Sunday – the New Saturday: Club Sports, Scholarships, and Spiritual Priorities

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Sunday – the New Saturday: Club Sports, Scholarships, and Spiritual Priorities

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of Sundays getting ready for church in a hotel. When you’re called to be a circuit rider preacher, it simply goes with the territory. This has put me in a position to observe a phenomenon that was picking up momentum in the early 1990’s but has reached critical mass in recent years. I’m talking about the thousands upon thousands of kids (and usually at least one of their parents a piece) who check into hotels around the country on Friday night in order to play tournaments or compete in competitions through Sunday afternoon. It used to be that youth sports, dance, cheer and pageants were the focus of Saturday. Regardless of whether you were a religious family, Sunday was a day of rest – for the kids, for the coaches and for the parents. But with the emphasis on high achievement and nuclear competition, Sunday has become the new Saturday. To be fair, club sports are simply taking advantage of a shift in the way Sunday has been being viewed for many decades. Our parents’ generation was the last one that had the luxury of raising kids in a society that still recognized a day of rest. The toothpaste is out of the tube and there’s no putting it back. Everything in our culture is telling us that Sunday is another Saturday. When Sunday rolls around, you, as a parent, might be thinking about church, but most of the country is thinking about MLB, PGA, or NFL. There are a lot of conscientious parents of faith who are making the choice to put their sons or daughters in programs that have co-opted Sunday as part of their requirement for participation. Club sports is just the latest. But, because of its broad popularity, it’s the one that claims most of the kids participating in all-day Sunday commitments. The standard reasons given for choosing this path sound legitimate:

  • Kids in these exclusive sports entities are assumed to perform better overall than kids confined to the more limited season sponsored by a school or municipality.
  • Tougher competition is assumed to automatically make any athlete better.
  • With all of their academic demands and practice requirements, this extra day of competition is a foregone conclusion.
  • If my kid wants to be involved in second tier sports in college, club and tournament play through their youth is pretty much assumed to be a non-negotiable (especially in golf and soccer).
  • The only way my son or daughter has a chance of winning a college scholarship is to be on one of these teams that travel and participate in numerous tournaments. If they don’t do this, the college coaches won’t give them the time of day.

Although there may be some real “success fantasy” thinking and “follow-the-money” (ftm) priorities behind a lot of these reasons listed above, the reality is that some kids are made for these kinds of programs. As a lover of sports and a lover of youth sports, I can see how there is some legitimate upside to these kinds of endeavors. It’s understandable how some kids would really benefit from this experience. I can also see how this could be a lot of fun for parents and their kids. But let’s also be honest with ourselves about some of the very real dynamics that are working within the bigger youth sports picture. The primary reason a lot of these options are even available to families today is because middle/upper class economics can afford the added costs of paid coaches, travel, hotels, and equipment (ftm). It’s in the best interest of this burgeoning industry to convince parents that their kids don’t stand a chance if they don’t participate (ftm). It’s a natural accommodation of highly competitive parents to want to extend their children’s success resume through these physical outlets (ftm). And the thought of a child winning a free ride to some D-1 university is pretty enticing (ftm). With all of the genuinely good reasons for doing competitive sports, we must honestly acknowledge its underbelly too. If we don’t, we could make some choices that in the long run leave us (and our kids) with a lot of regrets. And then how about the stark realities that also accompany this phenomenon:

