Spring Sports And Sunday Church, Five Suggestions For Parents – Tony Reinke
Serious athletes surround Mary Kassian, a celebrated author and speaker, and co-founder of the True Woman Movement.
Her father-in-law played professional ice hockey for the Canadian National Team. Her three sons are all accomplished athletes, two in hockey and one in volleyball. One of her sons, Matt, is a former NHL hockey player. Mary’s husband, Brent, is a bi-vocational pastor and serves as an Athletes in Action chaplain for pro football and soccer teams in Canada. He also works as director of a physical therapy sports medicine rehab center. With so many sports connections, Mary says, “We have professional athletes through our home all the time.”
With decades of experience, Mary is conversant with the amateur athletic world (as well as the professional), so I value her wisdom in helping parents navigate the high-pressure, specialized world of youth sports. In anticipation of the upcoming spring and summer seasons, I asked Mary Kassian questions about the costs of team sports, the value of travel teams, and the tensions that come along with sports and church attendance.
“I fear we push our children to be far too busy, and to specialize far too early, and to commit far too much time. And it can be parent-driven, rather than driven by a parent discerning a child’s natural bent and inclination and abilities.”
Before long, kids grow weary of the over-specialized sport.
“I’ve seen 13- and 14-year-old boys burned out by a sport, and sick of it. Or they feel that they need to excel at it in order to please their parents, and their parents have communicated that their worth and value are wrapped up in how well they do at a particular sport. They get to high school and they’ve already had so much of it, they don’t enjoy it anymore.”
But obviously a lot of sports are driven by the aspiration of the child, which raises questions about the cost of the sport on the family.
Weighing the Costs
As sports specialize and demand year-round practices or training, the costs add up quickly. The price tag is a huge consideration, an expense some families attempt to justify because of potential college scholarships. “Given all these team costs — training, registration, travel, hotels, equipment — the amount of money that you pour into sports to get to the level where you’re going to get a scholarship, you could have probably paid for a lot of college tuition by the time your child turns sixteen,” she says honestly. And that’s no exaggeration, especially compared to the small sliver of high school athletes who land major-college scholarships.
But the cost is not only a drain on the budget; it’s also a glut to the schedule. Serious amateur athletics come with intense practice schedules, training, and weekend competitions at distant places of various range. Travel sports is not just a question about Sundays (more on Sundays below); it also may cost a family its summer vacation time together and needed downtime. Summer-sports travel is hardly relaxing, especially when you add in the adrenaline — the wins and thrills, the losses and disappointments. A full schedule of sports tournaments can be a taxing abuse of the summer months.
Parents must weigh whether a summer without all these demands on their kids is better for everyone. “Whenever you say ‘yes’ to sports, you must say ‘no’ to other options,” she says. Sports commitments always come with a price. “Often that means saying ‘no’ to giving your child the time and space to simply run around in a field till their feet turn green, or time to kick back and enjoy a childhood that’s not regimented and scheduled.”
Team Travel on Mission
Even without mentioning the potential of Christian athletic coaches, simply being the parent of a child on a travel team can push us into the lives of people we otherwise would not know. Travel sports can “take our families out of the Christian bubble, into the real world, and into people’s lives, and into the broken places of what those people’s lives are really like,” she says. “You need to take that into account when you’re making your decisions, because it definitely is an amazing, concentrated season for sharing the gospel, for displaying your faith, and for just being present and ministering to people where they’re at in terms of their needs. I still have friends from those sports years — hockey-mom friends and volleyball-mom friends. We spent so much time together in the stands, that we’ve remained friends over the years.”
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Christian Life on Display
“All the emotions in your own heart come out when you’re watching your own son or daughter treated unfairly. These pressures really bring out what’s on the inside of the heart. I’ve seen Christian parents — and I’ve been the Christian parent that’s fumbled the opportunity at times — getting so caught up in the game, and wanting your child to excel, and to do well, that you lose sight of greater, bigger, more important things.”
“You don’t have to be a ‘perfect Christian,’” Mary reiterates in these moments. “These are great opportunities to show what you do when you mess up. It provides opportunities to confess to the other parents and to say: ‘You know, it was wrong for me to lose it like that at the ref, and I’m really sorry. And I ask your forgiveness, because I’m sure it was offensive to you as well.’ These are gospel opportunities to be a real Christian who admits their sins and to be transparent in a way that many families would never otherwise see.”
Five Ways to Navigate Sundays
For the Kassians, the question was amplified with Brent serving as a pastor every Sunday. They had to get creative and think about youth athletics in ways that could balance the unresolvable tensions.
1. Consider a rec league with fewer demands.
2. Weigh the specific costs with each team.
3. Embrace the consequences of missing practices or games.
4. Find creative ways to prioritize church attendance.
You may have some flexibility with church. For those who are not pastors, “If you have a Sunday morning game, see if you can attend church on Saturday night. And maybe you go to church on Saturday night in another city as you travel. Or, if a game is at noon, there may be time to go to church first.”
5. Draw your child into the conversation.
“Your child will sense what is most important to you. So I think it’s really valuable for a child to watch his or her parents wrestle with keeping Jesus at the forefront, making the planets of our lives revolve around the sun of Christ at the center. Let them know that whatever we decide in the end, they should see a parent wrestle with the tension, asking, ‘You know what, this team is a really great opportunity, but missing church is hard, and we must pray about the costs and the opportunities.’”
There’s a teaching moment here for our kids, educating them on the family’s greatest priority. “The bottom line about these hard church questions,” Mary says, “is that we don’t have pat answers or easy formulas. I think you can have a professional athlete, who must play on Sundays, who upholds Christ as supreme. It can be done.” Yes, and when appropriate, we can work that logic back into youth athletics, too.
“Athletics is such a competing god,” Mary says soberly. “I think that it’s so critical that the parents are always checking their own hearts. I needed to check my heart through our process. Where are you drawing your identity? Where are you drawing your sense of meaning? What is in your heart? If this were to end tomorrow, what would be left in terms of your sense of wholeness, and well-being, and who you are? Are you drawing that from the Lord? Is hockey a bigger delight for me than God is? I asked my son to wrestle with that question on an ongoing basis, too.”
For Christian parents, the questions over teams and leagues and travel opportunities require a lot of humble wisdom and prayer — exposing our motives, evaluating the missional potential, and reaffirming the family’s love for the local church. Given our culture’s love of amateur athletics, and the increasing specialization of these sports, these questions will only become more complex for us and for our kids, requiring greater wisdom — which is what our Father is eager to give us when we come to him in faith (James 1:5–6).