Raising our kids to be Christ-like is an all-of-life reality. Teaching them to follow Jesus and display the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) isn’t supposed to be relegated to family devotions around the kitchen table; it should be the goal of everything our children do, including the sports they play.

Our first child was still in diapers when we bought him his first sports onesie. It was navy with the face of a Nittany lion (an homage to my dad’s alma mater). For a Saturday afternoon football game or a mid-week Euro league rivalry, we looked forward to donning our color-coordinated sports gear, baby included. To be honest, we still do. Beyond the nostalgic effect of buying knock-off jerseys from the teams we love, these kitschy screen-printed clothes are visual representations of a core value that both my husband and I, as former college athletes, hold — namely that we want the world of sports to play a pivotal role in our children’s lives.

Fast forward eight years, we’ve enrolled our eldest in his first competitive soccer league. He’s naturally athletic and enjoys everything that the sport requires: hard work, teachability, and a non-quitting attitude. But with two to three practices a week and one to two games on the weekends, my husband and I quickly observed some of the enduring themes of youth sports begin to emerge: a relentless mantra from coaches to win and be the best, enraged parents on the sidelines when their children “fail” in some way, a prioritization of soccer over all other commitments, and all sorts of unspoken expectations that small children must excel in sports as a determinate for their future success.

As a soccer mom (sans minivan), I’ve begun to reflect more on the role that sports should play in the life of my kids. We live in an era that commonly accepts the notion that sports are good for our kids, particularly in their ability to serve as a tool for character development. To an extent, I believe that my own athletic career as a D3 soccer player is proof of that. And I know I’m not alone in thinking this way. 

Many Christian parents like myself view sports as a means to instill values such as teamwork, discipline, and resilience in our children while also boosting their mental health. We also believe that sports offer important life lessons that align with our biblical parenting, such as fostering virtues of humility and teamwork. But how often do we consider the limits of the “sports are good for us” ideology? And what happens when sports actually become the catalyst for a lack of autonomy in family discipleship, in favor of a faceless machine that spits out a picture of humanity that cares more about personal greatness than God’s goodness in the world?

Particularly within the context of the U.S., the role of sports today fits within a seemingly Norman Rockwellian idea of the American family, a utopian dream for raising wholesome children. It’s a picture, however, that can cloud perception from a more rough-around-the-edges reality in which cutthroat, ruthless competition produces joyless and success-obsessed children. 

As an athlete and now a parent of athletes, my question is this: Has our parental justification for character development in sports actually discipled and transformed our children’s characters well beyond the required parameters of biblical parenting, even degrading our children’s spiritual compass of the world at times?

We have to understand what Christian character development actually is

In its simplistic form, developing a Christian character means becoming more like Christ. Colossians 1:28 summarizes this well: “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ” (see also Eph 4:13). Raising our kids to be Christlike is an all-of-life reality. Teaching them to follow Jesus and display the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) isn’t supposed to be relegated to family devotions around the kitchen table; it should be the goal of everything our children do, including the sports they play. Whether we’re signing our children up for baseball, basketball, soccer, football, ice hockey, or ping pong, we have to ask ourselves: How will my child’s participation in this sport bring them into greater love and knowledge of Christ?

Good sports programs, however, don’t automatically equate to good discipleship. Enrolling our kids in competitive leagues might be cloaked in well-intentioned language of “becoming coachable,” “teamwork,” and “doing it because our kid loves this sport so much,” but our financial investments often reveal our true priorities: specialized coaches, winning teams, and fast tracks for feeder programs into professionalized teams. Eventually, we find ourselves justifying ruthlessness over kindness, and success over having fun. 

What are the necessary conditions for our children to truly experience biblical character formation in the sports they play?

If sports are to be good for our kids, their experience should be characterized by fun, kindness, and respect. For example, even though our son plays in a competitive soccer league, there are key phrases my husband and I convey to him before and after a game. In the car on the drive there, we tell him, “have fun today” and “no matter what, we love you and are proud of you” (and we truly mean these things). After the game, we hug him, affirm what he did well, and re-articulate that we love him and are proud of him. We believe that having fun is key to our son’s ability to critically understand the proper place that soccer plays in his life and how he should conduct himself on and off the field. 

Research shows that one of the most effective ways to build character development in children is through play. There is something magical that happens in terms of holistic growth when kids are able to exist and operate in a low-pressure environment. That being said, many parents don’t factor “fun” into their equation for what team their child should play for. 

However, when given the choice (i.e., financial means, time, transportation, etc.), many families opt for competitive sports leagues over their “fun” recreational counterparts. Part of this skewed deliberation is due to the fact that a recreational program’s usefulness is often relegated to non-serious athletes, for children whose parents just want them to experience a sport before moving onto the next. The relaxed pace and rigor of recreational leagues (often run by volunteer parents as opposed to trained coaches), which usually encourage curious exploration of a sport and having fun, are seen as trivial forms of sport participation. 

The irony, of course, is that when kids truly have fun in a sport, they develop a love for the game, instead of loving a sport simply because of what it can do for them. Moreover, encouraging fun is the greatest lens through which our children can best enjoy God’s good gift of sports. Displaying Christlike behavior is when our children practice gratitude, not for the win but for the experience and opportunity. 

Similarly, kindness and respect cannot be overlooked within our children’s sport experience. Encouraging aggression to the point of injuring another, hogging the playtime and prioritizing scoring over passing dominates the sideline conversations. Or, because we drop off our kids at practice, we have zero litmus test for how respectful our child even is to their coach. Do they drag their feet? Do they complete exercises the way they should? Too often, the only questions we ask our children post-practice is, “How many goals did you score?” or “Did you do well?” instead of “How well did you listen to the coach?” and “Who were you kind to today?” Part of displaying Christ in sports starts with us, as parents, and with our behavior during games. The other part happens during regular, intentional conversations that we have with our child off the field about their conduct with their team.

In an age in which predominantly middle-class households are enrolling their children in competitive sports, the á la carte athletic experience we can afford means having greater agency than ever before to curate healthy discipleship pathways — if we actually choose to do so. 

If we truly want sports to be good for our kids, we need to be committed to drawing hard lines in the sand. Does being on a specific team cause us to question whether we should attend church service on Sunday? Does my child’s coach lose it during games, berating players for mistakes? Has participation with a specific team made my child more insensitive, angry, or anxious? Do I see my child insulting other players or bossing them around? Are the other parents on the team getting into fist fights or cussing at the opposing team’s families? Do we notice attitude shifts within ourselves and how we treat our children after a game, especially when they lose? 

We have to consider the conditions in which our child is playing a sport and be extra clear on which lines we will not cross for the sake of our own family’s spiritual life and our child(ren)’s Christlike character development.