When it comes to preachers and sports, one might assume they’re NOT on good terms. That’s because you hear a lot of belly-aching from preachers about the uselessness of sports and how they are driving families away from church. Some of this is true, and I often issue warnings myself about how travel ball causes many families to cease gathering with the Lord’s people on the Lord’s Day–which is a tragedy. However, sports can prove to be extremely valuable.
Some of my greatest childhood memories were spent playing sports. From the intensity of a game or just throwing the ball with my dad in the backyard, sports hold a special place in my heart—as they do with many around the world. Sports are a universal language. And because of this truth, you can use sports to teach your kids lessons about following Jesus. Here are five ideas:
1. Use Sports to Teach Your Kids the Value of Discipline
The Apostle Paul encourages Timothy to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim 4:7). Getting up early for workouts, eating healthy, and pushing your body to the limits in order to maximize your potential can be good for you, not only in sports, but also in your walk with Christ. Paul said, “I discipline my body and keep it under control” so that he may press on to know Christ more (1 Cor 9:27). Tom Landry said, “The job of a football coach is to make men do what they don’t want to do in order to achieve what they’ve always wanted to be.” At some point, every athlete begins to understand that “practice makes perfect” and that discipline actually leads to freedom on the court or the field. Tedious drills in practice lead to terrific plays in the game. It’s been said that you can “experience the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.” When your child begins to discover this reality, help them see that the same is true with spiritual disciplines such as bible reading, bible memorization, and prayer. These types of disciplines give you freedom to be all that God has created you to be.
2. Use Sports to Teach Your Kids to Finish Strong
It’s easy to start a marathon, it’s a lot harder to finish one. When he was at the height of his career, famous third baseman George Brett was asked what he wanted to do at his last at-bat of his career. He said, “I want to hit a routine grounder to second…and get thrown out by a half step. I want to leave an example to the young guys that that’s how you play the game—all out.” Vince Lombardi said, “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.” That’s a great way to play sports. That’s the only way to live life. Isn’t that what you want at the end of your life—to know that you gave everything you had for the glory of Christ? To be sure, our victory is not won through our hard work, but through the work of Christ on the cross. However, Jesus invites us into his mission of making disciples of all nations. While different seasons of life provide different opportunities for disciple-making, we can always work to advance the cause of Christ in the world no matter the season. Train your children to have an insatiable desire to finish strong in sports and especially in their walk with Christ.
3. Use Sports to Teach Your Kids Sacrifice
I love to see people sacrifice their body or even their stats in order to advance their team. Vince Lombardi said, “Football is like life, it requires…sacrifice.” Every player on the field at some point has the opportunity to play self-sacrificially with all his might in order to help his team win. Jesus knew something about sacrifice. Jesus died in the place of sinners. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life (Jn 3:16). His perfect sacrifice can make you whole if you trust in him. Not only that, he can empower you to sacrifice your wants, desires, and even your life for others. Help your children develop a strong appreciation for team players. Help them to see the importance of being a team player in the church just as God’s Word teaches – “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4).
4. Use Sports to Teach Your Kids Humility
My former coach Jimbo Reese taught me to “win with humility and lose with dignity.” Unfortunately, we see something different today in many athletes—prideful winners and sore losers. Use sports to teach your children that true greatness is measured by humility, just as Jesus displayed with his life (Phil 2:5-11). Humility doesn’t mean a lack of strength, it means a lack of boasting in our strength. Humility is not thinking less of self, but thinking of self less (C.S. Lewis).
5. Use Sports to Teach Your Kids How to Manage Failure
Winston Churchill said, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” Baseball is a game of failures. In 1941, Ted Williams finished the season with a stunning .406 batting average. That’s a great season. But that means that he failed 60% of the time. Most of us fail miserably and often. And yet what we do with those failures makes all the difference. We need to know how to manage failure. We don’t get up in the morning expecting to fail, engaging the day with a fatalistic, defeated heart. Rather, we put on the full armor of God and engage in the battle. We know that the victory is ours in Christ, and so we set out to live victorious lives, embracing the different means of grace Christ has given his church. And when we fail, we get back up, confess our sin, look to Jesus, and engage in the battle over and over. And through it all, God will change us into the image of Jesus, from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor 3:18).
Parents, don’t let ball season pass you by without extracting some of these truths and countless others from sports and teaching them to your children. Jesus used farmers, soldiers, and swindlers as illustrations to teach deep truths about God and his ways. Likewise, athletics can serve as a valuable tool in the hands of a godly parent.