  • A large percentage of the kids who participate during their younger years in these demanding sports programs drop out because of burnout once they reach the age where participation in the sport is actually starting to get interesting. This is often to the great disappointment of at least one of their parents.
  • It’s simple math to understand why over-use injuries in children and young people have been on the constant rise over the last few decades.
  • The hours they commit to sports and the hours needed to stay on top of their academic demands leave little time for much of anything else (like siblings, family events, friends, hobbies, and church).
  • Because one or both parents have to be gone from home lots of the time, these travel teams can fracture families. The child/children that aren’t participating on the team get brought along by default or left at home with one or both of their parents absent. If they are forced to accompany them, this could have a negative effect if they feel it’s robbing them of their own interests.
  • It’s not unusual for the non-participating child to feel either left out, up-staged or even less favored by a parent than the one who is participating. Certainly a parent wouldn’t ever want these feelings to well up in their other children, but who’s kidding who … it’s just the nature of the beast.
  • The focus of a child’s youth on a possessive interest makes it easy to raise one-dimensional kids that are extremely good at one thing. But what parent in their right mind would want to raise a one-dimensional kid? Unfortunately, variety of interests and broad exposure to a lot of different types of life-teaching scenarios are harder for kids to acquire when they are so singularly focused throughout their youth.
  • Many club sports now require year-round commitments.
  • The overwhelming goal to win creates a lot of toxic dynamics between teams, team members, parents and coaches. You have to be living under a rock not to have heard the growing number of tragic and pathetic stories about relationships ripped to shreds over starting positions, playing time, and who’s got stats.
  • Winning coaches are often given bye’s by parents when it comes to the kind of language and attitude they use to motivate kids (even kids under 10 years old). What used to be inexcusable is now often accommodated if the coach can deliver a championship trophy.
  • In actuality, [this is a VERY IMPORTANT POINT] extremely small numbers of kids in club sports EVER get a smell of a scholarship—especially to Division 1 schools. And for the few that do, only a small percentage of those scholarships are full rides. In sports like soccer, the scholarships often don’t start until their junior year (even though the student is expected to play from his/her freshman year on).[1]
  • If the child does earn a full ride scholarship, they now have two full time jobs waiting for them when they get to college. This can be especially frustrating to kids who may have given up a normal childhood to earn this scholarship and now see their parents pay the college tuition payments for their arts-and-croissant-focused sibling who didn’t have athletic skills (or interests). There’s nothing free for the kid who has to work their buns off on the playing field to keep going to college.
  • And whether or not a child gets a scholarship, [this is ALSO a VERY IMPORTANT POINT] the bottom line is that the parents have already paid for a pretty nice college education before their child ever gets to college. Competitive/travel teams are expensive (which eliminates the opportunity for most kids from low-income families). For the rare kids who actually get scholarships, it still usually nets out to be a financial loss for the parents when it comes to what they save in tuition compared to what they paid for their kids to play through their youth. This doesn’t even address the lion’s share of the parents who put out the large sums of money for youth sports and end up having no scholarships to show for their kid’s efforts.
  • And how do you explain the amount of D-1 and professional athletes who never followed this track that the new conventional wisdom says is absolutely necessary? The fact is, extremely gifted and professional athletes come from their mother’s womb extremely gifted and professional athletes. That doesn’t mean they don’t have to learn how to master their sport. But their unique God-given giftedness is the primary explanation for their ultimate position at the top of the sports heap. If your child has it, great. If they don’t, there is little that the years and years of commitment and the tons of dollars can do to change this.
  • And it’s only fair to mention that the pendulum is swinging against some club sports kids when it comes to college recruitment. Many coaches simply don’t want to even consider them because of some of the built-in attitude issues that often come with the territory.

