Talking to our Kids about Winning, Losing, and the Goal of Sports
Someone has said that one of the most difficult things in sports is using a rounded bat to hit a round ball coming at you at a high rate of speed. This may be true, but a far harder thing is teaching your kids to think rightly about sports. Our family is just beginning to enter into the world of kids and sports, and already we are asking the question of how to talk about it rightly. There are so many factors, and they can all be done wrongly. Winning can be loved too much, losing can be hated too much, and the goal of sports can be missed completely. Which means sports can be fertile soil for good counsel. So what is good counsel regarding this topic? There are a number of phrases that get thrown around so often these words may have literary whiplash. Such phrases include:
- Just do your best
- It is not about winning or losing but having fun
- It is not about winning or losing but how you play the game
- You win some, you lose some
Is that the best we can do? I think not. So, I would like to offer some ideas about how to think and speak about sports as we disciple our children in biblical and godly living.
What is the goal of Sports?
Those who have been raised on a catechism might respond with the answer to the first question of the Westminster catechism: What is the chief end of man? Answer: To glorify God and enjoy him forever. This is true for sports as well. But the “chief end” needs to be boiled down to the daily practical goals of sports. In this regard, there are many different goals that sports may help achieve, such as health benefits, building relationships, or pursuing athletic scholarships. These sub-goals need to be tied back into the chief end: a healthy body for serving others for the sake of God’s name; relationships that open the door to speak God’s truth in love; scholarships that steward God-given resources for the sake of the kingdom.
As you may already see, the goal of sports is a unique outworking of loving God and loving neighbor, the first and second greatest commandments. When you look at sports through the lens of loving God and loving others it begins to change things dramatically.
What about Competition?
So far we haven’t really gotten to the big question. No one is crying about not getting their heart rate up enough during their volleyball game. Neither are they angry because basketball is leaving them too winded to talk about how to follow Christ at work. The problem is competition. Adults struggle with this, but we see it all the time in kids. Most people want to win. We want to win the trophy, the money, and/or the respect. Is this wrong? How does competition relate to loving others and loving God? Is competition a part of the fall, or is it a compatible feature of Christlikeness?
First, I don’t believe there is ever a time that competition cancels out love for God and love for neighbor. Love for God means our competition never justifies cheating, anger, selfish ambition, or pride. At the same time, love for neighbor means our competition never justifies purposeful or probable injury to another, seeing ourselves as more important, or not serving the true needs of other competitors even in the midst of competition. Finally, love for both neighbor and for God defines what we do with the prizes and platform we win.
On the flip side, I do believe that competition is a unique form of spurring one another on to love and good deeds. When you compete, you are pushing yourself and others to be the best they can be. Few things draw out excellence better than competition. It is not that learning how to do a bicycle kick in soccer is another step in godliness. Instead, there are undergirding realties of the bicycle kick that can carry over into godliness; things like self-discipline, endurance, patience, teachability and wisdom. These are character matters that will be used in many different places other than the sports field. Competition can draw out these wonderful characteristics, and the coach and the diligent parent can connect them to the work of the Spirit and kingdom-first living.
So let’s ask a little deeper question about competition. Is it right to want to win? In the oft-used phrases we saw above, winning and losing were all downplayed. Is that right?
Here is my take on it. If you are competing, you ought to strive for winning. If you don’t, you are not loving neighbor or loving God. You are not loving neighbor because you are either being deceitful at worst or unhelpful at best, by making them think they are better than they are and not pushing them to achieve their full potential. Love to God is not happening either. If you are restraining yourself for no good reason, that is called laziness. You are not drawing out and refining all the potential that he created you with.
So strive to win when you are competing. But in your striving, understand that losing is not bad. If you are competing under the umbrella of love for God and love for neighbor, a loss is just another step in maximizing your potential. A loss may also be because God gifted someone else more than you. These are both good things. The agony of defeat is not an appropriate emotion in light of good things. In addition to the good things already mentioned, if you trust the sovereignty of God, then he has even more reasons for your loss. In fact, Ecclesiastes specifically states that the race doesn’t always go to the fastest. Ecclesiastes 9:11 “I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all.” So even if you are the better athlete, God has other things he is working together for your good and you should trust Him.
A few caveats are in order. First, a person is not always competing, or at least they shouldn’t be. If someone is turning everything into a competition, that is an indicator that they are not loving God or neighbor, they just love the winning. Love for God and neighbor means meeting needs, and people need far more than what a competition can help them with. Second, seeking first the kingdom of God means that there are many other features of life that God will have you serving in. Sports is not life. Unless you are in the .05 percent of the population that has some incredible talent that can be leveraged for a special purpose, there are other things you need to give attention to. Competitive sports is not the priority, and many families get way out of whack on this. They see some talent, they loving winning and the attention, and before they know it they are gone every weekend to another tournament. Yes, scholarships are something to consider. But just like we tell the career man, there are more important things than the corner office and getting the raise. Scholarships are for the uniquely gifted and not for those who will sacrifice family, friends, education, and God’s calling to win that scholarship.
So how can we talk to our kids about sports? I think we have to keep kingdom priorities before their eyes. Love for God and love for neighbor is the goal. When they win, affirm that this is God’s gifting and it is being used wonderfully. Teach your kids to encourage teammates and opponents to use all that God has gifted them with. Highlight the priority of building relationships through sports for the purpose of sharing the gospel and serving others. When they lose, affirm how they are growing and getting better and this competition is helping. Teach them to affirm and celebrate other’s abilities. Help them understand that we are secure in Christ. Our value is found at the cross, not on the winner’s podium.
All of life is for Christ, including sports. Apart from the gospel, sports will become just another thing corrupted by the flesh. But in Christ, even sports can be used to display the glory of God. Christlikeness will stand out as much as incredible talent, and will be used by the Spirit in ways no recruiter could ever match.
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