Are We Raising ‘Soft’ Kids? Why Sports Are Non-Negotiable in My Family

Millions of us watched the Olympics, awed by the artistry of sheer physical excellence. The stirring theme song has been silent now for weeks, and we’re back to our ordinary routines of work, school, and whatever. For an increasing number of our kids, however, the “whatever” is less and less likely to involve sports. By age 13, 70% of kids have dropped out of organized sports—and, often, out of physical activity altogether.

The media and celebrities, including Michelle Obama, are all over the issue of childhood obesity; encouraging kids to play sports is certainly one way to keep our kids healthy. We live in a sedentary, information-oriented world. Gone are the days when a child’s day naturally involved physical work or even vigorous outdoor play in the neighborhood. Today’s kids are more likely to be working their thumbs on cell phones or Play Station than working out, unless mom and dad shuttle them to sports practices.

From my perspective, however, the value of sports is way bigger than lowering cholesterol and shedding pounds. Training for and competing in sports are necessary to give our kids the mental toughness they need not only to succeed in life, but also to become saints.  When we let our kids drop out of or avoid sports activities, we run the risk of raising ‘soft’ kids who can’t endure the natural physical difficulties of life without complaint, therapy, or giving up. That’s no way to build a strong human being, and it’s certainly not what makes saints.

It troubles me when I see parents—especially those who are doing a great job forming their kids intellectually and spiritually–undervalue the role of sports. I hear parents say with a shrug that their kids “aren’t interested” in playing sports. They just “don’t want to.” (Certainly problems like high-pressure coaches may contribute to a child’s reluctance—but that’s a topic for another discussion.) Other parents, especially those whose children are more inclined to reading, music, or art, see no need for their children to waste time on sports when their natural gifts lie elsewhere. So all these kids quit sports, or never even get started. I think that’s a huge mistake.

Our children need to build the habit—in body and mind–of facing physical difficulty with perseverance, goal-orientation, and confidence.  We must help them learn to master their bodies–to integrate their choice to pursue the good with the habitual capacity to follow through. Otherwise, their good intentions and untested “virtues” will easily crumble in the face of the physical challenges that simply cannot be avoided in life.

Life is often painful, sweaty, and uncomfortable. Just like sports. We don’t get to choose whether to “sign up” for chronic illness, devastating disease, or even old age.  And while we don’t want to frame our kids’ participation in sports around preparing them for the really bad things in life, we as parents need to keep in mind that we cannot prevent physical suffering for our kids.  We can only prepare them for it: we can help them build virtue in the face of it.

A friend’s daughter developed a brain tumor at 10 and suffered through two years of painful treatments and increasing disability before dying, but it was her athletic spirit that kept her fighting. Even at her young age, she had learned how to take pain and push through it, keeping her mind’s eye on the goal.  Before she got sick, it meant running laps and doing wind sprints for basketball, so that she’d have the stamina to score with her signature layup all through the game. After she become ill, it meant eating when she didn’t want to and continuing normal activities that were suddenly grueling. Restored health and functioning were the goals set before her. And as it became clear that she was losing the physical battle, she shifted her goal and kept her eyes on her eternal prize, knowing that her sufferings would turn into elation when the final buzzer sounded.  Both in life and in dying, her physical courage intertwined with simple faith. Not a coincidence.

Just as we can’t choose whether to sign up for physical challenges, neither do we get to “quit” when life’s requirements are tedious or painful. Any mom who has lumbered through her ninth month of pregnancy in August knows what I mean. Our daughters need the mental toughness that will help them persevere, as moms, through the physical pains of childbirth and the months of bone-wearying, sleepless nights that may follow. Both our sons and daughters need to practice overcoming  their bodies’ complaints, learning to transcend tiredness, pain, and monotony for the sake of a worthy goal.

It’s physical perseverance, for sure, but even more importantly it’s mental discipline, a requirement for growing in virtue. One young mom I know works two jobs right now, while pregnant with her second child, because her husband cannot find work.  Exhausting? Yes, but she’s got the discipline and the fortitude to push through fatigue and mental discouragement, eyes firmly fixed on one goal: keeping her family solvent. She has what it takes to “just do it.”

When it comes right down to it, living the virtuous life is often a matter of “just doing it,” step-by-step perseverance in the ordinary duties of our vocation. My husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the young age of 42. Every physical movement now, ten years later, from walking to getting dressed to typing on his Blackberry, takes the mental toughness of a quarter-miler running repeat intervals on a swelteringly hot day. He can’t quit just because the routine’s gotten old and no spectators are cheering on the sidelines of his daily challenge. For my sons, the daily discipline of working out—whether they feel like it or not—will, I hope, give them the capacity to persevere, to rise above the physical sufferings they will surely endure in their own lives, in the same way that their father perseveres in his.

