As I walked into the middle school auditorium for a recent school event, another mom asked how I was doing. I told her our family was grateful to be able to breathe again after finally finishing soccer season. “Our family never breathes,” she said, and proceeded to describe how travel soccer overlaps with travel lacrosse all year long. They were going to try squeezing basketball into their son’s schedule as well. She listed each responsibility in her family’s schedule like a badge of honor.

I was exhausted just listening.

Playing with Idolatry 

I live in suburban America. Our town has four elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. Our district is ranked quite comfortably in the state as high-achieving. We have one post office and two fire stations. We are 25 minutes from Philadelphia, and about 90 minutes from New York City.

People move here to realize the American Dream. Minivans, pet stores, and picket fences abound. We’re a carbon copy of thousands of other small towns across the country. And these towns are filled with families like the Smiths, who have determined their kids’ success in sports and other extracurricular activities is the top priority.

My wife and I are wading through the murky waters of youth sports with our kids as well. They play for travel soccer teams, which keeps us busy each weekend for about two-thirds of the year. We have two children, but numerous sports-overwhelmed families have more.

There’s an idolatry problem in our community related to youth sports. I see this problem every weekend as families gather at the field rather than their church. It’s a problem in my heart, too. 

I feel deep tension as we walk through this season of family life. Jesus makes it clear we cannot serve two masters (Matt. 6:24). And the taskmaster of sports success always demands my attention.

Here are some guiding principles to help navigate the sports scene. 

1. Sports are not bad. 

Sports often provide great opportunities for ministry. The apostle Paul even uses sports to illustrate how we should live (1 Cor. 9:24–27). He affirms that physical training has value (1 Tim. 4:8).

The problem comes when sports—and in particular my kids’ success in sports—begin to take first place in my family’s economy.

2. My family does sports in our community rather than outside it.

God has called our family to the mission field of our neighborhood. And one of the best ways to build relationships is to go where the people are—local fields, gyms, and pools.

There are some excellent sports programs run by Christian ministries, but we’ve chosen to do life in our community, which includes church, school, and sports. We hope this will provide regular opportunities to be on mission by encountering the same people repeatedly.

3. We must set limits.

Sports programs in our community are always offering more. They will take as much as we will give them.

Our family must somtimes say no to programs or fundraisers or tournaments. The next three principles help us choose when we need to do so.

4. God has called our family to worship with our church on a weekly basis.

One of the biggest shifts in youth sports is the consistent use of Sunday as a game day. My children play games on Sunday. Those games, however, are not our first priority. We will attend church together as a family on a weekly basis. It’s okay if this worship requires us to arrive late or even miss a game. I communicate that priority graciously to their coaches.

5. I want my children to find stronger community with fellow Christians than with their sports teams. 

This one is tricky. Intensity within a sports team binds players together. Since most of my kids’ teammates are not Christians, though, there’s no opportunity for gospel fellowship and community with their teammates.

So we fight to have our kids attend church youth functions consistently and even miss games occasionally for retreats or other events. We also provide regular opportunities for interaction between our kids and godly adults.

6. When “breathing” is not optional, it’s time for a heart check.

If our schedule is so regularly insane that we can’t rest, then perhaps our heart has subtly shifted. We always have time for what is most important to us. If our calendars leave room for nothing but the kids’ activities, then maybe those activities have become what we value most. Family devotional times are challenging in the best of times, but during soccer season they often disappear.

What are we communicating to our children about priorities when we have time for all of their sports but never to read God’s Word together?

Jesus rested and escaped his hectic ministry to pray (Luke 5:16). God established a sabbath principle for our protection and joy. He summons us to be still (Ps. 46:10). And in those quiet moments our family learns what is most important: the need to inhale the life-giving truth and love of Jesus our King. 

Grace for the Sports-Entranced Family

While these guidelines provide a helpful framework for us to approach sports in a healthy way, their power is limited. No matter how many rules I put in place, my heart still bends toward counterfeit gods (Jer. 17:9).

Am I guilty of being a sports idolater? Yes. Does this mean I may continue modeling this pattern of behavior for my family? By no means! (Rom. 6:2). Rather, in God’s amazing way, he continually takes my idolatry and redeems it by the power of his gospel. He gives me opportunities to model for my children repentance and the outpouring of his grace (Rom. 5:20). And he continues to grow us as we live in this tension.

Thankfully, my greatest hope lies not in our family’s ability to navigate sports without idolatry; it lies in God’s faithfulness to grant grace that leads us to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.