When parents choose extracurricular activities for their child, the practical questions usually come first: Can we make it work with our schedule? Can we afford it? How far will we travel? Will this help my child receive the college exposure we're hoping for?
These are often necessary questions, but when it comes to youth sports and extracurricular activities, there is a far more important question: Does this activity help my child become the type of person we want him or her to become?
The pause on youth sports this past year has given all of us an opportunity to rethink our priorities when it comes to youth sports. And perhaps more than ever, we need to consider the importance of character-building opportunities in youth sports. We are reminded of the crucial mental and physical outlets that our children need, as depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide have risen among our youth during the current pandemic.
I've been coaching and directing Christian youth sports leagues in Pewaukee, Wisconsin for 18 years; the children I first coached as kindergarteners are now college graduates. Over the years, I've noticed that while parents are usually prepared to teach their young children things like friendship, honesty and sharing, one of the most unexpected challenges they face is the bombardment of extracurricular activity options available to children today.
As a father of four kids, I know the pressures that cost, schedule and location put on a family. But I also think, in the face of these pressures, too often parents forget to ask: What is the developmental cost and benefit of this activity—not just for the player but for the whole family?
What are we giving up if we participate? What life skills is this activity teaching my child, beyond athletic skills?
Instead of focusing on logistics first, I challenge parents to consider your child's lifelong trajectory. Instead of focusing on short-term enjoyment and accomplishments, let's ask more questions about long-term personal growth and character development. Is this activity making my child a better friend, a better teammate, a better sibling and a better person?
Every Monday, I send out an email to league parents with reminders about what's coming up in the week ahead. I also include an article about lessons like counting the true cost of youth sports and the traps for parents to avoid in the youth sports landscape. I get more positive feedback about these articles than any reminder about picture day or snacks.
For example, one of these articles explains the only five words parents need to say to their kids about sports: "I love watching you play." This concept has opened a lot of eyes, including my own.
A lot of extracurricular opportunities attract parent interest by emphasizing exclusivity and performance outcomes. But instead of pushing your child to be the best player he or she can be, what if we focused instead on helping him or her become the best person he or she can be? That might mean, for example, choosing an activity focused on more than just performance outcomes; could a child actually learn more from being on a team that includes players of all skill levels than from being on a team of the "best" players?
We know that very few children will go on to have a career in any particular sport, even if they play at the college level. We do know, however, that our children will grow up to be husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, employees, coaches, church members, community volunteers and more. How can extracurricular activities prepare them for life? Some of the kids I've coached as 5-year-olds went on to become all-state basketball players; most did not.
By thinking about what we want our children to be rather than thinking about what we want them to do, we bring a new paradigm for decision making to the question of extracurricular activities. This paradigm is concerned with personal growth and character development through the experiences of winning and losing, teamwork, sportsmanship, self-sacrifice, discipline, self-control, respect for authority, helping others to succeed and so much more. These qualities have shown to be important now more than ever, as our children are learning how to be strong and resilient during this unprecedented time.
When nurtured and directed by intentional parenting, all of those experiences can shape our children in a way that can positively impact them regardless of their future profession. But if we allow extracurricular involvement to be merely another line item on the family to-do list, we miss the opportunity to allow the impact of that experience to shape the present and future character of our children.
If your child beats the odds and does become the next professional athlete whose poster is on the walls of millions of children's rooms around the country, he or she will have an exceptional platform to influence countless young people in a positive way. We certainly need more role models who are willing to stand for truth, accept the results of fair play, live a life worth imitating and help people understand that life is about so much more than fame and fortune. It's about living a life that honors God with an attitude of love for others and integrity no matter the circumstances.
The character-building nature of youth sports must not be overlooked. Our kids are ready and eager to get back in the game and grow. As youth sports return this spring, let us choose activities that allow our children to grow mentally, physically and spiritually.
Mike Poelzer is the director of Upward Sports at Spring Creek in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, and pastor of connections and men's ministry at Spring Creek Church.
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