The best thing about sports, however, just as in life, is that sometimes we can catch a glimpse of heaven, knowing that, “I have fought the good fight.  I have finished the race. “ [2 Tim 4:7] Our kids can experience the satisfaction of training well, giving their best, and finishing the race utterly spent but down-deep happy. The uninhibited joy of a last-minute touchdown, the elation of a best time, and the unity of a team effort all foreshadow a bit of the joy of heaven.

Our kids will have their own Olympic moments if we train them well.  More than likely it will not be in front of worldwide TV cameras, but alone on the field, the track or in the pool—when they push on even though it hurts and they just “don’t want to.” Later in life, the cumulative value of their Olympic moments will be much greater than a gold medal sitting in a safe deposit box.  It all adds up to priceless virtue and saintly character that will bring them across the finish line to an eternal reward. Now that’s real victory in my book.

(c) 2010 Mary Rice Hasson

This column first appeared at Phases of Womanhood.

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16 thoughts on “Are We Raising ‘Soft’ Kids? Why Sports Are Non-Negotiable in My Family

  1. How sad. What about kids who need alone time, or time to stare at the clouds, or time to pursue creative outlets, or think original thoughts? I’m so grateful my parents recognized that I am an introvert who needs lots of time to recover from interaction with people all day. Saintly character is not all about extroversion and “non-negotiable” activities: many saints were and are contemplative.

    Despite never having been forced to participate in group sports, I am an adult marathoner and a yoga enthusiast: physical activities that also take into account my soul’s needs rather than an overbearing parental need.

    • Tina,
      Thanks for your comment. I totally agree with you about the need for alone time, and quiet, creative time. I think it’s a question of balance and individual temperament that has to come into play here.
      My point is that kids benefit from doing physically difficult things on a regular basis. Group sports can be one of those things, but so can individual sports or other physical activities. The emphasis here is on the virtue-building aspect of persevering in a physical challenge. It can certainly be accomplished in a more solitary pursuit, like distance running, or an artistic one, like dance. Physical activity is one part of a balanced life and a good, increasingly neglected, way to build character.
      And by the way, I agree that sports shouldn’t be pushed in order to meet a parental need of some sort–but sadly some parents derive ego-gratification from their child’s talents not only in sports but in academics, music, and other areas as well.

  2. Surely though this depends on what is difficult to each child? I know for my two, learning to obey, to be self-controlled and to persevere at their home education is more than enough training in adversity.

    I have been researching a lot of saints, and so far I believe none of these amazing older brothers and sisters in Christ have actually lived in an age when soccer practise, athletics coaching and swim team were part of life – yet they withstood illness and self-sacrifice, and often both physical and mental torture.

    We are so not a sporty family as yet – though DD (only 2) shows signs of being a potential runner and DS loves to cycle and dreams of being in the tour de france, but there is not compulsion – Dh and I were both broken of the child’s natural love of movement and fun by compulsary sports at school, so we will let ours enjoy and have fun.

    Glad what you do works for you, but this sounds a little as if you think it should work for all of us or we are raising softies who can’t become saints.

  3. I agree with much of what you say, but I disagree that sports is the only way to teach perseverance and fortitude. Learning to master a musical instrument also requires both physical and mental perseverance – the fortitude to make oneself practice every day, and often, developing the physical stamina to play for extended periods of time. It may not appear so to someone who has never played, but many instruments require a good deal of physicalilty to play well.

  4. This is fantastic. I read it to my young athletes. One trains very hard and has a painful injury he is overcoming. The other has a cronic illness and trains equally hard. They expressed that they had never thought of their training from such perspective and were glad to have heard those words. Awesome.

  5. Hi Ladies,
    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. Let me throw a couple of thoughts in the mix…While all of our children learn to fight spiritual battles as they struggle to obey or deal with disappointment or setbacks, I do maintain that character development in general needs to include the ability to deal with physical hardship. (I don’t know enough about other instruments beyond piano, but practicing in spite of tired, cramped fingers may be difficult but doesn’t compare in my experience.)

    It’s true the saints of old did not have soccer practices…but life was physically hard. They were testing their physical limits, dealing with physical pain (and learning they could endure more than they thought they could) just in the daily hard work of life. We typically don’t have that in our society, unless you live on a farm or ranch. So, yes, I think our kids can get soft, physically, which may make them “soft” emotionally and spiritually–less able to withstand the actual physical difficulties of life later on, whether serious illness and suffering, or the sleepless nights with a newborn or as a medical resident. As anyone who has dealt with chronic pain knows, it’s easy to become self-pitying, and self-absorbed unless you have cultivated the inner strength and habit to push past the pain.

