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.