By Aaron E. Ziebarth, Executive Director
“What an idiot! Take him out of the game! He can’t play!” These were words I heard from a mother at a soccer game I recently attended. Those sitting around me were as shocked as I was. Then the mother quickly explained, “It is my son. I wouldn’t say that about anyone else.” She seems to think this made the insults acceptable.
Two games later, she was quick to blame her son’s actions for the team’s loss.
Those words came to mind today when I heard a student in our 4.12 Leadership Training Program tell me, “Sports are stressing me out.” I suggested that he didn’t need to commit as much time to them. He was shocked. The expectations from his parents and coaches strongly influence otherwise.
Why do 70 percent of kids quit youth sports by age 13? Why do parents get so unbelievably nasty? And why can it turn suddenly violent?
We’ve all heard the violent stories.
A soccer referee in Utah, Ricardo Portillo died a week after being punched in the face by a 17-year-old player because he didn’t like a call that Portillo made on a corner kick. Ricardo’s daughter Johana Portillo told the Associated Press, “Five years ago, a player upset with a call broke his ribs. A few years before that, a player broke his leg. Other referees have been hurt, too.”
Investigative journalist Amanda Ripley decided to research the problem of America’s obsession with sports. She wrote “The Smartest Kids in the World,” a book that examines the issues of over-prioritizing sports in high schools by comparing the differences between educational systems around the world. She follows Tom, 17, who leaves a historic Pennsylvania village for Poland.
Polish high schoolers are outscoring American high school students in both math and science since Poland eradicated sports teams from their high schools entirely. America’s high schools, on the other hand, are often entirely (though unofficially) based around sports.
Sports are such a priority in our high schools that oftentimes entire summers are dedicated to cultivating high school sports teams. Days are filled with long practice sessions. Ripley points out that if a math teacher were to request a Saturday or summertime drill session, kids and parents alike would probably be outraged.
Among 74 countries, America’s high school students rank 31st in math and 17th in reading, and Ripley blames that on sports seeming to be the No. 1 priority in American schools.
“If sports would build better young people, we would have seen it by now,” says educator, author and apologist Alex McFarland.
I was talking with another student who was backing out of a commitment to Joy El just days prior to the event. His sports team practice had been rescheduled and now conflicted with his Joy El commitment. I suggested that he talk with the coach, mentioning his previous obligation. “NO, NO, NO” was his emphatic reply. ‘I don’t want to do anything that would make the coach think I am not 100% committed to soccer.” I offered to speak to the coach, “NO, NO, NO! He can’t see anything but soccer. If you talked with him it wouldn’t go well for me”
Shortly after we moved to our town 13 years ago our children started playing baseball and softball. There were no games on Sundays and rarely on Wednesday nights. It was stated that it was so that children could participate in church.
Over time those protections eroded.
Wednesday became make-up game time
Sunday became optional make-up game time then
Wednesday became regular game time and
Sunday became regular game time.
And what do we have to gain from this obsession with youth sports? Regularly I see students more and more stressed, attempting to meet the high expectations of adults. I see the spiritual lives of well-intentioned high school students suffer because they must practice, travel, play and raise funds for their sports.
The pressure has increased to unacceptable levels. We are expecting far more from students than we ever did before. Author Dr. Chap Clark suggests that we are increasing expectations for teens beyond the support that we provide them. “Systemic abandonment is the defining issue for contemporary adolescents,” he explained.
I agree with Alex McFarland. We are not seeing the comparable benefits from competitive sports for how much our children are expected to invest in them.
Yes, there are some benefits. But each family must measure whether those benefits are worth the literal and figurative cost.
And for those of us who claim a relationship with Jesus Christ, we need to prayerfully evaluate whether competitive sports are becoming an idol, replacing God as our top priority.
“For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).