A few months ago, a 60-year-old man died and five adults were charged with misdemeanor assaults after they were involved in a fight at a middle school basketball game in Vermont.
“We live in a time where we do tend to feel less collective responsibility,” said Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd in response. When combined with hyperfocus on a child’s success, this can lead parents to unsavory and destructive behaviors.
“It’s a scary thing for a kid when their parent is so out of control,” he said. “It’s a terrible way to model managing anger.”
These sorts of behaviors have been blamed for an increasing number of children dropping out of sports altogether. A report from the National Alliance for Youth Sports found that nearly 7 out of 10 children drop out of organized sports by the age of 13, and negative parental behavior is a major factor. Sadly, even Christian parents succumb to the temptations of anger, pride, and aggression.
Nearly 7 out of 10 children drop out of organized sports by the age of 13, and negative parental behavior is a major factor.
At its core, poor behavior by parents in the youth sporting environment is rooted in the sin of idolatry. We’re told in 1 John 5:21 to “keep [ourselves] from idols” and in 1 Corinthians 10:14 to “flee from idolatry.” When we read these verses and others like them, images of wooden statues often come to mind. Yet, according to Christina Fox,
An idol is really anything that we love more than God. It consumes our thinking and energies. It’s something that is so central to our life that if we didn’t have it, we would be devastated.
Parents must constantly check their hearts and motives to guard against idolizing their children or their athletic achievements. Instead, it’s important to recognize and appreciate our children’s successes as a reflection of both God’s generosity (in giving them the talent) and their own hard work and dedication.
When we see our children as unique individuals, valuable because they’re made in the image of God, we can support and encourage them in a healthier way. By grounding our identity—and theirs—in Christ, we better navigate the highs and lows of our children’s athletic endeavors.
With this as a backdrop, we offer the following practical advice stemming from 50-plus combined years of coaching experience in a Christian sports context.
1. Demonstrate an attitude of gratitude toward coaches.
Coaches play a vital role in the development of our children. They have the unique opportunity to teach our kids valuable life lessons, such as teamwork, sportsmanship, and discipline. Game officials are also important, teaching our children respect for authority, obedience to the rules of the game, and self-control.
Instead of being adversarial, support and encourage your coaches and officials. If you have any concerns, address them privately and respectfully. This will help to foster a collaborative, beneficial partnership for all. At the Briarwood Soccer Club, which is a ministry of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, we have a rule that parents must wait at least 24 hours after a game before discussing any issues with the coach. This gives everyone a chance to cool down and reflect before having a productive conversation.
Reflection Question: When talking to your child about their coach, do you focus on expressing support and positive words, or do you focus on criticizing and complaining?
2. Focus on the process, not the outcome.
When our children participate in youth sports, the real adversaries aren’t the children on the opposing team but our own sinful and broken hearts. We should intentionally redirect our focus away from winning and losing and instead prioritize personal growth and honoring God. As the Bible says in Proverbs 16:9, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”
The real adversaries aren’t the children on the opposing team but our own sinful and broken hearts.
When you allow your sinful heart to control your actions, you can easily become focused on winning and losing, leading to unsportsmanlike or disrespectful behavior. Allow God to guide your steps so you can focus on what’s most important, such as personal growth and honoring God.
Reflection Question: When talking with your child after a game, do you focus on the outcome of the game or on your child’s individual effort and contributions to the team?
3. Cheer with grace.
We should expand our expressions of support to include all participants, not just our own children. Wholeheartedly applaud the good plays of all players, regardless of which team they’re on. Show love to everyone involved in the sporting environment, including referees and fellow parents, recognizing they too are uniquely crafted in the image of God.
With Galatians 5:22–23 as your guide, guard against any traces of jealousy or pride and instead seek to demonstrate sportsmanship with the virtues of self-control and love.
Reflection Question: How can you better support all participants in your child’s sports activities, regardless of their affiliations?
4. Prepare yourself spiritually.
Just as our children prepare for a season athletically, we must prepare spiritually by spending time every day reading God’s Word and praying. Think about how to honor God throughout the entire sports experience, seeking his guidance and strength to display Christlike character before, during, and after your child’s game.
Just as our children prepare for a season athletically, we must prepare spiritually.
God’s Word will illuminate the path of righteousness (Ps. 119:105) and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
Reflection Question: Is there a Bible verse or biblical truth that you could silently remind yourself of when sitting on the sidelines of your child’s sporting event?
5. Remember what’s at stake.
The redemption Christ has purchased for us should motivate us toward a life of holiness. Because we’re not our own but were bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:19–20), we cannot behave as we might want—with fury, insults, or over-the-top celebrations of triumph.
Instead, demonstrate grace with integrity under pressure. This can be particularly challenging when the referee makes a bad call or the other team’s parents yell out negative comments about your team. But it’s critical if we’re to be good ambassadors, exemplifying Christ’s character and teachings in our participation in sports (2 Cor. 5:20).
In these moments, you have your greatest opportunity to represent Christ. With the help of the Holy Spirit, demonstrate to others the transformative power of Jesus. As Peter instructs, “Always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). Remind yourself of what’s at stake and be prepared to react in a Christ-honoring manner. This will have a powerful influence on everyone involved, including your child.
Reflection Question: Have you ever prayed with your child before leaving for a sporting event, asking God to help you both to be his ambassadors?
6. Shine like stars.
If you do explode in anger in the stands, you have an opportunity to show the grace of repentence. We serve a God who has compassion on those who acknowledge their need for forgiveness. If you do lose it, apologize to the fans around you or to referees after the game, and let your child see that you know you need the forgiveness of God just as much as any kid.
If we’re to be salt and light in the often hostile world of youth sports, we must fight our tendency toward idolatry and instead align our words and actions with our Christian identity.
We can shine like stars “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” (Phil. 2:15) and ultimately point others, including our children, to the transformative power of Jesus Christ.