Part Two: Sports and the Busyness Epidemic

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 In this three-part series of articles, John Perritt addresses the pervasive problem of American youth sports culture. Read the first article in the series here.

How to jeopardize your job in student ministry, Step 1: Talk Negatively About Sports.

While I say this in jest, I understand many parents will quickly write off anyone who speaks words of critique towards sports. Dr. Shirl Hoffman was one of the pioneers to offer critique in this area. In his book Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports, he states, “Some thought it brash that I would dare to criticize sports at all. It was then that I first realized how reticent the Christian community was to think critically about sports or to explore seriously how the sporting culture intersects with the spiritual path Christians claim to follow.”

As stated yesterday, this is why I approach the topic of busyness and sports with such trepidation. Yet I continue to feel compelled to challenge parents on the matter.

Yesterday, I warned that I would issue a loving rebuke to parents. For those who swallowed that pill, today we will move towards more specifics on why our culture has become so busy, and the reality of sports as the primary culprit.

Busy-Bodies

I recently heard two fathers discussing the busyness related to their child’s activities. One father explained that he landed at the airport from an out-of-town business trip, jumped in the car, picked up children #1 and #2, drove them to their separate activities, and then didn’t see child #3 or his wife until they all fell into bed later that night. Others have informed me of t-ball practices and games ending at 10 p.m. Many students are up before school lifting weights or swimming laps, and not home again until after supper.

Busy, busy, busy.

I am utterly astonished at the busyness of our parents and teens in this current culture. But, what astonishes me more is the fact that this has become the norm for so many families. What adds to my astonishment is the fact that it’s self-inflicted.

On more than one occasion, parents have lamented to me over their busyness. My thought is: Why don’t you stop? You can control your schedule and extra-curricular involvement.

So, let’s look at the ‘why’ question a bit today. Why are so many parents allowing their child’s activities to dominate their lives? Below are six answers to this question. There are many more, but these seem to be the most common.

1. Fear

Fear is hard-wired into our DNA. We are created to fear God, but sin redirects our fears to many other things. And when it comes to sports, there are multiple fears at play. First is the fear of missing out (FOMO). My child might miss out and be excluded. All their friends are doing this and if they miss out, they’ll resent me for it.

Or, instead of missing out socially, parents fear their child will miss out on their talents or “calling.” If we don’t involve our child in multiple sports, we might miss out on what they’re most gifted at, and miss God’s calling in their life.  

Another fear is the fear of getting into trouble. If we keep our kids busy, they won’t have time to do bad stuff (i.e., drugs, sex & alcohol). As parents, we are tempted to involve our children in sports with the goal of sparing them from trouble. Yet, personally speaking, many of my own troubles as a teen were actually fed through sports.

I learned more about drugs and illegal substance abuse in soccer than anywhere else. Not to mention that much of my idolatry of “self” was largely fed through my athletics. My performance was the focus, which is in direct opposition to the message of gospel. My whole identity was wrapped up in ‘John the soccer player,’ instead of the sure identity I have in Jesus Christ.

2. Child-centeredness

Our culture is obsessed with youthfulness. Think of the vast majority of celebrity athletes in our day who make millions upon millions of dollars, most of whom are under the age of 30 (let’s not even get in to the billion-dollar industry of age-defying skincare and plastic surgery). Oh, if we adults could turn back time.

Our culture’s youthful obsession is quickly discerned by our children. They realize their schedule controls the entire family. They don’t just hope, the know: it’s all about them.

Children are a blessing from God, but we so often turn God’s greatest blessings into idols of the heart. Idolatry of children is a struggle for any parent. I need to be more diligent in my own repentance in this area. Children driving the calendars and schedules is just one way we see this idolatry manifest, and it’s one answer to why families are so busy.

Some of the transformation we must see in this area begins with refusing to organize the household around the teen calendar. Parents must love and affirm their children’s worth based on the treasures they are to us from God. But bowing down in worship of them is not the same as loving them. We must graciously let our children know of our love for them, while reminding them that they aren’t the center of our universe – God is.

