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Rethinking How Kids Do Sports

Recently, I was discussing Darkest Hour, a new biopic about Winston Churchill. The continual theme of the movie and discussion was Churchill's willingness to address difficult situations and lead his country to what was right whether it was popular or not.  Churchill was led by an incredibly discerning mind, and by the facts he discerned. He would bend his will and the wills of those around him to those facts. Because as John Adams succinctly stated, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."
 
In that vein, I am going to lean in and politely whisper, "We're misusing Sport to the detriment of our children."
 
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Anybody still here? Everybody okay? I am going to stand up from behind my desk now, so please do not throw anything.
 
In short, there is an overwhelming body of evidence in the medical world that the increased participation in sport-specific, majority-of-the-year youth sports is physically, psychologically, and emotionally detrimental to children.
 
Physically, a child's body is in development, and when a physical load or intensity is required of it that it cannot stand, the body will stunt growth or develop overuse injuries like stress fractures. When we don't abide by long-stated and tested age appropriate activities, we put children in the crosshairs of long-term, chronic ailments. The leading sports medicine/orthopedist in the country, Dr. James Andrews, has started a campaign to combat this culture.
 
Psychologically, children develop over time the same way the body does. The sooner children play adult organized sports rather than child organized "pickup games," the more likely they are to burn out in the sport they are playing. Meaning, we think starting a child early in a sport and focusing on it is the path to success, but it actually increases their resentment for the adult organizing it and their hatred for the sport.
 
Emotionally, children need the socialization aspects of school, sports, and other communal activities. However, when sport becomes the dominant use of their "free" time, they lose the opportunity to engage the world around them in an unstructured manner. Thus, children will become less empathetic to those who do not share the same experience, or they will become less able to engage in new and different social activities that are not competition-related. When their world is defined by wins and losses, they have no barometer for simple enjoyment of noncompetitive activities.
 
Spiritually, we view that God has made us body and soul. We have been given three gifts to use in this life - our time, our talent (body, abilities, and skills), and our treasure. Where we spend those is evident of what we believe we live this life for. Children have sophisticated perception and will follow the lead of their family by dedicating their lives to what parents demonstrate matters the most through the use of time, talent, and treasure. Spending weekends traveling for a sport shows that rest and church are not as important as competition.
 
So what are we supposed to do about it?
 
Yes, Sport has great use. God made it. We are taught to play and enjoy it. We worship when we do it, the same way a person can sit in their room and play the guitar or draw or write stories. When they do it, they feel God's pleasure. We learn so much through Sport. We find out who we are in trials, and Sport acts as training ground to develop the fruits of the spirit we will need as we mature. There is no discounting any of this.
 
That is not what we're talking about. There is a misuse or abuse of Sport through specialization and over-participation that has detrimental negative effects on children. We must be willing to accept the facts and admit we might have failed. There is no shame in failure, only grace. The true shame is continuing to promote something we know has direct negative effects.
 
In the end, we need to assess our goals. It can be easy to miss the forest for the trees. Less than 1% of students will play a professional sport or even make an income from coaching. College scholarships are also held up as a brass ring. Scholarships are useful and necessary for many, but at the Division 1 level, there are four sports that offer a full-ride 100% scholarship or no scholarship at all: football, men's and women's basketball, and women's volleyball. The remainder of sports have fewer scholarships than roster spots, so they offer only fractions. Meaning, the total cost of college is not covered by an athletic scholarship. The remainder must be covered by academic scholarships, grants, or loans. Work is most likely out of the question because it is prohibited during the season.
 
Therefore, our goals should be concerned with how Sport forms children into adults. If a child is not uniquely gifted or skilled to make pursuing a sport as a means to an education or career, then it is not economically prudent to pursue athletics in any other way than recreationally.
 
Consider all the time and money that can be reallocated to do things as a family, like dinners at home, going on vacation, church, hanging around the fire pit in the back yard, date nights with a spouse, or a new set of irons for dad (okay, that last one wasn't for the family).
 
Sports should be played for worship, fun, socialization, physical activity, and competition, in that order. A reformed view on the role of Sport in children's lives should lead us to make changes, and it is hard to create new habits. But it doesn't mean we shouldn't try. The only way to complete a 1,000 mile journey is to take the first step.
 
There are lots of great things we want and allow for our children to do that are good in moderation and bad in excess. Sport is one of them. Let's use it for their advantage, not their detriment.