Let me mention one more issue that I never hear addressed by the parents trying to decide what to do in this whole arena of youth sports. It has to do with the spiritual toll on their child. First of all, let me acknowledge that I can see how any endeavor a child has with other kids can be a great opportunity for them to serve as a light of the world. Also, I can see how some kids can manage to keep Jesus a priority in their life regardless of how competitive their extra-curricular activities are to their spiritual priorities. But these kids are very rare. The question any Christian parent needs to ask themselves is “Does this involvement compliment or undermine my child’s ability to walk closely with the Lord?” If it presents any major threat, we need to ask ourselves, “Is it worth it?” or “What can I be doing to fill in the spiritual gaps it creates?” Which brings me back to Sunday. Since the establishment of the church in the book of Acts, most churches have chosen Sunday as their time to officially gather as a group for concentrated worship, prayer, Bible teaching and fellowship. Most likely it was because Sunday was the day Jesus rose from the dead, completing a believer’s victory. The marketplace and the school systems in the western cultures have traditionally recognized this phenomenon (Sunday worship) and adjusted their schedules accordingly. On top of all of this, the Bible teaches us that we need to make the deliberate gathering with other believers a regular priority in our lives (Hebrews 10:25). Church and youth groups are the standard outlets for meeting this priority. When a commitment to attending and serving in a church is a family priority, kids in this configuration tend to go into their adult years with a commitment to a local church as a high priority in their heart also. If a boy or girl has spent a large amount of the Sundays of their youth playing sports, or dancing, or cheering, or performing in pageants, how does a parent build the biblical priority of a commitment to a local gathering of believers into their hearts? Bigger question: should the commitment to being connected and personally involved in a local body of believers be a higher priority in a child’s heart than sports, dancing, cheer etc.? If so, what do we teach them at the heart level when we accommodate or encourage them to write that Sunday church commitment off of their higher “to do” list? Obviously, their highest priority is to the Lord Jesus. But how did God design for that to be most naturally developed in a person? Answer: being brought up in a home with parents whose first priority is the Lord Jesus and then growing up among a local group of believers that can also encourage a closer commitment to Jesus. Time is time and space is space. It’s hard to make Sunday a high focus of worship, service, prayer, Bible study and fellowship if you aren’t anywhere near your regular family of believers. It’s also hard to make it a family priority when mom or dad and one of the kids are often at a game or competition. Some families attend churches that have a quality Sunday evening service. But some travel destinations don’t realistically lend themselves to getting home in time. Then, there’s the child’s homework that may still need to be done. There’s an even broader view of a child’s spiritual life that comes into play when deciding how much they can be involved in these new demands of youth sports. What about involvement with other spiritual endeavors during the week (Young Life, youth group meetings, discipleship meetings and on-going service to the church, people in need and the poor)? It’s during our children’s childhood and youth that we are supposed to be building into them a lifelong love and commitment to using their lives and spiritual gifts for the betterment of others. Is that goal enhanced or undermined by the demands that this new middle class version of sports places on kids? I think the role of sports (dance, cheer, pageants, etc.) poses some extremely difficult choices for Christian parents. Sports can be an enormously rewarding dimension of a young person’s life. Our own kids participated in the municipal sports programs as well as high school sports. We enjoyed a lot of great hours as parents and as a family involved in their sports endeavors. But we worked overtime to make sure that their sports, music and other personal interests fit in balance (read: subordinated) to the greater priorities they are called to (loving God and loving others). We’ve seen Christian parents work hard to keep their kids’ competitive and travel team commitments in perspective and they deserve a standing ovation. But we all know that parenting is hard, raising kids is demanding, and keeping the things our culture thinks are important in subordination to God’s priorities is an on-going struggle. In preparing this post, I shared some of my concerns with parents I highly respect who had at least one of their kids in club sports. Here is what one of the friends candidly shared with me: “The reason I think this is an important discussion to have is because it starts out a little slow with the Sunday games and the travel but all of a sudden 5 years go by and you realize you have raised an un-churched kid. You didn’t set out to, and you certainly never thought you would, but not too long after you are into it you realize there is no time for anything else. Practice 3 nights a week and you don’t do the youth group. Games on weekends and you don’t do any camps. After games on weekends chances are you’re too shot to go to church; and that’s if you go to a church that has a late Sunday evening service. Sunday morning church is simply not going to happen if you have a game. You get out of the habit of going to church on Sunday and before you know it you have skipped church even when there are no games. Again, you didn’t intend for this to happen but you realize you don’t get to play on these teams and skip a practice one night a week for youth group and ‘Oh by the way, my kid doesn’t play on Sunday’s.’ As for me as a dad, I have rarely missed a Sunday sermon even though most have been watched after the fact online. I have been in a small men’s group going through different Christian books and my wife and I have remained in home fellowship. But club sports have definitely taken a toll on our son’s spiritual upbringing. We have tried to communicate and show him the need of putting Jesus first in his life but it is not easy–especially when he is not involved and connected with others at church. I would say we separated Jesus from church and I’m not sure that’s really a good thing.” Friends, a wise principle to guide us when it comes to making hard choices as a parent is this: never sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the immediate. I submit this post, to neither accuse nor convict, but simply to make some observations about this growing trend and ask some honest questions. Sunday may be gone for good for many families of faith, but I don’t think it will be without a price. Ultimately, we all answer to God for the choices we make. I think I speak for most Christian parents in that when it’s time to finally give our account, we want to make sure we didn’t let our culture, our egos, or standard operating procedures do our thinking for us. Copyright 2019 Tim Kimmel [1] For a greater look at an extensive study done on youth sports by the University of Maine, check out “Sports Done Right” – especially the chart on the “Odds of Going Pro on page 28

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