Youth athletics can be a powerful tool to shape the godly character of both children and parents, but anyone who’s spent much time in the world of youth athletics can recount the uglier side of this sub-culture. We are excited that Jeff Kemp is authoring this two part series regarding the question of youth athletics in the life of Christian families. Part One deals with the aim of youth athletics: the goals we should have for our children and ourselves. Part two will focus on knowing when it’s time to pull back or call it quits.
We hope you enjoy part 1 below. Be sure to subscribe to Valor Magazine before Part two is released. Subscriptions are free with no strings attached.
“Come on! Hit him! HIT HIM! … That was terrible!”
The gruff voice bellowed from the stands 30 feet behind me and was clearly aimed at the middle school boy on my team who’d just missed his tackle. As the coach, I was upset too, but not at the missed tackle. I was upset at the ugly yelling coming from our home team’s stands. When I turned around I was doubly disappointed. Not only was the man spewing negativity another youth team coach, but he was the father of the boy who’d missed the tackle. I could feel the heat rising in me as I walked to the fence and clearly but calmly called directly to the critical dad, “Hey. Please stop that right now. That’s wrong and we don’t do that. Be positive and cheer us on, please.”
The dad turned his critical gaze from the field, and when he saw me, sat down. Parents were a bit stunned … but pleased. I could see the look of relief on their faces as they began to relax and get back to their roles. In my years as a professional athlete, youth coach, and dad, I’ve learned that there are important roles within youth athletics. Bruce Brown states it simply. “Players play. Coaches coach. Parents cheer. Know your role.” Sports, when done well, can be incredibly meaningful and valuable for Christian families who choose to get involved, even when mistakes are made and parents or coaches lose their cool.
Life is imperfect and what happened at our football game illustrates one of the great messages that can be learned from the athletic experience both on and off the field: Bad things happen and we have to respond to them, improve them, and learn from them. The episode at our game offered many opportunities to learn. Someone missed a tackle. Someone forgot their role as a parent and lost his cool. And someone straightened it out and passed an important lesson on to the many watching parents about playing their positive role. Everyone has a role to play in the youth sports experience.
It’s impossible to insulate our children from mistakes and trouble in this life. Competitive sports offers a powerful context for teaching our children how to respond to their mistakes, as well as the mistakes of others. Sports has wins and losses, good plays and bad, wonderful moments and a myriad of mistakes – all of which are opportunities to develop resilience, perseverance, and corrective improvement. Sports teaches children to deal with things as they didn’t want them to be. Wow! That’s preparation for challenges in education, relationships, jobs and health…the realities of life.
And in sports, as in life, we discover that this learning process is best done with the guidance of others. We need coaches, and if we’re going to benefit, we need to be coachable. Teachable. Humble. Learning the benefit of outside voices and learning to taste the good fruit of listening to wisdom are graduate school lessons in Christian maturity. They are at the heart of marriage, and all the other places in life where solving relationship problems is key to moving forward. Team sports humble us and teaches us that we reach the goal far better with others alongside us. We are designed to be interdependent on others. Champions learn that excellence and championships only come when individuals crush their arrogant, attention-hungry egos and serve their teammates. Sacrifice for the good of others, not just self, is a key to team sports. What an important lesson for our children to internalize long before they enter the world of work, society, politics and relationships.
I played 20 years of football, 11 of them in the NFL, and began the season as the starting quarterback only one time in my whole life. What kept me going? It was a voice inside me that my dad had shaped. He used the field of competition as the context to teach me the vital character quality of perseverance. His loving and persistent encouragement to never quit, to keep thinking positively, and to trust that my day would come on the field, helped form my view of the world off the field as well. And perseverance is the characteristic that the Apostle Paul said is the key to pursuing our relationship with Jesus and letting life’s hardships and sufferings mature us to be more like Christ.
Sports are a great place to make disciples, to train character and purpose when you appreciate the camaraderie and joy of spending yourself in a good cause. You don’t need to win to thrive. Compete to win, but look for all the positives. As my 5-year old son Keegan gushed to me one day after missing about 10 shots that could not quite make it to the 10 foot basketball rim in our backyard, “Daddy, I’m good at the shootin’ part, I’m just not good at the makin’ part.”
If you have chosen the field, court, or gym to be a context for discipling your boys, then know your role and the ultimate goal: to see your child grow into a Christ-like man, no matter the score.
Jeff brings a unique perspective to this topic. He played quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, and the Philadelphia Eagles. Jeff and his father, Jack Kemp, (the former Vice-Presidential candidate), were the first of only six sets of father/son NFL quarterbacks. As Jeff speaks and trains throughout the United States he passes on dynamic lessons learned during eleven years in the world of professional athletics. Persevering through the highs and lows of pro football gave him a valuable perspective on teams, leadership, and life. Jeff is also the author of Facing The Blitz – Three Strategies for Turning Trials into Triumphs.