is more intense than it’s ever been. Parents and coaches take what they see on television from professionals and Olympians and bring it onto the field of play for 10-year-olds. Losing has become the great American sin, and like never before, our identities are getting wrapped up in winning and excelling.
Things are so out of proportion that some Christians choose to keep their kids out of youth athletics altogether.
When Jesus Takes the Field
But for others, the opportunities outweigh the perils. Not only can Christian coaches and parents serve as significant agents of redemption in the youth-sports confusion, but the field of play can be a formidable medium for bringing up our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Yes, it’s just a game — and so much more.
“Sports provides a venue to work on what it means to be human and whole,” says Uszynski. They can be greenhouses for personal growth and life lessons, socialization and self-control, setting goals and working with a team. And perhaps no opportunity is greater learning to deal with failure.
Failure Is Never Final
And when it comes to failure, the gospel gives us something unique to say. For the Christian, our failures are never final. Whether it’s a fumble, a strikeout, or a triple bogey, our children’s missteps are chances for them to learn what it means to bring Jesus into every moment of life. The playing field then becomes a testing ground for what we truly believe about God, ourselves, and our world, and how our kids are learning what it looks like to turn to Jesus in their frustrations and failures.
God means to take every aspect of our lives and work it for our everlasting good in Christ. Athletics are ripe for teaching that lesson in the ups and downs.
Parenting Through Athletics
Christians, of all people, should be able to say, most of all, that the scoreboard and the stat sheet don’t define who we are. The careful and thoughtful engagement of believing parents is the key. It means thinking critically about how much of our lives get devoted to sports, and engaging emotionally in conversation with our kids before and after practices and games.
In this new episode of Theology Refresh, we discuss youth athletics with Ed Uszynski. Whether you’re a parent, grandparent, or future parent — or a pastor or Christian leader charged with caring for parents who have children in athletics — we think you’ll benefit from Uszynski’s articulation of the problems and possibilities, including the two perceptive questions he asks his kids after every practice and game.
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