3. Conformity

I think many parents enter into this busy lifestyle because that’s simply what everyone is doing. They haven’t given much thought about it other than, This is where everyone seems to be and it looks like it’s the norm.

From my conversations with parents, it seems like many honestly don’t think they have a choice. Some of this may come from the fact that many of the private and public schools stress the importance of extracurricular activities. Resume-building is highly emphasized and these activities typically look good on college resumes. So parents continue to keep up this break-neck pace. We see an overlap here with fear – the fear of missing out, the fear that kids won’t get into the best college, etc.

Christians are to be a people who exercise discernment, and it seems to be lacking in this area. Christ clearly calls his people to be in the world, but not to conform to it. When it comes to sports, however, it seems Christians have conformed more than we’re willing to admit.

4. Second-chance

One of the questions Dr. Walt Mueller asked in a recent article was, “Who’s out on the field?” He goes on to say, “Unfortunately, some parents see their kids as a second chance to fulfill dreams they themselves never realized.” It seems that the harried lifestyles of many families are answered by the question, “What if?”

Parents often rejoice in the gifts the Lord has bestowed in their children – which is great – but there’s a fine line between rejoicing and worshipping. Most of those who frequent the field have seen the parent who lives vicariously through their child.

Maybe it’s you.

There’s a great sense of pride a parent has as their kid dominates on the field; I’ve been there.

That being said, when a parent begins to live through the child, this results in pain. The child can never measure up, and the parent’s emotions tend to parallel the child’s athletic performance. One can see how easily parents might slide into this, and what a driving factor for busyness this becomes to the family.

5. Identity

There are two areas where families draw their identity:

First, the identity for the parent and child come from the performance on the field. Their emotions and worth wax and wane depending on how well the student did on the field.

As parents, we must affirm our children’s worth by simply and profoundly being an image-bearer of God. Their value isn’t contingent upon their performance on the field. Parents must strive to assure our children of our love toward them, regardless of how well they perform. Sometimes, the performance standards of a particular game are directly opposed to the gospel, and parents must pray for wisdom to address these conflicts.

Secondly, our identity comes from our busyness. Our worth is wrapped up in our pace of life. If we aren’t busy, we aren’t valuable. It seems impressive to act like we’re busy, talk like we’re busy, and let everyone know how busy we are.

Many parents keep up this pace of life, because it gives them a certain sense of value and fulfillment.

6. Conflict

One of the main reasons God tells us to rest, is that we have time in silence and solitude to reflect on his goodness and provision. Here’s the rub, though: When we slow down, we can actually taste and hear our own inner turmoil. When we slow down, we come face-to-face with our failures and our shortcomings.

Many of us stay busy, because it’s a way to escape the truth of just how messy and broken we really are.

Simultaneously, where there’s conflict within the home it can be tempting to separate everyone by getting them out of the house and onto various activities. That way, we don’t have to deal with siblings not being loving towards each other, for example. It’s easier for brothers and sisters to “love” each other when they’re never actually around each other.

Sadly, the same goes for husbands and wives. I do not say this lightly, but some couples just aren’t happy with each other. They are miserable in their marriage, but they know they can tolerate each other if they don’t have to see each other as much. Some couples stay busy in order to remain couples.

The Solution?

Some will, no doubt, label what I am about to say as “too generic” and “simplistic,” but the solution is: prioritizing the souls of our children.

As I’ve noted, life-lessons and spiritual discipleship can – and should – occur on the athletic field. There are so many teachable lessons that coaches and parents should engage in through athletics. That being said, in my conversations with students, this discipleship often isn’t taking place, and part of that is due to a lack of priority on the soul.

This – the priority of the soul – is where we will pick up tomorrow.

Join us for Rooted 2016, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore the good news that God’s grace is sufficient for our relationships: with ourselves, with others, with the world, and with God. Jesus is our reconciliation yesterday, today, and forever. 

To learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check out more articles and podcasts from Rooted’s youth ministry blog.

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