EDITOR’S NOTE: In addition to being a widely recognized expert on family leadership, Southern Seminary Provost Randy Stinson is an avid sports fan. As the father of eight children, Stinson has learned how to use sports as a tool for discipleship and character development. These five lessons demonstrate concrete ways parents can use sports to disciple their children.
Authority is part of the stamp of God over all of creation. Once an athlete steps onto the field, the umpires or referees are the final authority on how the game is played. Very often, these fallible people get the call wrong. It is important for our children to realize we must learn how to submit to imperfect authorities and to know God will use the unfair call, favoritism, or just plain negligent people to shape us into the image of Christ. Using the referees or umpires as excuses for not doing well or losing the big game reveal character issues a parent can begin to rehabilitate.
Every sport features coaches who make dozens of decisions, call multiple plays, and might even put your kid on the bench. These are perfect opportunities to teach your child how to submit and learn obedience even when they disagree with the one giving them instruction. One of the most disappointing scenarios is watching parental outrage when coaches make certain decisions. They are setting a terrible example. Authority is given by God for our protection, and we should learn to listen to those who have charge over us.
In most sports, athletes encounter opportunities to put themselves in harm’s way for the good of the whole team or another teammate. In any of these situations, players must learn and cultivate the idea of self-sacrifice. This was at the heart of the life of Christ and is at the heart of the Christian life. For both boys and girls — although probably to differing degrees and for differing ultimate purposes — getting knocked down and getting back up again will build a sense of godly resilience, certainly necessary to live out the adult Christian life.
DEALING WITH UNFAIRNESS AND FAILURE
In a Genesis 3 world, unfairness is a significant part of life and sports competitions are loaded with moments of unfairness. One of the ways I measure the Christian maturity of my children is by watching how they respond to unfair situations. In certain cases appeals may be made, but in a fallen world, unfairness abounds, and God will sort these things out according to his good pleasure.
Failure happens regularly in sports and it is almost always very apparent and public. Learning how to deal with it often turns out to be one of the richest uses of sports in the discipleship of our children. Christians in particular should be the best at dealing with failure because we have a distinct theological category for it. Rather than covering for our children or making excuses for them, parents should help their children accept this as a part of life.
A common expression from one athlete to another is to “shake it off” after a botched play or a minor injury. Most sports require a lot of mental toughness, and good leadership on the field means you are encouraging teammates to “shake it off” so that they will be ready for the next play. Typically, focusing on failure in sports means that you are not focused for the next play, which means another failure. We have taught our kids not to correct another player while on the field but to discuss strategies for improvement in between innings, plays, side changes, or timeouts. Good leaders on the field offer encouragement and remember to “shake it off.”
SHOWING GRACE, MERCY, AND HONOR
This is not the part where it’s time to say, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” This is where it’s time to remember that someone wins and someone loses. My concern for my children is how they act in each situation. While competition can potentially end up being a bad thing, I think there is something inherent in us that strives for victory and loathes defeat. Genesis 3:15 illustrates a profound struggle and a crushing victory. The New Testament epistles use language of competition, like when Jude alludes to contending for the gospel (Jude 3) and Paul describes striving for sanctification (1 Cor 9:24-27). The inward desire to embrace victory and avoid defeat is an opportunity to point ourselves to the gospel. In our humiliating losses, we congratulate our opponent on their great victory and commit to strengthen our weaknesses. In our triumphant victories, we honor our opponent while extending grace.