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Should parents encourage kids to participate in organized sports—even if it means missing church occasionally? “Absolutely,” say five families who are actively involved in their Christian Reformed churches 40 minutes east of Toronto. All have spent thousands of hours driving their kids to practices, games, and weekend tournaments.

A Healthy Outlet
Jeff Friend, an inspector with Durham Regional Police, and his wife, Beth, a child and youth worker, subscribe to the “keep ’em busy” approach to parenting. In their careers, they regularly see the mess that young people can make of their lives. “Idle hands, idle minds,” Beth observes. “We keep our children busy. That way they have an out, especially when there’s temptation from peers to get into trouble.”

Physical inactivity, excessive screen time, or trouble-breeding boredom are not their parental concerns for Jessica, 17, and Jacob, 15. Both have been busy with organized sports since age 4, beginning in house leagues and quickly advancing to more competitive traveling teams. Today Jessica is a top athlete in the Ontario Youth Soccer League while Jacob plays AAA hockey.

Energy and Time
High levels of energy and the willingness to invest lots of time are necessary requirements for any family considering organized sports, especially if there’s more than one person in the family who needs to get to the rink, field, or pool. “We got bit by the soccer bug,” say Peter and Leemore Hoekstra, parents of five children. Two of their children, Rebecca, 21, and Rachel, 19, are now attending U.S. colleges on soccer scholarships. “We didn’t even know about soccer scholarships when we started,” Peter says cheerfully.

The unexpected blessing of scholarships aside, the Hoekstras appreciate organized sports for the healthy outlet that it’s always been for their entire family. “Peter’s hyper,” Leemore laughs as she listens to her husband exuberantly describe his daughters’ exploits on the field. “We’re all hyper!” Rebecca agrees. “Always late and always rushing,” Rachel remembers. “During the year it’s go, go, go,” says her dad. “I’m not one to say no. You see that your child has some talent, and you do what you can to help her develop it.”

A childhood full of early practices, evening games, and weekend tournaments may seem daunting, but for Jessica and Jacob Friend it has yielded benefits. “I’ve learned time management, and I’ve become more independent,” Jessica explains. “I’ve gotten used to making time for everything. Routine is very important.” Her brother adds, “I’ve gotten used to saying, ‘I can’t. I’ve got hockey.’ Everything is so compressed. But because of this, I find it easier to meet deadlines at school.” These are mature words from two teens struggling to balance busy lives. But in the world of organized sports, there’s no such thing as arriving late or missing practices or games. A coach will excuse you for a wedding, a funeral, or a 50th anniversary, but skipping practice for a friend’s birthday party may get you benched.

Building Character
Time management is only one of the qualities kids develop through involvement in organized sports. Other qualities include skill development, self-confidence, discipline, team spirit, sportsmanship, leadership, and the ability to deal with disappointments. When Jacob was cut from the team one year, he felt that he had disappointed his parents. “I had to tell my dad, and that was hard on me. He could tell I was upset, but he was very empathetic.”

Although Rebecca and Rachel Hoekstra have never been cut, they have encountered some poor officiating along the way. Their father admits that parents get pretty heated about a missed call. “It’s your kids out there. That’s how people get hurt.” He has taught his girls that a bad call is an opportunity to be gracious and take the high road. “They’ve learned to listen, to follow instructions, and to take criticism,” he says, reflecting on his daughters’ character development.

Doing Your Best
At the Eastview Boys and Girls Club in Oshawa, Ontario, Brad and Michele George watch proudly as two of their five children, Alicia, 12, and Sophia, 10, perform their synchronized swimming routine in the pool with seven other girls. Hands shoot up, faces turn sharply, and legs are pushed into the air in perfect timing to the music.