    But there’s another point to consider (one that I did not address in the blog itself), especially if you are the mother of boys. A prudent mom I know, who had only boys, told me early on that she would make sure that they each knew basic sports skills, no matter how uninterested or untalented they were at sports. They would learn how to throw and catch a baseball and a football, shoot a basketball, and swim. Her reason? Boys connect and relate very often through sports. They would need basic competency (and confidence) in order to relate to their peers at picnics, in the school yard, or in after-work softball or basketball leagues. Whether he ever plays it competitively or not, a guy’s got to know the basic rules of football, just to be able to connect easily with other guys. Even for evangelistic purposes, our kids will be better able to witness to their peers if they can find a non-religious conversation starter (and it’s less likely to be TV or music, given the offensive nature of today’s media). Sports can provide that social oil. And for boys–in today’s often effeminate, gender-bending social scene–the masculine confidence that comes from sports competency should not be overlooked.

  6. Mary,
    I’m so glad the Holy Spirit (by way of Elizabeth Foss’ blog) nudged me here today. My oldest daughter has a passion for swimming and currently swims year ’round. I’ve been resisting keeping this commitment in the future because of the inconvenience it poses to me. Thank you for this very thoughtful post that is challenging me to look beyond myself and look at the eternal picture instead.

    Blessing to you.

  7. Lucy has certainly touched upon something important in pointing out your hard objectivity in this matter, Mrs. Hasson. In addition, I can assure you from many years experience as an athlete and among athletes, that the same willpower which drives one to achieve physcial strength and exellence, can very easily become proud and self-reliant, crippling one’s spiritual life and making it very hard to submit to God’s call to be poor in spirit and entirely reliant on Him.

    While so much of what you said seems wonderful in a certain context, containing realities which I’ve always held dear, perhaps the emphasis is misplaced? God strengthens the spirit by manifold means, and many Saints were raised in wealthy homes with servants, who did the hard work for the family. Many were frail from early childhood until death. Only humility of heart will attract God’s grace, without which all else is as nothing.

    I am embarrased because I know you know all this more that I, so forgive my daring to question you, and take so much time with a long response. To help me understand these things better, could you attempt (if God allows you the time) to reconcile your objectivity, which I imagine feels rather crushing to those whose families are perhaps being led in other directions, with a following paragraph from The Imitation of Christ?

    “This is not the power of man, but it is the grace of Christ, which does so much in frail flesh; so that what naturally it always abhors and flees from, this by fervor of spirit it encounters and loves. It is not according to man to bear the cross, to love the cross, to mortify the body, and to bring it into subjection, to flee honors, willingly to suffer reproaches, to despise himself and wish to be despised, to endure all adversities and losses, and to desire no prosperity in this world. If you look to yourself, nothing of this kind shall you be able of yourself to accomplish. But if you trust in the Lord, fortitude shall be given from Heaven, and the world and the flesh shall be made subject to your sway. Neither shall you fear your Enemy, the Devil, if you are armed with faith, and signed with the cross of Christ.”

  8. Renee,

    You make a great point—any time we ascribe our own excellence (whether in sports, music, academics, or something else) to ourselves, we’re being proud and “crippling” our own spiritual growth. But pride comes from within, and I’ve seen at least as many arrogant smart kids as I have arrogant athletes. So the issue there isn’t to avoid sports because we might become driven towards physical excellence or proud of our accomplishments, it’s to be humble–whether we’re winning a spelling bee or winning a race, or doing our best and still losing. Willpower is a good thing and helps support virtue. Pursing excellence, whether in sports or something else, is a good thing when done for the right reasons and to give glory to God.

    The quote from the Imitation of Christ (one of my favorite sources of meditation!) refers to our interior disposition: We must live in humility, realizing that any transformation in our souls comes through the power of God. When the writer says, “it is not according to man to…mortify the body, and to bring it into subjection,” he’s building on his previous point—we are “frail,” we naturally want to avoid difficulties and situations that mortify us (and have the potential to make us holy), because our human nature flees the cross. The writer is NOT telling us to avoid mortifying our senses, nor is he implying there’s something wrong with trying to master our physical inclinations—quite the opposite. He’s saying we naturally don’t want to, and it’s God’s power that helps us to do so and, only by acknowledging our weakness and God’s Lordship will any inner transformation take place. The Church’s long tradition makes this clear. It encourages spiritual practices that help us discipline the senses and the body—to “mortify” it and “bring it into subjection.” That’s what fasting does, for example.

    Sports provides the same opportunity, in spades, assuming the right attitude–and it’s our job as parents to do frequent attitude checks. Grace builds on nature. We are not disembodied spirits who simply “will” virtue in a metaphysical sense. We have to practice it, and life is in fact a very physical undertaking.

