Morning Zen

The Church of Children’s Sports: Values Mediate the Benefits of Youth Athletics

October 18, 2016

Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ By Eliot Brenner, Ph.D. ~ 

Two years ago, my wife and I decided it was time for our family to join a church. Our search focused primarily on finding a church where our three young children could learn the values we believed were important. We wanted a church where the congregation was open to differences and accepting of others. Where the pastor and the congregation supported each other and promoted values like integrity, honesty, hard work, charity, and respect for others. It took a while, but we found the right place. And our Sunday worship began.

But it did not last long. 

Soon we found ourselves sitting in the pew of another institution: the Church of Children’s Sports. It did not happen overnight. First, our seven year-old daughter joined a town recreational league soccer team. I volunteered to coach her team. In practices and games, I emphasized safety, having fun, and learning soccer skills. The next year, I was assistant coach for my son’s tee-ball team. The team was comprised of seven-year old boys of varying skill levels. As a coach, I taught boys how to catch and hit a baseball, and emphasized supporting one another and being kind and considerate.  These are the values I wanted to teach my children.

Then things changed. My oldest daughter, then eight years old, joined a travel soccer team. Practices and games were four days a week. The parents on the sidelines talked more about winning than about teamwork. In close games children who were less skilled spent most of the game on the bench, even though league rules required that all children play at least two quarters of each game. 

In the final game of the season, the technical coach became irate with the referee and was eventually thrown out of the game. He was told to leave the field or the police would be called. Several girls on the team were in tears. Surprisingly, I was the only parent that was upset enough about this incident to report it to the league administration. Following this incident, my daughter announced she was done with travel soccer. She would return to the town recreation department league, and pursue other interests in the arts. I was proud of her decision. 

A year later, my eight year-old son fell in love with baseball. After deliberating, my wife and I gave him permission to try out for an intensive seven-week baseball league. We knew this would be a strain on the family because practices and games were initially three days a week and progressed to six days a week by the end of the season. Tournaments sometimes involved multiple games on the weekends. 

Within a few weeks, baseball games were scheduled on Sunday mornings, conflicting with our church services. I was surprised; I thought there were enough churchgoers that Sunday mornings would be sacrosanct. 

In fact, a recent study found children’s sports is the primary reason for declining church attendance. In a related commentary on this topic, the authors said “The idea that Chariots of Fire runner Eric Liddell made it all the way to the 1924 Olympic Games before being asked to compete on a Sunday seems almost quaint.” Some pastors have started offering services on Saturdays. For my family, Saturday is no better than Sunday because both weekend days are filled with sports. For many of today’s parents, there is no escaping the Church of Children’s Sports.  

Skipping church to attend our son’s baseball game was in some ways a test of values. On the one hand, we joined a church to be part of a community that reinforced our values. On the other hand, we both appreciated the many benefits of team sports: the development of social skills and social behaviors, self-esteem, and academic and cognitive development. 

However, research indicates that these positive effects are mediated by the ways in which coaches, teachers, and parents shape children’s experience of sports. Children need to have positive and enjoyable experiences in which they feel a sense of self-determination and competence.   

In other words, the benefits of improved physical and mental health are mediated by the values transmitted by the coaches, teachers, and parents. As parents, we have to be especially aware of the ways in which our children, particularly our younger children, are coached. If it is all about winning rather than developing skills and a sense of competence and self-determination, then many of the benefits of sports may be lost.

The focus on winning at all costs may have additional adverse long-term consequences. For example, the push to excel has led to children specializing in one sport at an early age. Currently, 60 million children in the U.S. play sports each year, and 27% of them play only one sport. A recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics highlighted the substantial risk of repetitive injuries for children that specialize early.

To reduce repetitive injuries, mental stress, and burnout, the Academy recommends that specializing in one sport be delayed until children are at least 15 years old. Parents often push their children to excel in one sport because they believe it will increase their chances of getting a college scholarship, even though the odds of getting a college scholarship are very slim. This pressure may contribute to the fact that 70% of children drop out of organized sports by the age of 13. The drop out rate is a reminder for parents to focus on the values they want their children to learn from sports: the importance of teamwork, self-determination, and having fun while exercising.

In addition to the risk of repetitive injuries, there is considerable risk of concussion in contact sports such as football, soccer, and hockey. Following on the heals of the National Football League’s scrutiny over their handling of player concussions, the youth football league Pop Warner now faces a similar class action lawsuit.  

To reduce the likelihood of concussion in youth sports, nonprofit organizations such as ConcussionCorps offer protocols to help coaches handle concussions and education and advocacy for concussion prevention. For example, ConcussionCorps and the Connecticut Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children not head a soccer ball before they enter high school.

The risk of concussion in children’s sports is another reminder to parents and coaches to focus on values. To minimize the chances of long-term injury, parents need to ensure that children are removed from play when there is question of a concussion. We all want to our children to excel, but not at the cost of long-term brain injury.

Youth sports is big business: Parents in the U.S. spend $7 billion annually on travel costs related to their children’s travel athletic leagues. Finding the right balance of participation in sports for your child and family is not easy. There are intense pressures to have children compete and win. Sometimes parents feel as though they must have their children play one sport year round for them to remain competitive. 

The push for excellence and the time demands on the family of the Church of Children’s Sports can push parents to loose perspective. Focusing on the critical values and skills you want your child to learn from sports can help you maintain perspective.  

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eliot brenner

Eliot Brenner is a nonprofit executive with 15+ years experience in child welfare, mental health, and philanthropy. He is also a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice. Dr. Brenner is currently the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut, which provides mental health treatment, education, and support to more than 3,300 children annually. Dr. Brenner currently serves on the Praesidium National Advisory Council for the development and implementation of national child safety and abuse prevention policies and practices for 2,600 YMCAs that have 20,000 staff and serve 9 million children annually. Dr. Brenner holds a B.A. from the University of Chicago, where he was Phi Beta Kappa and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Yale University. Dr. Brenner currently serves on the Children’s Mental Health Network Advisory Council.

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