Parents of Children in (or about to be in) Sports Should Read This!

Just a note: I’ve updated a few of the pages on my blog and uploaded a few academic papers as well as a few old sermons.  I would like to pass along anything I create that I think might be helpful – that’s why I haven’t posted much – figuring not much would be helpful 🙂  Maybe you’ll find something of use there.  I did post a series of sermons I preached back in 2010 that you may find helpful if you find yourself in a Church of Christ that is wrestling through some of the theological and hermeneutical challenges that are a bit unique to us.  See what you think.

Game on

As I’ve begun this trek through youth sports and have been searching for the role of the church in helping equip our members for how to navigate these waters, few things have opened my eyes as wide as this book by Tom Farrey, published in 2008 (and then republished in 2009).

In writing his book, Farrey follows the development of children beginning with the first chapter (age 1) through the final chapter (age 14) discussing different parents’ obsession with making their children into sports icons.  He takes the reader to a sperm bank in Southern California where he quotes a doctor there as saying, “I’d say somewhere between 40% and two-thirds of the infertile couples look to prioritize athletic traits” . . . “In fact, after ethnicity . . . attributes such as height and body shape are most frequently requested” (p. 43).  He goes to a sports arena in Concord, Massachusetts to discuss with the parents of a set of seven-year-old twin girls who already are thinking ivy league, D-1 scholarships, and who already shell out over $10,000 per twin, per year, for hockey.  He takes the reader to Europe and compares the (much more effective) approach the French have towards their youth soccer programs which begins later in childhood and are much less rote and machine-esque  in comparison to the American counterpart.  From AAU to the NCAA, from soccer to basketball to girl’s hockey .  .  . even fencing is not out of Farrey’s aim.

Such a comprehensive volume is difficult to summarize in a brief blog overview, but I’ll do my best.  Farrey essentially sees a system of youth sports in the United States that has become extremely broken as it increasingly marginalizes the poor who cannot afford to be part of the system, contributes to the lack of inactivity and obesity in the country as travel and elite leagues stymie opportunities that use to exist in local recreation leagues, creates false dreams of NCAA scholarships (reinforcing what Michael Novak said more than 30 years ago – that sports has effectively become the opiate of the masses), and is detrimental to the country’s performance in international competition (he argues that not only does the current system do great harm to our country’s children – it’s actually not the best program for promoting athletes who compete at the highest levels – he offers Australia as a better example of success – check out their medal count in recent Olympics).

youth-sports

There is a great deal in Farrey’s work that will take some time for me to digest.  I am amazed at the irony of his book being published by ESPN who he points to (carefully, but certainly) as helping contribute to these problems.

Farrey is not writing from a Christian point of view, per say, but a great deal of what he points out should resonate with Christians looking for their children to participate in sports.  If sports, indeed, is a spiritual power, we should be asking ourselves, “In what ways can my children participate and contribute to the created good, intent of sports” rather than shrug our shoulders as if to say, “Well, if you can’t beat them, join them!”

Any parent who is wrestling for the best way their child might participate in youth sports would do well to read Farrey – and read it before you child is faced with the many opportunities that will come his or her way for participation in sports.  Be proactive, instead of sitting back and being marketed to.  Know what is best for your family.  Know what you are and aren’t willing to do.  Know how much travel you are willing to participate.  Know how much money you are willing to spend.  And keep your dreams realistic.  Don’t think about plans for your child to develop into a D1 athlete – think instead about how they can enjoy their childhood, and allowing sports to impact his or her life alongside other worthy endeavors.

When it comes to dreams of D-1 scholarships and opportunities at the “next level” I find it instructive to consider Farrey’s words as a reminder to stay grounded:

NCAA_Clearinghouse_Registration“I’ll keep it to one sentence.  If you’re gifted, really gifted, and lucky (right team, right coaches, right scheme, no wrecked knees) and play by the unwritten but uncompromising rules of the NCAA establishment – devote 360 days a year to your team and don’t make a habit of questioning the fairness of a system that uses your ability to perform in order to make hundreds of millions of dollars while you are on campus – then you might end up like Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith, with a hunk of wood and metal in your left hand and a strirring national feature story (set to soft jazz) that memorializes your childhood descent into a Cleveland foster home and emergence as a student-athlete-celebrity, and how that Heisman Trophy you just won is going to motivate other kids to rise up from the ghetto in a similar manner, thereby helping to recycle the myth – critical to existing public policy – that big-time, commercialized college sports like D1 football and basketball are a viable route to a better life, when in fact there’s no real evidence to suggest that collectively the poor have been lifted by all that sport-centric dreaming and, besides, the Heisman isn’t what kids in the ghetto dream about anyway because chunks of metal and wood don’t put dinner on the family table and sometimes don’t even guarantee an NFL career, even if you so far have beaten the odds.”  (p. 146 – 147)

Let’s get realistic about our children’s involvement in sports – our communities will be better for it.

