May 18, 2015

What sport should my kid play?

by Clint Archer

Parenting provides an ever ready laboratory for experimenting with theology’s application to real life.

Doctrine is designed to seep deeply into the substance of life. If truth isn’t changing your workaday decisions about everything from toothpaste (why do you want whiter teeth?) to diet (for whom are you losing weight?) to what you order on Netflix (do you need a rating to tell you nakedness isn’t entertainment?), then you are in danger of being a subtle type of hypocrite.josh waitzkin

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their attention to gnat-sized detail when it came to the law of Moses, while simultaneously ingesting camel-sized indulgence when it came to caring for the people the law was meant to protect and the God the law was meant to honor. Likewise, some Christians can dot the “I” in TULIP with great dexterity, but they struggle to apply the doctrine of irresistible grace to say, their attitude toward their recalcitrant teenager.

Recently I encountered a parenting conundrum that required the oil of doctrine to help turn the cogs of everyday life.

Think through this with me. A caring, Christian dad comes to you with this question: which sport should my seven year old boy play? Our family only has time and money to permit one sport for each of our children. This particular son is extraordinarily gifted at chess. (for the sake of the illustration let’s concede that chess is a sport). Let’s call the boy Josh (homage to chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, whose father faced a similar dilemma, which he wrote about in his memoire, Searching for Bobby Fischer).

Our little Josh could possibly become one of the great chess masters of his generation, or at least his school league, if he devoted himself to the pursuit of excellence. He’d need to read a lot of books, have private coaching, and travel all over the country to gain exposure to tournament level competition in his age group. There’s only one problem: he doesn’t want to.

Josh wants to play a team sport at school, like soccer. Oh, there’s another problem: Josh is not that gifted at soccer. His school coach, who is content to have him play the occasional B team game, has made it clear that Josh will not be the next Lionel Messi, though “messy” is an apt adjective for his playing style.

Josh loves watching soccer, knows all the soccer players’ stats, and looks forward all week to his matches, even if simply cheering his teammates from the bench. If he had private coaching and spent hours of extra practice, he might make the A team someday. But he’s ebullient when playing on any team, as long as he’s with his friends, and outside in the sun.

How would you counsel Josh’s dad?

Here are some doctrinal principles to apply to the situation:

1. God gives us gifts, and we need to be good stewards of those gifts.

You may turn here to the parable of the talents (Matt 25:26-29), but bear in mind the context is focused more on one’s giftedness in gospel ministry and kingdom influence, and not on one’s likelihood to get a football scholarship.

messi kick2. Children must obey their parents (Eph 6:1).

Yes, your child needs to obey you and trust that your decision is best; but this implies that you are taking seriously your responsibility to make a decision that is truly in the best interest of the child, and not your selfish need to relive your glory years vicariously through your kid.

3. Fathers may not provoke their children to anger (Eph 6:4).

Choose wisely which hills are worth dying on. Do you really want to risk losing a close relationship with your child over which sport they prefer? Skip scene to 15 years later for a glimpse at the ghost of conflict future: political affiliation, parenting styles, denominational preference…the arenas for conflict with your offspring are innumerable, so why not concede as many trivial battles as possible in order to win the war for a close relationship?

4. God has revealed his priorities for us.

Any sports and other bodily training, though not quite utterly useless in the grand scheme of things, are pursuits that are infinitely lower in priority to God than say, godliness, which is of great value in this life and the next (1 Tim 4:8).goal

5. God has told us the goal of life.

The real goal is not putting a ball in a net, but rather glorifying God in all activities of life (1 Cor 10:31). So, if your child gives God glory in the school’s B team, what more could you ask for?

Obviously, I’m not going to force feed anyone a one-size-fits-all answer to the question “what sport should my child play?” That would defeat the point of this post, namely that we all need to apply our understanding of Scripture to the variegated situations that crop up in our lives. But I can tell you what Josh’s dad did: he let Josh pick the sport which he enjoyed doing. Josh’s commitment to the team, attitude toward practice, and sheer delight in the game brought more relational closeness between him and his dad, more general joy, and more praise to God than a grimly acquired chess trophy would have.

I can testify that no one ever asks me today what sport I was good or bad at—fencing and rugby, respectively in case you were wondering—but the lessons I learned from warming the bench for five rugby seasons are just as valuable as those I learned from winning a fistful of medals that are now tarnishing in some junk drawer.

My guess is that a 100 years from now, when you meet Josh in heaven, you won’t ask which team he played soccer for in elementary school.

 * * *

By the way, at a young age and with reluctant permission from his father, Josh Waitzkin opted out of pursuing competitive chess in the manner it would take for him to excel. Instead Waitzkin took up several other interests. He became the world champion at some obscure martial art, began a foundation for underprivileged children, and authored multiple books on education. And he still plays a mean game of chess…but only for fun.

