On Not Being That Kind of Sports Parent

My oldest son started playing soccer in the last year, which means I am now getting an initiation into the world of organized sports. Overall, the experience has been a good one. Team sports has provided him physical exercise, social interaction, and helped him develop a sense of solidarity with teammates in victory and in defeat.

Parenting on the field

Once in a while, though, there are those other lessons, like the time an opponent got frustrated and tried to tackle him while the referee wasn’t looking. This opponent was frustrated, I think, over a foul that should have been called but wasn’t. My son, who is normally pretty mild-mannered, was caught off guard. And suddenly I, as a parent, began to understand how some people become “that” parent.

You’ve seen the stories: out-of-control parents on the sidelines who yell at the referees, at the opponents, even at their own kids. Perhaps with good motives, parents want the best for their kids. They want them to succeed.  Maybe they even desire (as I did when I watched my son) to protect them.

Stay on the Sidelines

As parents, we are emotionally invested in our children. That only makes sense: we love our kids and want what is best for them. But being that parent actually harms our children in the example it sets for them.

When we put our kids on sports teams, we have provided a space where they are the ones who have to figure things out. They have to learn when to take risks, how to manage relationships with friends and competitors, how to deal with both success and failure. And they have to do this in a very public forum, quite likely in front of dozens of spectators (if not many more). 

So we as parents have to appreciate and applaud our kids’ courage, and give them the space to navigate these life lessons (even more than the lessons of a particular sport) themselves. Of course, we can help them process these lessons afterward, but that’s different than becoming either so demanding or so protective that they are not able to learn for themselves.

It's not about you

A few things I’ve tried to remind myself as I watch my son play:

  • When my son is on the field, I’m not the coach. I can be encouraging and supporting, but I am letting someone else help him learn to play the game. My job is to support the coach he’s been given, unless the coach is giving him immoral advice.
  • The life-lessons learned on the field are more important than any athletic lesson or result. My son may play soccer for a year or two, or he may play into college. But he’ll have to deal with other people for the rest of his life. How can I help him process the teamwork or the angry opponent after the game?
  • My kid is not the only one on the field. I need to treat him and others in a way that honors them as individuals and shows that they have value and worth in God’s eyes. They are not important only insofar as they contribute to my son’s team or insignificant because they wear a different jersey.
  • It’s only a game. I want my son and his team to do well, but the outcome of the game matters very little in light of eternity.

Games are models of life

Particularly as a Christian parent, I try to remember that sport is a metaphor for the rest of life. My son will face competitors--some friendly, some less so. He will be called to work towards goals with other members of a group, some of whom may have different abilities and skills than him. The way I treat him (and other players) should serve as a reminder that, in the words of a contemporary hymn, our worth is not “in skill or name, in win or lose, in pride or shame.” The lessons of life are the eternally significant lessons, as he learns what it means to belong to Christ on the field and off.

The Bible tells us, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Col. 3:23). This lesson applies, not only to our work, but in sports as well. When a Christian steps onto the playing field, the most important audience is the Lord. I want my son to learn that in all things, it is ultimately Jesus for whom he is working or playing (Col. 3:24).

A confession: yes, I did react when I saw an opponent chase my son behind the play. An inappropriate push, I figured, was at least worthy of a “Hey!” But I’m glad I didn’t say any more than that. My son knows that I love him, that I support him, and he learned a few things about dealing with adversity that will hopefully serve him well someday. 

And the other kid? I hope he has a parent who encourages him to find more productive ways to deal with his frustration. But more importantly, I hope he knows that he’s loved even when he does wrong, even when his team loses, and that he is valuable beyond the field of play. 

Because that’s a lesson that matters for eternity.

About the author — Rev. Joel Vande Werken

Joel Vande Werken is the pastor of Fairlawn Christian Reformed Church in Whitinsville, Massachusetts. Originally from the Chicago area, he served for ten years in Sussex, NJ before moving to his current church.  He and his wife, Brandie, have four young children.

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