Should Our Kids Play Sports?

Pastor Dillon Thornton

Youth sports have several benefits. Not only do sports get us moving, and thus help us steward our bodies well, but also they have the potential to help us develop positive character traits, such as discipline, teamwork, coachability, and humility. But in my years as a pastor and coach, I’ve encountered many families who have a problematic perception of sports. The two most common are the sports-are-worldly clan and the sports-are-my-world clan. One group sees sports and competition as something to be avoided entirely. The other group prioritizes sports too highly.   

Is Competition Anti-Christian? A Case for Intensity

Some parents shy away from competitive sports altogether because they struggle to understand how competition is compatible with their faith. Aren’t Christians called to a life of love and kindness? Aren’t we called to encourage everyone? Sure we are, but this doesn’t mean that I’m forbidden from trying to beat you in a game of basketball. Competition, rightly understood, is a good gift from God, because the goal is not to diminish our opponent, but to help him cultivate his abilities to the highest degree. The Christian competitor should picture his opponent, not as an enemy, but as a friend whom God has provided to help him develop his talents and cultivate God-magnifying excellence. God gave us the capacity to shoot hoops, throw curveballs, and run marathons. Or as I tell the weightlifters I coach, “God gave you traps so you’d have somewhere to rest the barbell for back squats.” When I try to run faster or squat more weight than you, I’m actually encouraging you in your efforts; I’m helping you exercise your God-given abilities to the max. 

Is Little Johnny the Next Steph Curry? A Warning about Ultimacy

Where some parents reject competitive sports altogether, other parents worship sports, and they pass on this idolatry to their children. Often times the catalyst for this idolatry is unrealistic expectations. Parents tend to revere whatever it is they think will take their children farthest in life, and most of us are convinced that our little Johnny is on his way to becoming the next Steph Curry. Probably not. The reality for the large majority of families is that sports will not carry children as far as the parents hope. Somewhere between 30-50 percent of parents believe their child is good enough to earn an athletic scholarship, but only 2 percent of high school athletes win scholarships at NCAA colleges or universities.For most young athletes, there is not a scholarship to be had, nor is there a career to be claimed on the field. Since 1947, only twenty-three players who participated in the Little League World Series have gone on to play in the major leagues. Every parent should consider an important question: Why am I registering my child for sports? If it’s to live vicariously through your child, hoping that your deferred dreams of athletic stardom will be realized in your children, then this will lead to all sorts of unhealthy practices. 

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Athletic proficiency is a mighty good servant, and like so many other good servants, a mighty bad master.” If we want sports to remain the servant, we must begin by examining our motives. If we’ve registered Sally for softball simply because we want her to stay active, make some new friends, and learn to listen to a coach and cooperate with a team, then that’s a great start. The next thing we need to do is establish some boundaries. I suggest two in particular: 

1. Limit your sports: First, I recommend limiting the number of sports your child plays. Pick a sport or two to play. If presently you’re a three-sport family and your children are struggling in school, you rarely have time for family conversations at the dinner table, and you hardly ever participate in worship, then drop a sport. It really is that simple. Drop a sport. 

2. Protect your Sundays: Second, protect your Sundays. My boys play sports, and I’ve coached youth sports, but we don’t play or coach on Sundays, because Sunday is the Lord’s Day. Sunday is for gathering with God’s people and opening God’s WordSunday is for worship, and we don’t worship sports; we worship Jesus. So on Sundays you won’t find us on the field or in the gym; you’ll find us in the sanctuary. If my sons are on some other coach’s team, and that coach requires Sunday practice or schedules Sunday games, then at the outset of the season we inform the coach that the Thornton boys won’t be able to participate on Sundays. If they get benched because they missed a practice, so be it. Even at a young age, it’s important for them to understand that living bravely for Christ in the world has consequences, and that we will gladly face them together.

Prioritizing physical activity without letting it evolve into idolatry is a constant battle. Parents, fight the good fight here. We want our children to worship God and play sports, not worship sports and play church.