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Johnny

    Anything but football, where bodies are slammed around and tossed through the air like rag dolls. Everyone I know today who played football in their youth is living with a chronic pain as a result (bad back, bad knees). I’m in my middle ages, never played sports, and my back and neck are strong and pain-free. No regrets.
    Football is a stupid, dangerous and destructive game that no Christian in his right mind would participate in, let alone watch.

    • Um, ok. And while we’re sharing pet peeves, it might be time for Americans to reconsider the name of that game; the rest of the world uses ‘football’ to refer to a game played exclusively with the foot and a ball, so I think we have dibs on the nomenclature. Bodyslamball, maybe?

      • Sir Aaron

        Because Americans know that the “football” the other countries play isn’t really a sport. 😉

    • RickA99

      The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked,
      And the one who loves violence His soul hates. (Psalm 11:5 NASB)

      • I always though that verse was talking about MMA and WWF.

        • jeff

          Speaking of MMA, what is/are your thoughts(biblical counsel) on being entertained by or participating in MMA, UFC, or boxing? These sports are brutal to be sure. I am not a big fan of MMA or UFC but I do enjoy a good boxing match. UFC is a little too harsh for me though boxing is, obviously, quite gruesome itself. Primarily my question pertains to boxing. Is it sinful to participate in or watch boxing? I know there are better options for entertainment and certainly more important things to do with our time. My current position is that I don’t think God would condemn it outright. I think the feminization of the modern Western male may be what causes some Christians(like Johnny above, no offence intended) to condemn all contact sports. Thanks.

          • Matthew

            I’ll just say one more thing before Clint’s post comments get totally off track.

            Something all ambassadors of Christ should consider; when we watch/buy tickets/purchase paraphernalia etc, we are supporting more than teams. Drugs(steroid abuse), sexual immorality(half-dressed image bearers of God), gambling, violence.

            Something to think about.

    • Susie

      Our son chose to walk on to a college
      football team. He had almost no support (including his parents) and was
      not overly talented or sized, but had much determination and work
      ethic. He hung in there for 5 years and was partly scholarshipped his
      4th year and fully scholarshipped his last year. He was voted one of
      the team captains his last year. The main point here though, is that he
      and several others had a significant impact on the team spiritually and
      many young men are saved and serving the Lord years later because of
      their ministry on that team. There are still young men on that team
      ministering to their teammates because of the witness of those first
      guys. Our son is now in ministry in the same town and has opportunities
      to do chaplain duties with the current team. We must be very careful
      not to let our ideas limit God’s plans about who He can use or where He
      can use them. God cares about the lost in all situations, even athletes
      in sports we disapprove of.

      • Johnny

        I will pray that he doesn’t live with chronic, agonizing pain like several of my friends do thanks to football. The human body was not designed to be thrown through the air like a rag doll. Go to Readers Digest sometime and read the story called “Why I Broke Up With Football” to learn more about the connection of concussions and long-term brain damage…

        • Susie

          I am not disputing the potential affects of the game on the body. My point continues to be that neither Jesus nor Paul, for example, considered the protection of their bodies their paramount goal. Our ultimate purpose is to serve God and to answer His calling on our lives and to see to the offer of salvation and discipleship in the lives of others, wherever that may be. Thanks for your prayers for him 🙂

    • Sir Aaron

      Since we are sharing anecdotal stories of everyone we know…everyone I know who has devastating chronic injuries, pain, or health problems did not play sports. Instead they never learned to master their bodies or physical pain and instead lack of athletics lead to their poor health.

  • Good post, Clint.

  • tovlogos

    You covered the most important point, Clint.

    “Parenting provides an ever ready laboratory for experimenting with theology’s application to real life.”

    It is said of children in Matthew 19:14, “…for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” The innocence is the perfect aspect to give them the post important thing — Jesus. Sports and everything else is built on that ground work.
    Is it right to pray to win — I was asked by a young tennis player? Never. Pray to be disciplined in developing yourself; and play to win.

    1Corinthians 9:23-27 is an excellent illustration of an analogy between sports and the gospel. “And, I do all things for the sake of the gospel…Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize?” Etc.
    The spirit showing us what He expects of us spiritually, by the statement, “Run in such a way that you may win…” the gospel should be regarded similarly.

    Great lessons as a youngster grows. If he were a lazy athlete, he could learn two lessons from Scripture, assuming he is being raised a Christian.

    • Well put.

      • Susie

        In response to Johnny above. Our son chose to walk on to a college football team. He had almost no support (including his parents) and was not overly talented or sized, but had much determination and work ethic. He hung in there for 5 years and was partly scholarshipped his 4th year and fully scholarshipped his last year. He was voted one of the team captains his last year. The main point here though, is that he and several others had a significant impact on the team spiritually and many young men are saved and serving the Lord years later because of their ministry on that team. There are still young men on that team ministering to their teammates because of the witness of those first guys. Our son is now in ministry in the same town and has opportunities to do chaplain duties with the current team. We must be very careful not to let our ideas limit God’s plans about who He can use or where He can use them. God cares about the lost in all situations, even athletes in sports we disapprove of.

