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Juggling Little League, family, and God

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By David Whitlock

I had heard the complaint before in other places, at other times. “I struggle with wanting my child to participate in summer Little League baseball and still have time for our family events, not to mention participation in church,” the concerned mother told me over the phone. “It just seems like we can’t do it all.” In her particular situation, baseball games were being scheduled not only on Sundays, but on Sunday mornings, a definite conflict for Christians who want their family to worship together. As a parent, and as a pastor, I understood.

This is not an isolated, local problem. The Wall Street Journal printed an article on July 21, 2010, about the challenge parents face when involvement in organized team sports begins to overwhelm families, interfering with vacations, stealing visits from grandparents, aunts and uncles, consuming weekends, leaving no time for family leisure and outings. Although the story focused on elite youth sport teams that often requires a year-long commitment, the gist of the report was that parents are pushing back and sometimes withdrawing their kids from these programs so that the family can maintain a more balanced and healthy lifestyle.

Let’s face it; few, if any of the kids who play Little League sports will ever make a career of it. Even of those that play competitive sports in high school, less that 1 percent ever makes it to the pros. For baseball it’s 0.44 percent; for football, 0.08 percent. If becoming a pro is the dream, the odds are not in your favor.

But team sports do have a definite positive side: sports can teach young people how to cooperate with one another in attaining a common goal; they can teach basic life skills, like how to deal with conflict, and develop athletic abilities for further participation in competitive sports. Involvement in youth sports has been traced to improved self-esteem, lower obesity rates, and improved grades in school.

So, what to do about the time constraints youth sports, particularly summer sports, put on families? The problem is best dealt with before the season begins. When we give other people the permission to establish our priorities, they inevitably will. If we let the city’s Little League game coordinator determine our summer schedule, he/she will. And it will likely be at our expense. A clear sense of priorities is the only way I know of steering the family ship through the sea of summer frustrations.

If the goal for your child’s involvement is to make him/her a more complete and integrated person, then let the coach or Little League committee know your goals from the very beginning. If your priorities are God first, family second, and summer league baseball third, then why let a summer sports scheduler reverse the order of your life purposes?

After all, just how much is that first place trophy worth, anyway? Is it worth tearing up your family’s summer schedule? Only the parent can determine that. But remember, your priorities do reflect your values.

As a parent who rarely missed one of my son’s Little League games, I have observed that the problem of over emphasizing competitiveness in youth sports is more frequently driven by parents who are trying to fulfill their own dreams as athletes  through their children. Kids will generally take the sport about as seriously or lightheartedly as the parents and coaches do. I recall watching a coach shout at a 4th grader in a city league football practice: “What do you think this is?” he screamed, “Fun? This is football; it’s not supposed to be fun.”

“Really?” I thought. If it’s not fun how do you expect a child to continue playing the game? I switched my son to a different team with a coach who had a sports philosophy more compatible with mine.  

Parents have to remember they are ultimately in control of their children’s activities.

Here’s the bottom line: if the parents refuse to have games on Sundays, or Sunday mornings, it won’t happen, unless coaches are willing to import players from another part of the country. And if they are able to do that, some city has too much money and somebody is thinking too hard about how to waste it. Remember this: youth sports are meant to be fun. In the words of Benny Rodriguez, in the 1993 film, The Sandlot, “Man, this is baseball. You gotta stop thinking. Just have fun.”

Life Matters is written by David B. Whitlock, Ph.D. His email address is drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com. You can visit his website, DavidBWhitlock.com.