Brad and Michele are national-level synchronized swimming judges. Michele’s own involvement in synchronized swimming got her girls interested. Today, Alicia and Sophia spend at least 12 hours in the pool each week. “We got the coach to move Sunday practice to an earlier time so that we can be done by 10:30 a.m. and still make it to the 11 a.m. service,” Michele explains. She jokes, “It probably helped that Brad is the president of the swimming club.”

Scholarships in synchronized swimming are not very likely. The Olympics? Who knows! Brad and Michele mainly visualize a future for their girls that includes lifeguarding, coaching, and teaching.

What really matters to them is that their children do their best in whatever they attempt. Brad shares the story of his oldest daughter, who was diagnosed with cancer. “She swam 18 hours a week during high school and learned how to manage both school and swimming. I’m convinced that her discipline and fitness helped her cope with the disease. While finishing college and undergoing the last stages of chemo, she got accepted as a paramedic out of 600 applicants!”

Is doing your best in synchronized swimming difficult? “Only when you’re trying really hard and a new routine isn’t working,” Alicia answers. But what about those morning practices and trying to get your homework done? “I’m an early person,” Sophia smiles. “And I don’t get that much homework yet.”

Counting the Cost
Rob Engelage is a mechanic who owns his own garage. He played hockey in a church league and remembers his father saying, “Organized hockey is on Sunday. You’re not playing!”

Rob and his wife, Teresa, a nurse, were young and money was tight when their two sons, Andrew and Aaron, now 24 and 22, asked to play hockey. The house league provided Andrew’s goalie equipment; the rest they bought used. Andrew got a shutout in his first game. Soon someone said, “Get him to play AAA.”

Initially Andrew also played baseball and Aaron played soccer. “It was ridiculous,” Teresa recalls. “We said, ‘Pick a sport.’” After that it was hockey all the way.

Rob and Teresa acknowledge that organized hockey is expensive. Crockpots and “survival kits” full of sandwiches, fruit, and sports drinks make tournaments more affordable. But there’s always the cost of upgrading equipment, registration fees, ice time, gas, and hotels. If it leads to an athletic scholarship or a professional career, the expenses are an excellent investment. But when a hockey stick breaks during a game, there’s probably a mom in the stands thinking, “There goes our groceries!”

In Andrew’s case, this pricey venture led to the Windsor Spitfires, where he set an Ontario Hockey League season record of 46 wins by a goalie and helped his team win the Memorial Cup, the most coveted prize in Junior A hockey. Today he tends goal professionally for the Utah Grizzlies and his NHL-sized dream is very much alive.

Health Issues
Rob Snoek did not let an amputated leg hold him back from pursuing his Olympic dreams. A three-time Paralympian, he has translated his athletic experience into a career as a radio and television sports broadcaster. When his youngest son, Wesley, 13, was diagnosed with Legg-Perthes disease at age 5, he remained hopeful that his son would still be able to play. “His hip was necrotic,” explains Pam Snoek, a nurse. Thankfully, Wesley’s hip regenerated itself and hockey actually helped him to become stronger. Today he plays AAA hockey like his older brother, Nathan, 16, who has been relatively injury free despite his “high risk, big reward” approach to the game.

Injuries are normal in sports. In his career, Andrew Engelage has suffered a concussion and groin injuries. His brother’s NHL dream was dashed by surgery and rehab for a torn knee cartilage. After a nasty header, Rebecca Hoekstra needed 18 stitches; her sister, Rachel, has rolled her ankles. Jessica Friend has broken both collarbones and her brother, Jacob, was sidelined for five games when he stretched his ACL.

Other health issues are also a concern in organized sports. In the quest for an edge, young athletes may experiment with energy drinks or be tempted to try performance-enhancing drugs. In synchronized swimming, eating disorders is a worry. “Body image is always an issue,” Michele George points out. “Coaches and judges are encouraged to keep an eye on intake and weight so that the girls don’t become skin and bones.”

Faith Formation
But what about spiritual health? What about sports and Sunday observance? What about faith formation?

