To play or not to play? Examining the role of athletics in American culture.

Over the past few weeks we have been discussing different traps that parents often fall into while raising teenagers in today’s culture. This week, we are going to examine the role of athletics in American culture.  

In many ways, our culture has made the goal of playing college and professional sports an idol.  Many families spend thousands of dollars and countless hours on the athletic aspirations of their children. As you contemplate what this will look like for your family, here are some things to consider.

One area that parents are forced to evaluate regarding their child’s involvement in athletics is their position on travel sports. 

Early in our parenting journey, Doug and I decided that travel sports were not a good idea for our family. First, the cost associated with traveling each weekend is high. Hotels, transportation, gas, meals on the road — all of the related expenses have a substantial impact on the family budget. 

Second, the commitment required to participate on a travel team significantly impacts family time.  As a family with five children, we recognized that we had a couple of options. We could all travel together each weekend for one sibling to follow their passion. But to do this, the other siblings had to sacrifice theirs. The alternative: split up on weekends to allow each child to pursue his/her passion. Either way, the emphasis is on the individual and taken away from the family.   

Last — and to us, the reason that carried the most weight — travel sports for our children would take away from our family worship on Sundays. I personally know there are godly families who are able to make this work and they do make worship a priority while traveling – either in a local church or by tuning in to a service or podcast online. However, many give up church and it becomes part of the cost of traveling.  When we set this precedent while our children are living under our roof, it will likely be their standard for Sunday worship when they leave our homes.  We have chosen for our children to know and experience Sunday as a day of worship and rest, a Sabbath day for our family.  

As my children have gotten older, I have felt the growing pressure to have them play travel sports — or to commit to one sport and play it year-round.  Well-intentioned coaches have suggested that participation on a travel team will give my kids the best chance at a college scholarship later, and they have encouraged me to allow my kids to join a travel team. 

The pressure to play a sport year-round is also an issue for parents, including us. Some coaches suggest that competing in club sports during the off-season is a prerequisite for participating on a high school Varsity team. This is often a tough decision for parents and students to make, particularly for those students who have a wide variety of interests, along with gifts and talents they want to explore.   

All of this has been eye-opening to me as a parent, and it compelled me to do some research, to determine if this really is the best path for my children.  

I began by exploring what professional athletes have to say on the topic of youth sports. The overwhelming consensus: playing multiple sports in high school is the better path for high school athletes. Several articles mentioned the very real concern of burnout in students who play travel sports from an early age. When John Smoltz was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame he said, “I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there that it is not normal to have surgery at 14 and 15 years old. That you have time, that baseball is not a year-round sport. That you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports. Don’t let the institutions that are out there running before you, guaranteeing scholarship dollars and signing bonuses, convince you that this is the way….” (Barnett)

I also explored the topic of youth sports from the perspective of collegiate athletic professionals, and I was surprised to find they were saying the same thing. The athletic director at one university said he believes athletes are more well-rounded when they play multiple sports, and he added that he is not a fan of travel sports. One of his coaches said the first question he asks athletes during the recruiting process is, “What other activities are you involved in, other than this sport?”  A baseball coach at another university advises parents to keep children out of travel sports as long as possible. A basketball coach at the same university said that one of his better athletes is one that played multiple sports in high school.

One of his coaches said the first question he asks athletes during the recruiting process is, “What other activities are you involved in, other than this sport?”

At the conclusion of my research, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there is a wealth of data suggesting that travel sports are not necessarily the best path for every student and even more, they do not necessarily guarantee our children will be successful collegiate athletes.  

My goal in writing this is not to debate the necessity of travel sports for our student athletes; rather to encourage parents to decide what is best and right for their family. 

Last month, we talked about setting priorities and values for your family. Don’t be afraid to set those values and then live by them!  

Don’t be afraid to set those values and then live by them!

My prayer is that, as parents, we will thoughtfully and intentionally make choices for our children, rather than just falling in step with the cultural norms. May we all seek and find the right path for our children — the path that brings glory to God.

Neely Langhals
Spiritual Life Mentor

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