When Sports Become God

“… and then we have a tournament Thanksgiving weekend. We expect everyone to be there.”

I turned to my wife. “Did he really just say ‘Thanksgiving Weekend’?”

My daughter Ashley played ‘select soccer’ for a few years. We had heard the commitment was a little crazy at times… but had no idea the extent. Every girl on the team had accepted soccer as Lord and Savior at 5 years old… except Ashley. So when it came to the first few tournaments where we were expected to miss a Sunday, we were met with a little resistance when we said, “We’ll bring Ashley after church.”

I’m glad that Ashley loves her church and was a huge advocate of not missing (she loves her youth group and doesn’t want to ever miss), because she received a little flak from her teammates at times. Once she showed up late on a Sunday, having come straight from church, and one of the girls jested, “How was churrrrrrrch?” (as sarcastic as one could possibly say it).

Ashley quickly retorted. “It was great. How was… (she made a sarcastic “yippee” gesture) …warming up for the game?”

I tried to not laugh audibly.

The commitment only grew as the team won more games and became more successful. The following year the coach added tournaments, numerous Sundays, including a few holiday weekends. This forced us to stop and think. My extended family has come together on Thanksgiving weekend for the last 20 years. Was this weekend history now? Not to mention our church’s Labor Day weekend campout, a time our kids always loved hanging out with other Christian kids from the church. (and isn’t that what we want our kids doing?) Labor Day weekend was on the cutting blocks as well with the new soccer schedule.

Our family had to come to a decision. Was this really the direction Ashley was heading? Does she really have a shot at becoming Christiano freaking Ronaldo, and even if she does, at what expense?

This year both of my girls are in sports. Ashley runs cross country (does that give you a clue what we did with soccer?), and Alyssa plays water polo. This week alone Alyssa has two games and a water polo tournament this weekend. Both the girls’ sports have had games and practices that interfere with church regularly.

Forget church for a moment and let’s just talk about our kids overall well-being. Pretty much every report we read says that teenagers need about 9 hours and 15 minutes of sleep per night. And most of you have heard me share research about the importance of eating 3 to 5 family dinners together per week—hard to do when water polo practice brings you home at 7:20 and games bring you home after that.

What are we to tell our kids? I know we need to teach them to keep their commitments. Perhaps we need to read the fine print before agreeing in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying sports are from the devil and you need to “choose this day who you will follow,” as if there is only one or the other. But maybe parents need to think ahead when it comes to signing up for sports and decide exactly how committed to a team or activity they are really ready to be.

Here are three lessons I learned that have helped me navigate sports and activities as a parent. These have helped me; you might find some benefit from these as well:

Keeping Sports in Balance:

1.    Lay out clear boundaries… and then keep your commitment.

What happened to the good ol’ days when soccer practice was just 60 to 90 minutes, right after school?

Alyssa’s water polo is anywhere from 2 to 5 hours on any given day. Last year (this is her second year), I remember her coming home at 8 at night, showering, grabbing a quick dinner, then starting her homework. On these nights, not only were we all robbed of our family dinner with Alyssa, but she often was doing homework until 11, and then getting less than 7 hours of sleep (over 2 hours short of what’s recommended).

Is this all okay in the name of sports?

Tonight, as I type this, Alyssa had decided on her own that she was going to leave practice early for church. Her coach told her, “No,” flat out. I sense a confrontation coming between the two of them… and frankly, I’m struggling with exactly what to advise Alyssa.

Here’s what I do know. As believers and followers of Christ, we need to keep our commitments. If we commit to a team, we need to truly commit to a team. This means finding out exactly what the commitment entails before making the commitment.

We did this Ashley’s last year of select soccer. We met with the coach beforehand and asked, “How many Sundays do the girls play?” “How many holiday weekends?” “When are practices—and will they interfere with youth group on Wednesday night?”

The coach laid out exactly what the commitment would entail and we agreed.

Interestingly enough, the coach tried to spring a few more tournaments on us during the year, one on a holiday weekend where we were going to be gone visiting family. We simply told the coach, “Sorry, we’re not available that weekend.”

Decide how far is too far, make your commitment, and keep your commitment. (Which is basically what I need to advise, with grace, to Alyssa.)

2.    It’s okay to say “Enough.”

Parents might consider asking themselves, “In 10 years, what’s really more important: that Michael was a really good baseball player, or that he grew closer to his family, his church and Jesus during his teenage years?”

If Michael can balance all of that… then more power to him.

If Michael can’t… then… well? Do I need to spell it out?

That’s too convicting. Let’s move on.

 3.    As you are running, swimming, tackling and scoring… make disciples.

Our kids have an opportunity to let the hope of Christ shine through their lives.

Today Ashley had a cross-country meet. She and the other freshman girls had a little huddle before their race where they pumped each other up. Then I heard Ashley ask, “Do you guys mind if I pray for our race?”

One of the other girls said, “Yeah, cool! We need it!” Another girl said, “Okay…what do we do?”

It was a really fun moment to be a fly on the wall.

Ashley said, “I’ll just pray.” Then she prayed for their race. I was so proud of her. (I clicked a little pic.)

I’m not saying that praying is always the magical thing to do. It really depends on the moment. Sometimes representing Christ is much more about having a good attitude and being an encourager. It’s a shame when the kid who misses practice for church is the same kid who is also gossiping, making fun of others and telling raunchy jokes. That’s what the media always portrays. Our kids have an opportunity to show what the love of Christ really looks like.

Times have really changed in the last few decades, especially in the United States. Sunday morning used to be reserved for church, now it’s for either sports or sleeping off Saturday night. America used to sing “How Great Thou Art,” now they sing, “How Great Thou Throws that Football!” (We really could make a whole modern sports worship CD, couldn’t we? I Could Sing of Your Dunk Forever, Shout to the Ref, Here I am to Handoff, Better is One Game…)

We need more Christian role models. We need more Tim Tebows.

When our kids participate in sports they have an awesome chance to represent Christ. As parents, let’s bring our kids up making Christ first… and sports somewhere down the list.

In 1981, the world flocked to movie theatres to see the true story of Eric Liddell, an amazing runner who refused to run on Sundays (he did a “Chick Fil-A”). Chariots of Fire won Best Picture that year. I leave you with Eric Liddell’s words:

“You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape – especially if you’ve got a bet on it. But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe you’re dinner’s burnt. Maybe you haven’t got a job. So who am I to say, “Believe, have faith,” in the face of life’s realities? I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way… If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.”  

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Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Guy's Guide to Four Battles Every Young Man Must Face; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources on TheSource4YM.com and TheSource4Parents.com. Jonathan and his wife Lori live in Northern California.