Game Over: What I've learned from 15 Years of Youth Sports

This month marks the culmination of over 15 years of involvement in youth sports for our family.

Tomorrow, Thomas has his final regular season tennis match. He plays another family’s third and youngest son, a boy named Luke, who is the #2 player in Frederick County. Win or lose, Thomas has had a wonderful senior year, and is headed into the county tournament as the #3 seed. I couldn’t be more proud of him.

Tennis has been a gift to our family. It fell into our lap 7 years ago. We spent the boys’ formative years investing in baseball, my first love. We spent months at a time at Heritage Park in Walkersville, rooting for, coaching, and supporting each of the boys on the diamond. Tennis came through our son Tim, who suffered the ignominy of being cut from the baseball team his freshmen year. (To this day, I know in my heart that he would have been an excellent high school baseball player—fastest hands at the plate I’d ever seen, but that’s another story.) It was a blessing in disguise. He joined the tennis team sophomore year, and by senior year he was part of the best doubles combo in the region, dominating everyone and advancing to the State tournament. With the bar set high by his brother, Thomas chose tennis in high school and never looked back.

Our boys are good athletes. They aren’t superstars or Division 1 prospects, but they have great hand/eye coordination and competitive spirits. Tennis, baseball, basketball—our boys have played hundreds if not thousands of games on rec teams, travel teams and high school teams. We’ve driven them to countless practices, dropped them off at numerous camps, and written dozens of checks for uniforms and end-of-season banquets. I’ve coached, umpired, kept score, cheered a little too loudly, and once or twice even disagreed with the referee’s call. Karen has cheered way too loudly. We’ve sat in the wind, the snow, the cold, on hard benches, and in the car waiting for the rain to pass. We’ve driven to the four corners of the region, from Northern Pennsylvania to Southern Maryland, from College Park to Frostburg University. It was worth every penny and every minute.

At some point in the next few weeks, it will end. Karen and I will probably cry a little. Maybe a lot. Youth sports has been a major part of our life for the past 15 years, and it’s hard to imagine what we will do without it.

It seems fitting today, therefore, to take a time out and offer a few reflections. I could write a year’s worth of blogs on some of our experiences, but today I want to offer a few key lessons I’ve learned. Perhaps you are just beginning this parental sports journey, or are smack in the middle of it, or need help reminiscing about your own family’s experiences. Here are some things both difficult and delightful to ponder, things that I’ve learned and am still learning. You’ll notice that I’m proud of our boys, maybe annoyingly so. So be it. Here’s the pitch:

Tim got cut from the JV baseball team despite hitting nearly .500 on his summer team. Jonathan earned five varsity letters in basketball and baseball and only ever started one game. Thomas once sat through an entire JV basketball game in which only 5 kids played. (I couldn’t fathom what purpose that served for player development—to play 5 out of 12 kids in a JV game?) Never the biggest or fastest, our kids were often overlooked. We never expected them to be the stars, but there were times when the favoritism I witnessed made me so angry, I could have killed a rabid badger with my bear hands. Sometimes I was right and sometimes I was wrong. More than once, I watched kids who lacked effort get a multitude of chances to mess up, while my kids would get pulled for the slightest infraction. More than once, I lost sleep over the perceived injustice my kids received. Because of sports, I understand what the phrase "bite my tongue" means. I nearly bit mine in half trying to restrain myself.

Here’s a promise: Your kid won't be treated fairly. This is reality. We all love our kid the most. We love them more than we love the other kid. Therefore, it will seem (and may be true) that they aren’t getting a fair shake. Youth sports is a microcosm of life, and life isn’t fair. Some families have more influence and are considered the “insiders.” Some coaches have blurry perspectives and unfortunate motivations. Effort (and even talent) does not always result in equal treatment. Buy me a beer, and I could rant for five days on specific incidents, but it would be healthier for both of us if we just accepted it. Your kid won’t be treated fairly. It will drive you nuts. Accept it or die trying. At the end of the day, I always had the privilege of taking my kid home with me. They always got over it faster than I did, and I wouldn’t have traded my kid for anyone else’s kid, ever.

It’s important to realize that as parents, our egos are in play just as much as our kids’ egos. Yesterday, I was watching Thomas’s match, and was standing beside the family of the boy he was playing. It was clearly a mismatch. I listened to the family as they talked about the play on the court and rooted for their son, whom they loved, all the time knowing Thomas was going to beat him easily. I’m not making this up--this evil thought actually passed through my mind: You know my son is going to dominate yours, right? You might want to turn your head, because it’s going to be ugly. Yes, my heart is that dark. They were nice people, and I didn’t say a word.