  • acha648

    get your kid into robotics

    http://www.vexrobotics.com/

    sport of the 21st Century!!

    • I thought the sport of the 21st Century was the Hunger Games.

  • Robert Sakovich

    I’d say that we have a bigger problem balancing items 4 and 5 on your list than the other ones. Especially since those two will shape how the other three are approached. We’ve never gotten into organized athletics a lot because most of them try to arrange activities during clear-cut times for times when we meet at church (Sundays and Wednesdays). The growth of Sunday tournaments is especially concerning because it is clearly an indication that the people organizing these events feel like you should choose between your commitment to church and your commitment to your sport/team. That would seem like an easy decision, but I can tell you that when I taught Sunday School most kids/parents weren’t choosing church over sport. And that grieves me.

    • Sir Aaron

      My kids are in sports and I can tell you that tournaments are often held on the weekend because of parent’s work schedules and the children’s school schedules. Additionally, many of the facilities are only available on the weekends. Ironically, many facilities are mostly available on Sunday mornings precisely because they cannot use them for other business because everyone is at church.
      I’ve never really understood the whole Wednesday thing. I rearrange my whole life around Sunday morning (and actually it is most of the useful time of Sunday not just the mornings) and then there is this attempt to make me feel guilty because I don’t go on Wednesday nights. Where is Wed mentioned in the NT? And then there is Saturday men’s group and Friday night Bible studies, committee meetings, and volunteer meetings!
      Back to point. Balancing sports and church (and for that matter work and other things) is difficult as you say. We find ourselves occasionally missing church to participate in a sports event or because we have to be out of town for a sports event. But we also give up prime practice on Sundays to go to church (and that’s most weekends). It’s a fine line to walk. I’m not sure I always walk it perfectly so I can relate to other parents who must make similar decisions. That’s even more true when a kid has a shot at getting a college scholarship.

  • Matthew

    I know I’ll be slammed for this, but from what I’ve witnessed, sports for the most part only bring out the worst in believers and unbelievers alike.

  • pearlbaker

    Being guided (gently poked, prodded, encouraged with love and biblical instruction) into doing something for the Kingdom for which you are clearly gifted is not a bad thing. As you demonstrated, we are to use our God-given talents/gifts as would best further the Kingdom and glorify God. We as Christian parents are to observe a child’s giftedness and then point them in a direction so that they may use those gifts for the Lord. If there is resistance, we lovingly but resolutely and consistently continue to guide them in the right direction. This provides two lessons in one: rightly using one’s gifts for the furtherance of the Kingdom and the sacrifice of humble submission to parents and to God. Nobody wants to thwart a kid’s enthusiasm for some activity or another, but why waste precious time plodding away at something you clearly cannot do well, even if you are having “fun” doing it. Fun is overrated, obedience is underrated and underenforced (that might be a made-up word, but I liked it :-).) Fun is fleeting, obedience to parents and God has eternal value.

    • Jason

      Even if you’re doing something for fun, it’s not necessarily the only thing you get out of it.

      Determination is the first thing that comes to mind in the story Clint shared. If you care about something (especially if you’re bad at it), it can teach you to do something specifically when it’s *not* easy. So many people I meet only do what they already know they’re good at. There is so little personal development with that attitude and often they have a hard time relating to others who value something that isn’t the “one thing” they care about.

      Also, most kids don’t care enough about others to be fine sitting on a bench supporting a team for most of a game. As kids get more and more selfish it’s common to hear people talking about how they’ll only show up for practice if they get to play. I applaud Josh for that as well.

      In just about any situation (even things done “for fun”) there’s a lot of opportunity for character development that has eternal consequence.

    • KathShu

      Yes, rightly using one’s gifts and humble submission are important. But this post isn’t about obedience to parents and God in issues of clear Biblical commands. If your child decides they don’t want to go to school, or get a job when they’re older, that’s a problem. If your child doesn’t want their childhood erased by grueling training for something they are “good at”, or just something their parents want to live vicariously through, that shows surprising maturity that most Americans don’t have. The point of life is not to exalt ourselves, but to exalt Christ. You can certainly exalt him through a career in chess or football, but just because you are gifted in some area does NOT mean you have to pursue it all the way to the brutal top. There are many worthwhile things, and you cannot do all of them.

      And actually, children having fun is a stupendously good thing. They learn more from fun and play than most structured things at that age (research confirms this common-sense knowledge). God is pleased with appropriate delight in his creation and his people.

  • Sir Aaron

    I tell my kids that they don’t have to play sports or any particular sport. This is what I tell them. (1) They are going to be working at something. If they don’t choose, I will. They aren’t going to sit around the house in leisure. (2) Whatever they do, I expect them to put forth their best effort. I don’t care if they are good just that they practice and work hard at it. (3) Physical fitness is not optional.

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