Focus on the Family

Teaching Through Sports

Use your children's involvement in sports to teach them about life.

by Carey Casey

Athletic competition provides opportunities for young people to learn and grow. If your children are involved in sports, make the most of the opportunity to teach them about these six important character qualities:

Teachability. No matter how much an athlete accomplishes, he always has room to grow. To excel, he must be eager to learn and willing to accept instruction.

The bigger issue here is humility and respect for authority. The coach might make decisions your child doesn't agree with; the referee or umpire might make a bad call. Still, your child needs to learn to deal with his frustration in a positive way. Learning this on the field or in the gym can translate into respect for other authority figures: teachers, bosses, police officers and church leaders.

When things don't go well for your child, be willing to speak the truth. That might mean saying, 'Your coach is testing your character and your loyalty.' Or you might say, 'You can't control what the coach decides, but you can control how hard you work to get better.'

Integrity. Martin Luther King Jr. used to talk about an "11th commandment" that prevails in America: "Thou shalt not get caught." Many people still live by that tenet. But we must call our children to honesty and integrity, and sports provide opportunities to do that.

I remember playing a game of touch football at a summer camp, where I was leading a group of boys for the week. When I threw a long pass to one of the boys and he caught it for a touchdown, our players celebrated wildly. But just as I was throwing the pass, I had felt one of the opposing players nick me on the back with his finger. The referee never knew, but that other player knew it, I knew it, and God knew it.

So I had to tell the ref and take a loss instead of a touchdown. The kids on my team couldn't understand why I did that, but I think it was an important lesson for them — and for the other team. Our kids need to know that if they have integrity, they will be winners — no matter the outcome of the game.

Modeling is the key to teaching your kids integrity. No matter what you say, your kids will remember your actions more than your words. Your integrity is reflected in the way you cheer at your child's game and the way you talk about the game afterward. Would you give back a victory in order to do the right thing? What is your attitude about stretching the rules in order to win?

Perseverance. In the heat of competition, your child will face defeat and failure. In football, he'll fumble the ball or miss a tackle; in softball, she'll strike out; in soccer, he'll let an opponent past him for the game-winning goal. Whenever there's a winner, there is also a loser — in track or swimming, there are many losers.

I can remember a game in high school where I ran the wrong direction and messed up a play for our team. My coach took me out of the game. That night, my dad explained to me, "He couldn't put you back in because you had lost your poise. Son, you've got to forget that play and move on. You've got to learn how to deal with disappointment."

It's important to teach your child how to deal with failure in a positive way. That lesson, learned under pressure, will help prepare him to succeed — in sports and many other areas of life.

Positive attitude. Gifted athletes don't necessarily make the best players. Often, a coach will keep them on the sideline because of their bad attitude. The coach knows this player can bring down the whole team. Likewise, the best teams are not always made up of the greatest athletes, but when they accept their role on the team and have a positive attitude about it, they can win. These players focus on the team and the greater good, not their own concerns.

Your child's attitude, whether good or bad, will determine how far she can go in life. Praise your child for her positive attitude above her good performance. Challenge her with the notion that one optimistic person can set the tone for the whole team.

Respect. As you know, there's a lot of posturing and "trash-talking" in sports today — even in kids' games. In the heat of competition, your child may be tempted to put another player down or pump himself up. He's trying to feel important. But it's vital that we teach our kids to show good sportsmanship even during on-the-field battles.

They need to learn to redefine what "winning" means. If they win a game but disrespect or humiliate other players, that is not winning. Ask them to look for what God might want them to accomplish during that game. Talk about specific ways they can live out their faith even while they're trying to beat their opponent.

Self-esteem. Sports will bring out the unique characteristics of your children. It will help them discover the ways in which God made them special. Maybe your son can't jump high enough to touch the net — but he might be a good shooter from the outside. Maybe it's clear your daughter will never be the star of the team — but perhaps her teammates all look to her for encouragement. Whatever the case, your children will learn a lot about their strengths and weaknesses.

The performance-oriented nature of sports will give you many chances to cheer your children on and affirm them. But no matter how they perform, let them know you love them simply for who they are.