C’mon, you’ve had that thought, haven’t you? If you have the slightest amount of competitive spirit, your ego is in play, too. It’s in play when your kid is winning, and it’s in play when your kid is losing. It’s in play when you have to root for the kid who is getting the playing time over yours. It’s in play when your kid messes up and you hear other parents griping about him. It’s in play when your kid loses the big game, and you have to watch the other team celebrate. It's in play when your kid makes the game-winning catch, and you want to make sure the paper gets it right. If we are honest, our identity is enmeshed in how our kid is doing on the field. We want our kid to do well because we love our kid, and because we love the ego boost we get when our kid succeeds. If this isn't true for you, you are a far better person than I am. Sports is a crucible that grinds our egos to dust, time and time again. I haven't conquered this problem in my life, but I have come to recognize it.

Athletics is a god in our culture. It’s easy to get sucked into worshiping that god. For the past 15 years I have fought the internal and external battle between being a youth pastor and a sports lover, between being a respectable youth pastor who wants his kids to love God, and a competitive father who wants them to win. It’s easy to get sucked into the mindset that we need to do everything possible to ensure that our kids succeed at sports. At times it seems like this requires us to forsake God for the god of sports. This war of the gods takes place in daily and seasonal decisions we make as a family: Should my daughter go to lacrosse camp or the mission trip? Do I sign my son up for that travel team if it means he can’t go to youth group for the next six months? Do we finally get to go on that family vacation in August, or do we let our daughter try out for field hockey? There are no cut and dried answers to these decisions, and I am not saying we never choose the sporting activity. But I would say this: As parents, we have a responsibility to keep sports in their proper place so they help transform our kids, not transfix them.

The same goes for us. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard parents utter the word “scholarship” as if it’s the holy grail of parenting. It’s laughable. A friend of mine has a daughter in college on a lacrosse scholarship. I asked him how much his daughter gets. He chuckled and said, “She gets $1000.” Her equipment probably costs more than that.

Athletics is a great proving ground for a kid’s faith as well as ours. But athletic prowess is not the end game. A strong character and relationship with Christ is far more important. Now that my sons are young men, it’s easier to see this truth.

Nothing is more fun for Karen and I than watching our boys play sports. There is absolutely nothing I’d rather do than watch my boys play—not eat, not sleep, not go on vacation, not win the lottery, not discover gold in my backyard. Watching them perform music is a close second, but I am a sports nut and sports still wins out. Thanks to the past 15 years, I have a treasure chest of memories in my head and in my heart.

I remember the time Jon threw a shutout in the Babe Ruth 12-year-old State Tournament. It kept his team alive for another round. I remember a summer night when he was 15 and I was the coach of his travel team. We were in Purcellville, VA, at this gorgeous little stadium under the lights. He threw a seven-inning shutout on 72 pitches—the most efficient game I ever saw a kid pitch at any level. I remember the time his freshman year when, right before halftime against Urbana, he jumped and chucked the basketball ¾ of the length of the gym and swished it.
I remember when Tim hit his first homerun over the fence at a tournament in Smithsburg. I remember a basketball game when he was 16 when he single-handedly outscored the entire opposing team. I remember watching him at the Middletown tennis courts on a hot Saturday afternoon in May of his senior year, as he wrapped up his regional doubles championship with a giant chest bump with his partner, Matt.
I remember when Thomas was in 8th grade and hit the go-ahead three-pointer against Monocacy Middle School with 17 seconds left. I remember when the coach called him off the bench to shoot two crucial free throws in the waning seconds, and he sank them both so easily it was like dropping coins in a vending machine. I remember just a few weeks ago when he beat an arch rival on the tennis courts and was so excited he screamed a primal scream that echoed through the walls of Walkersville. 

I wish I could watch them all again--relive every game, every moment. They are treasures we hold dear. Even the losses and difficult moments are fused onto my heart like gold plating on the Arc of the Covenant. Yes, youth sports has nearly been a religious experience for us, and just like our relationship with God, it was filled with agony and ecstasy, heartbreak and revelry, tears and laughter, and everything in between. It has been an incredible 15 years. I'm grateful for all of them, and sorry to see them go. I've learned a lot. I hope you are learning, too.

The clock is running down. It's match point. It's the bottom of the ninth. The game is nearly over, but the memories and lessons will live on.