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Elite Sports Leagues and the Machine of Youth Travel Sports

There is a storm brewing on the horizon and I am doing all I can to prepare myself for it.  My son loves sports and has shown a true love for baseball in particular.  To this point, we have enjoyed our summers at the baseball fields in our local Westerville recreational league.  This summer should be especially fun as it proves to be the “peak” season for the local league with the league fielding more teams for the 8 – 10 year-old kid-pitch league than any of the other age groups.  However, the storms clouds have already begun to form as I see looming questions about the best way to navigate the future of our son’s youth sports experience.

The fact that my son is entering the most popular level of play in the local recreation league comes as no surprise.  Across the country, elite leagues and travel teams begin plucking kids out of local leagues by this age group (a trend that is becoming younger, not the other way around) and older recreation leagues are all but drying up for children interested in playing for fun (imagine that!)

This has not been foreign to me as my years in youth ministry have already familiarized me with the world of travel and elite sports.  I have seen families devote their summer vacations, countless thousands of dollars, and all of their free time to the development of their teenage athletes.  For some its the pursuit of college scholarships while for others it’s simply the obsession with being the best – but whatever the case, there is plenty of fuel to supply the burgeoning beast.  Even though I am a huge sports fan and am excited about my children playing sports, ever since I have been exposed to the world of travel and elite sports it has left a poor impression on me.  Particularly the way I’ve seen families obsess over these leagues to the detriment of their attention to their children’s faith development and spiritual formation has led me to believe this is a major crisis for the American church.

Until very recently, I had never heard any Christian who had been critical of sports – ever.  Sure, there may have been an occasional prude who complained about Wednesday night practice forcing athletes to miss Bible study at church, but when it came to Christians and their participation with sports – everyone I knew was “all in.”  Then I had a kid.  Then I started watching how sports consumed the lives of the teenagers I worked with.  Then I started asking their parents hard questions.  Then the you know what hit the fan.  Turns out, I had stumbled upon a sacred cow.  “Just wait until your kids are that age . . . ”

Well, they are getting close now, and I’ve decided to dedicate an entire dissertation to the subject because I have come to realize no one is talking about this.  The percentage of children in churches (particularly suburban mega churches) who are participating in elite and travel leagues is staggering (I have no statistical evidence of this – just the obvious eye test), and yet walk into a Christian book store or peruse the Christian ministry and youth ministry sections at Amazon and you’ll find no guides, no Bible studies, no suggestions for navigating an incredibly taxing time of life and an expensive and crucial developmental stage of life.  Almost all the treatments you’ll find there are limited to a subtle dose of the prosperity gospel.  Why is no one talking about this?  Why does it appear the church’s critique of sports is that it is pretty much neutral?

And all along the way, my son is getting older and closer to the age where travel baseball (and all other sports) becomes an presupposition.  As Tom Farrey acknowledges, “Travel teams are no longer an add-on to the youth sports landscape, like the post-season all-star teams of previous generations.  In many communities, after the age of 9 or 10, they effectively are youth sports.”   (From: Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions out of our Children p. 183)

I don’t have an answer to all of this.  I don’t think that the idea of travel leagues and elite youth sports organizations has to be bad . . . but I think the current manifestation of it is bad – really bad.  I believe it is harming the social fabric of small towns and larger communities and is helping contribute to the inactivity of children – statistics show that when children try out for teams and don’t make them, they are very likely to give up on the sport for good.  In any places, elite travel teams are the only option and if you don’t make them . . . there just aren’t many pick-up games happening in backyards anymore and . . . their extension cords just don’t reach quite that far.  Additionally, these leagues and teams are taking shape before children are even developmentally prepared for competition.  Winning national championships and attaining high state and national rankings are for parents, not children (inspiring this classic on the topic: Just Let the Kids Play.)

I plan to post a great deal on this topic in the coming months.  As we make difficult decisions about where our son plays and when and how often and the lot, I’ll be reading, studying, and researching this topic hoping to find insight and wisdom that can help us navigate these challenging areas of life.  What I hope doesn’t get lost in this is that my son have fun (my daughters too – but they’re still a few years away from the mouth of the machine).  I hope that Christians will begin to have more frank and honest discussions regarding their love affair with sports.  I’m a huge fan of sports and believe they play a crucial (and healthy) role in culture . . . but I am equally convinced that we often allow them to become these monsters that they have become and they take on a life of their own.