All five families agree that sports can become a form of idolatry. “It can become your everything,” Michelle George says. “I see it all the time in parents who want their kids to be the next best thing.” Jeff and Beth Friend acknowledge that sports are a huge part of their kids’ identity—and theirs as well. Nathan Snoek says, “I couldn’t imagine my life without sports.”

None of the families, however, can imagine their lives without God and the church. The Friends make it a priority to attend church as a family whenever they’re home. Peter and Leemore Hoekstra insist, “Our identity is in Christ.” The Engelage family transferred to a congregation that offers two morning services so they could attend church after practice. For the George family, the Sunday morning routine includes packing church clothes along with bathing suits before they rush out the door at 6:30 a.m. The Snoeks cherish their church friends. All stress the importance of prayer when faced with stressful tryouts, coaches who give their own kids preferential treatment, or difficult decisions like choosing between an academic or an athletic track. “We pray often,” Michele George says, watching her girls in the pool. “We do personal devotions. We listen to praise songs on our headphones. We have a spirit of worship in our home and in our lives.”

A Missional Life
Organized sports are arguably a great way to live a more missional life. “People have come to us to talk about their marriages,” Pam Snoek says. “God has even used us to help them.” All speak about the joy of having church friends and sports friends. Jessica and Jacob Friend recognize that they are role models for the younger players. Rebecca and Rachel Hoekstra love their involvement in a sports ministry for disadvantaged kids.

Still, faith formation is a huge concern for these families. “I regret that I did not insist on a Christian family for my son when he was billeted in Windsor,” Teresa Engelage says. She also acknowledges that she had to distance herself from certain hockey friends who were pulling her away from God. “They liked to party. When you feel that their influence is stronger than our faith influence, it’s time to cut ties.”

Rob Engelage recalls the fears his mother once voiced about her grandsons’ faith. At the time he asked her, “But how do you think Christians get into the NHL? Don’t we want Christians in the NHL?” For Rob Snoek, Paralympian, sports journalist, and hockey parent, the answer is simple. “Organized sports are no more of a challenge to your faith than anything else. We feel that our kids’ athletic ability is a gift from God and it would be a disservice not to use it in his service. We would never pray that our sons win a game—only that they use their gifts to honor the Lord.”

Every Square Inch
Do we want Christians in organized and professional sports? Since Jesus is the Lord of every square inch, the answer is yes. And let’s be honest. The Christian athletes whose witness we celebrate when they publicly thank God got there by developing their talents in organized sports while wrestling with the question that confronts every Christ-follower: How do we live in the world without becoming of the world?

“I’m very competitive,” Jessica Friend says. “I don’t like to lose. But if I do I’ll shake my opponents’ hands and give them a high five.” Standing up, Jessica and Jacob thank me for the conversation. Both shake my hand. As I watch them leave, I admire their youthful poise and thank God for the physical and spiritual vitality of all these parents and young athletes.


Digging Deeper

The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families by Mark Hyman (Beacon Press, 2012). 176 pp.

Whose Game Is It Anyway? A Guide to Helping Your Child Get the Most from Sports, Organized by Age and Stage by Richard D. Ginsburg and Stephen Durant with Amy Baltzell (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). 314 pp. Fran Dicari is a self-admitted overscheduled dad of overscheduled athletic kids. His blog covers the costs, comedy, and competition of youth sports in America. This Christian organization “works with athletes and coaches to use the unique platform of sports to help people around the world with questions of faith.”


Web Qs

  1. Should parents encourage kids to participate in organized sports—even if it means missing church occasionally? Explain your position.
  2. What are the pros and cons of the “keep ’em busy” approach to parenting?
  3. In what way do sports help build character?
  4. Can sports be a detriment to healthy emotional and spiritual health? Explain.
  5. Rob Snoek says that “organized sports are no more of a challenge to your faith than anything else.”  Do you agree or disagree? Why?
  6. How do we live in the world without becoming of the world?

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