    Sports, approached in the right spirit, provides an excellent way to teach kids to master their bodies, to discipline their physical inclinations (“I don’t feel like running”) for the sake of a larger goal, which doesn’t have to be prideful and selfish. In fact, acquiring the mental discipline to conquer our physical impulses or weaknesses is as necessary for chastity as it is for persevering in suffering.

    Perhaps some readers are assuming too much—you don’t have to be on travel soccer or on the swim team, although my observation is that most kids rise to the challenge of physical workouts better in a group context or mixed with the fun of competition or goals. Your kids can play on a low-intensity rec league or run every day on their own. You can challenge them to swim a certain number of laps if you make the pool part of your daily summer routine. But encourage them to work hard, not to stop at the first sign of tiredness or feeling winded or thirsty, and not to quit because they “just don’t want to” stretch their physical limits. We moms need to be committed to the challenge of helping them stick with it.

    Maybe that’s part of the issue here: if we don’t value the character-building benefits of sports, then it’s certainly easier on us moms to just stay home and let our kids be sedentary—after all, maybe they’re reading a good book or playing imaginatively with a sibling, good things in themselves. But our kids will be the poorer for that lack of balance if they have no regular physical exercise—no means to physically test and conquer themselves.

    I guess I can’t help but wonder, why wouldn’t a parent WANT their kids to be physically disciplined—to develop the inner strength to push beyond their physical comfort zone on a regular basis?

  9. While I do agree that physical activity is very important, I don’t think that activity has to come in the form of organized sports. I am the mother of 6 boys and none of them plays an organized sport. We choose to take the time that we would otherwsie be driving all over to practices and games etc. and use it to play together as a family. My husband has taken on the role of teaching our boys skills in various different sports. THey ARE pushed physically. They love this time with their father and my husband enjoys it too.

    You mentioned that some children are not interested in sports and that for a parent to allow this particular child not to participate in sports is wrong. I have a child who is very interested in music. He is very talented and does not enjoy sports as much as other boys. Yes, he likes playing around at home, but athletics is not very important to him and when he does play in a group setting, he is ridiculed because he just doesn’t take it as seriously as some other children. So how am I doing him justice by putting him in that situation? I see this as the equivalent of taking a child who has no interest in music at all, and forcing him to endure years of piano training. Many adults that I know who were forced to do an activity, grew to resent it. Similarly, as a homeschooling mom, I understand that a curriculum that challenges one child, may not necessarily challenge another. Where organized sports may benefit one child, it may have an adverse effect on another.

    There are many ways to be disciplined and to work hard and not being involved in sports does not necessarily make soft kids. Can’t fasting teach the same physical discipline?? Curbing our physical desires to have that extra treat or second helping etc.??

    As someone else pointed out earlier, many saints never participated in any organized sports and they grew to have very strong spiritual lives and strength.
    What you wrote is certainly a rightful position to hold as an opinion, but you came across as saying that if everyone does not do the same, we are somehow doing wrong by our children and I disagree. Can’t one argue the same about spending countless hours running/driving from place to place and forgoeing consistent family dinners in order to play sports? I do not hold the opinion that either method is wrong, but it seems that one could argue this topic from both sides.

  10. I might suggest that perhaps the differences in viewpoint are related to terminology. Perhaps instead of sports, you might say physical training. As a child, I would have resented being pushed into “sports,” but I would have appreciated help in becoming more physically capable and disciplined. As an introvert, the exercise I liked was walking; with some appropriate encouragement, I probably would have liked hiking and running, maybe even rock-climbing, all of which can be done both alone and in groups. But I would NOT have liked competitions or group sports.

    Sports can be helpful, beneficial, etc., if done rightly, as you so clearly point out. But the one thing I would emphasize is that they should not be required. That could all too easily become a stone round someone’s neck.

  11. Thank you very much for replying! It helps for me to understand the hierarchy of priorities before embracing certain goals for our family, and your comments have helped this to take place. Our children are under three years old, and one has severe neurological and physical disbilities. We have much to learn about raising little saints! If humility is always the foundation, and union with God the goal, then your analysis of this issue is very inspiring. Thank you again for your time, we are heading out the door now to go camping!
    Love, Renee

  12. Pingback: Sports or ‘Soft Kids’? (Revisited) « words from cana

  13. I truly enjoyed your perspective. As the father of 3 boys I have the opinion, but keep it mostly silent as I don’t want to be perceived as a lunatic, that since we don’t let our kids settle for doing as much school work as they like or piano as they like or chores as they like, equally they must engage in the disciine of sport… Like it or not. They do mostly enjoy it but some days would like to hang it all up to be lazy. It’s good to know that I’m not alone.

  14. Mary, I wholeheartedly agree 100%. In the “me” culture of today sports play an important role in teaching our kids discipline, teamwork, and self-sacrifice. Thank you and keep up the good work!

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