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Amid youth sports teams, where does God figure in?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lonnie Wilkey’s commentary on youth sports follows this article.

BRENTWOOD, Tenn. (BP) — Little Johnny has a travel baseball game on Sunday morning, sister Becky has a soccer game in the early afternoon and older brother Ben has an AAU basketball game at the same time.

And, by the way, church starts at 9 and is over at noon. What’s a family to do?

For Derek Westmoreland, pastor of Hopewell Baptist Church in Savannah, Tenn., the answer is simple. Go to church.

“Your kids have to know that God is most important and that He comes first,” said Westmoreland, who has coached his sons’ baseball teams over the years but no longer does so.

While he was coaching, the teams played in a local league that did not have games on Sunday or Wednesday nights.

Now, however, Westmoreland’s sons are on a travel team and sometimes have to play on Sundays. “My kids understand that God and going to worship Him on the Lord’s Day comes first,” he said, adding that because Hopewell does not have Sunday evening services, he allows his sons to play games later in the day that do not conflict with church.

Westmoreland talked with the coaches in advance and made sure they understood that church came first. “They know that,” he stated.

Mark Moore, executive pastor at Third Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., cited a tension particularly during the months of May through July when children and teenagers are bombarded with the pressures of travel baseball and soccer and AAU basketball.

Travel teams are a microcosm of everything else in society, Moore said, noting that parents too often “gradually give into it instead of taking a stand.”

“We have to fortify our kids’ faith,” he said. “Parents who are Christians must be realistic when confronted with the choices in front of them. The tension that exists can be resolved if matters are kept in perspective.

“The years that you have with your child are important. As a parent, you are tasked with the responsibility of childrearing,” Moore continued. “As a Christian parent, your first Great Commission task is to share the Gospel with your children and to live it.”

Parents should check out prospective teams, Moore said. Some travel teams charge extraordinary amounts, and some teams prey on parents’ desires to see their children earn college scholarships and possibly play on the professional level.

Yet the likelihood of most children becoming college or professional athletes is not very high. Moore said parents need to understand that, according to a survey by the NCAA in 2016, only 7 percent of high school baseball players will play on the collegiate level. And, of those, only 2 percent will play at a Division I program. Then, of those who play college baseball, only 2 percent will play professional baseball.

“But if your child hears about the Gospel and sees you committed to live it every day in and outside the church, I’m certain that will have an effect. In the end, that’s what is worth pursuing,” Moore said.

Jeff Mathis, a layman at Tulip Grove Baptist Church in Old Hickory, Tenn., is a parent who has found a healthy balance between travel ball and church.

His oldest son Daniel, now in medical school, played travel baseball for years while his youngest son Andrew currently plays basketball at the AAU level.

“There are ways to make it work,” Mathis said, adding that many things vie for kids’ time from church besides youth sports.

Because Tulip Grove offers two Sunday morning services plus a Sunday evening service and a full set of Wednesday night activities, Mathis said his sons rarely missed service despite occasional Sunday morning games. In addition, his oldest son participated in all the extra activities such as youth choir and Bible drills.

One of the keys, Mathis suggested, is finding teams that do not travel out of town often for tournaments.

“When the day is done, Daniel [who went on to play college baseball] probably missed fewer Sundays to play youth sports than many adults who attend Tennessee Titans games on Sundays.”

Mathis agreed that faith is important. “Sometimes sports create opportunities for kids to grow and live out their faith. It sure worked for Daniel.”

And, for those Christian parents whose children participate in travel ball, both Westmoreland and Moore recommend they find opportunities to share the Gospel.

Westmoreland said coaching his sons’ baseball teams enabled him to get into the community and to build relationships. “You will meet people who would never come to church,” he said, adding that sports can “open the doors for evangelism.”

Moore agreed. “Use the opportunity as your platform to share the Gospel. You’ll create significant relationships during the summer. Use that to be a witness.”


COMMENTARY: Keep youth sports in perspective
By Lonnie Wilkey/Tennessee Baptist and Reflector

BRENTWOOD, Tenn. (BP) — A few years ago I was umpiring a high school baseball game in Nashville. The home team’s catcher was really good — strong arm, could hit with power. He had the tools to play college baseball, perhaps even professionally.

Between innings we engaged in a brief conversation and I asked where he was going to play college ball. His answer stunned me. He said he was done with baseball after high school. Even though he had God-given talent, he basically was burned out on the game.

That’s not an uncommon story. Years of travel baseball apparently had taken its toll on this young man.

When I was a kid, we played baseball in leagues as soon as school was out for the summer. In a few weeks the season was over until the next year.

Now, high school baseball games begin in early March and even recreation and travel teams start playing in March. Most of them play through June and into July before taking a break. Then fall ball begins in late August or early September. The same holds true for basketball and soccer. Games are played almost year-round, depending on where you live.

As a kid, I would have loved that schedule. Baseball was my sport. I loved it. Although God gave me a lot of gifts and abilities, for which I am extremely grateful, athletic ability was not among them.

When I played decades ago, not everyone made the team. You could actually get cut (or not chosen for the team). I remember the first time it happened. It still hurts. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was probably the best thing that could have happened. I learned early on that there will be disappointments in life.

I also learned to persevere. I bugged the coach until he agreed to let me be the team’s batboy. I didn’t have a uniform. I made my own shirt, using a magic marker. On reflection, I looked “dorky” but it didn’t matter. The coach let me practice with the team. I took batting practice and caught (or tried to catch) fly balls in the outfield. The next year I made the team. I never played a lot, but I had improved enough to make the team and was happy as a lark.

I’m not sure youth sports today prepares kids for life. Life offers rewards and disappointments, but we live in a society today with an “everybody gets a trophy” mentality.

Yet, a tremendous amount of pressure is placed on children at an early age. Parents want the best for their kids and that’s understandable. Yet, parents sometimes don’t want to admit the obvious, that their child may not be a good ballplayer. I coached kids’ teams and a constant source of frustration was dealing with parents whose child didn’t pitch or catch or play shortstop or first base. Parents seemed to think those were the most important positions on the team and anything else was not good enough for their child. It’s amazing, however, how many games are lost because kids can’t catch a simple fly ball. Youth sports is a great place to teach children that every position is important.

In recent years, travel teams have become increasingly popular. In reality, however, many travel teams are glorified recreation teams. There is nothing wrong with recreation leagues. Some kids actually want to play for the “fun of it.” What’s more, many of them have parents who are content with that philosophy. May their tribe increase.

But I have seen kids on travel teams who could care less. They played because their parents paid the fees, which are often exorbitant, and put them on the team. Then, the parents became frustrated because their child didn’t play much, and pressure also builds on the kids to perform well.

When kept in perspective, travel baseball (or other sports) can be beneficial. There are kids who thrive on the competition and love to play. Go for it. Sports can teach a lot of life’s important lessons. Make sure it’s what the child wants, and not what the parent wants. Keep youth sports in perspective and, above all, keep God first in your life and your child’s life.