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What’s so dangerous about youth sports?

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Overplayed: A Parent’s Guide to the Sanity of the World of Youth Sports
David King and Margot Starbuck
Herald Press

Participating in sports offers many benefits to children and youth, but, on the flipside, there are dangers. Coaches and parents are witnessing more symptoms of ill health in youth sports culture: “overuse injuries, burnout, loss of childhood, misperceptions about the true benefit of sport, and damaged relationships.”

Authors of Overplayed: A Parent’s Guide to the Sanity of the World of Youth Sports, college athletics director David King and award-winning author Margot Starbuck, team up to reclaim youth sports from the problematic culture that has developed around it. They tackle seven myths about youth sports, critiquing ideas that have become unwritten law in our cultural practice of what makes both a good athlete and a good parent. King and Starbuck offer practical tips for parents to achieve healthy balance with their children’s athletic activities, family life, and values and faith.

As a former elite athlete, college level coach and now parent of youth athletes while a pastor to children and families, I found Overplayed to encourage sports experiences that positively shape young lives rather than hurt.

I agree with the authors, that our culture has lost the original vision of sports: to be used for healthy character development, to enhance educational experience, as a place to meet God, and to develop skills that can last a lifetime. Instead, youth sports, in its extreme, has been used to gain fame, fortune, and personal and community value. Our culture often elevates athletes to god-like status, basing the life and measure of a college/university, community and even family on the success of its young athletes.

Seeking identity in sport is a damaging thing.

As a pastor, I’ve counselled several athletes on their inability to disassociate God from being a dance judge or a score-keeper. Athletes who have found their identity in sport, rather than in their Creator, find sports to be a health drain, a financial drain, an addiction, a crutch or a replacement for family relationships. Far from being an act of worship to God, sports becomes a replacement for relationship with God.

Sports are meant to be life giving in the proper context of honouring the One who gives life. But once sport takes centre stage, it becomes an idol, which only steals, kills, and destroys. (John 10:10)

Overplayed points parents to think biblically about over-involvement in youth sports. Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 10:23 that everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial. Moderation is key.

“Parents who overvalue their children – which is revealed in parent’s beliefs that their child is more special than others or more deserving – contribute to increased rates of narcissism in children,” write King and Starbuck. When we as adults put children and their sports achievement first, we are modelling that the world revolves around them. Why are we then surprised that they struggle with selfish ambition or apathy toward externally focused mission sharing the love of Jesus Christ? Why are we then surprised when they grow up to become adults who put sports before God and fail to gather with other believers in a church family?

Showing our children unconditional love yet not that they rule our lives, allows children to learn personal responsibility. Children experience a greater security when they know that Jesus and the parents hold the family together, and not themselves and their pursuits.

In youth sports culture, children/youth and their activity schedules are often at the centre of family life, pushing church involvement to the edges, and even making God secondary. Parents think they owe their children every opportunity and therefore arrange the family calendar and household budget around this. The time and money a family spends is a strong indicator of what is priority. King and Starbuck encourage moderation even in attendance at games. “We can support our children and be involved in their lives without being omnipresent.”

Even how parents cheer at games communicates what is most important. King, an athletic director, writes, “I determined a long time ago that I would never say anything at my children’s games.…Shouting out encouragements, instructions, and cheers to kids who are competing can cause confusion about what the coach has instructed the player.” Even encouraging words convey that success is the most important outcome, he observes. “Listen carefully to what you are saying. …Find creative ways to let your young athlete know that, succeed or fail, you are for him or her.” King encourages that the two best words parents can say are, “have fun!”

I found Overplayed to be an excellent book that every parent of an athlete, coach or athletic director should read in order to be intentional in discipleship and good stewardships of time and money when it comes to sports.

According to the Word of God, to confess Jesus as Lord transforms values. Jesus warns that we cannot serve both God and wealth or worldly success. Preoccupation with self-indulgent living, and eagerness for personal fame and glory are not in keeping with the teachings of Scripture as understood in the MB Confession of Faith.

Again, like many things in life, sports are one way a person can honour God and live for him. But, when sports become the centre of a family’s life, sports have become god. When one falls to idolatry of any kind, intimacy with the Creator suffers, and life purpose and identity in him is completely lost.

How can parents be intentional? Overplayed provides several lists and tips. For example, children and parents asking the following questions is helpful: “What am I learning about myself, others, and God as I play sports?”

Lastly, one fantastic tip: The best comment to share with your child after a game is, “I like watching you play.”

—Merri Ellen Giesbrecht is a wife and mother of two, and serves as associate pastor primarily to children and families at Ross Road Community Church, Abbotsford, B.C. She enjoys playing fastball, soccer and volleyball and, most notably, backyard baseball, football, badminton, and driveway hockey with her husband and two active boys. She has also coached women’s athletics at the college level and has played competitive women’s fastball, a childhood dream of hers. She holds a BA in sports ministry from Briercrest Bible College and has served formally in Children and Youth Ministry in various roles since 1990.  


Read an excerpt from the bool:

Sports, kids and family values

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