Theological Matters: Letting Kids Learn the Lessons of Losing

football_pallo_valmiina-croppedWhat can our children learn when they lose? In our sports obsessed culture, we have a “win at all costs” attitude. Our children can also pick up on this and forget to learn the lessons of losing in sports. However, there are valuable lessons to be learned. This week, Theological Matters published a post I wrote entitled, “Letting Kids Learn the Lessons of Losing.” In short, I offered 4 lessons that our children can learn when they lose at sports…if we parents will only let them. Those lessons are:

  1. Humility
  2. Perseverance
  3. Learning from your mistakes
  4. Success requires hard work

Check out the full post here.

“C’mon, Ref!”: The Culture of Disrespect in Sports

Photo: Greg Gibson/YouTube

If you follow sports, you have probably seen the video of two high school football players intentionally tackling a referee in the closing minutes of their game last week. Two defensive backs for John Jay High School (San Antonio) were captured on video targeting a referee in retaliation for ejecting a teammate earlier in the game. Both players have been suspended from the football team, and an assistant coach has been placed on administrative leave for supposedly telling his players “that guy needs to pay for cheating us” in response to calls made (or not made) by the referee.

In response to this incident, Dale Hansen provided his characteristically straightforward commentary on the culture of disrespect in sports. Hansen is the sports anchor for WFAA Channel 8 in Dallas/Fort Worth and made a name for himself in 1986 by breaking the story about SMU paying football players. In his “Dale Hansen Unplugged” segment, he states:

It’s part of the American culture in sports now; we have been teaching our kids for a long time that the men and women who referee our games aren’t worthy of our respect. It’s bad enough we yell at the ones who are among the very best at what they do . . . but then we scream at the ones who give up their free time to work a Little League game, too.

And our kids have been watching.

A lot of people are shocked by what those two kids did. I’m almost shocked it doesn’t happen more.

Hansen is right. We have lost respect for those who work hard to keep order in our favorite pastimes. Sports referees are probably some of the most hated and derided people in the American sports landscape.

Hansen’s commentary made me think about two things. First, it took me back to my days as a baseball umpire. I mostly worked games of 9- and 10-year-olds. This is around the time that kids first learn to pitch the ball themselves. The task was doubly difficult because I was usually the only umpire on the field—requiring me to call balls and strikes as well as outs on the base paths—and very few kids could get the ball over the plate. In my attempt to be generous to the pitcher without undermining the integrity of the game, I often received the scorn of the spectators. Of course, my goal was to be consistent for both teams, but try telling that to a parent whose 9-year-old just struck out looking at a pitch that was close enough to hit. What makes it worse is that apart from a few tournaments, I typically umpired church league games. At one time, I turned to a youth minister whom I knew in the stands and asked him to take care of a problem parent from his son’s team. On another occasion I stopped a coach from running out of the dugout on the other side of the field to argue a call that I made 6 feet away from the play. Needless to say, my career as a baseball umpire in college was enough to confirm I didn’t want to pursue it as a career.

Second, Hansen’s commentary has made me stop and think about what I say when I watch sports with my own children. How many times have I complained about an official’s call in front of my kids? Referees and umpires spend years making their way to the highest levels of sports only to have us armchair officials call balls and strikes with the benefit of computer-generated pitch trackers and determine if it was a catch with the aid of multiple camera angles in slow-motion replay. What are we telling our kids when we intentionally disrespect the people who serve in the role exercising authority over the integrity of the game? At the very least, we are telling them that those in authority do not deserve our full respect. At worst, we are saying that officials should be the target of ridicule and blame.

Are there bad officials in sports? Certainly. Accusations have been made against the high school football referee that he directed racial slurs at some of the players. This has been disputed by the referee, and we will probably never know the truth about that. What we do know is that two players used a violent act to retaliate against a referee. But even in the face of a bad call, we must not resort to violence.

What is the Christian response to this situation? While the Bible doesn’t address how to behave around referees at sporting events, it does provide principles for us to apply regarding authority. In 1 Peter 2–3, we read about a few different relationships of authority that give us food for thought. First Peter 2:13–15 reads, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” While this applies directly to the relationship between citizens and government, we can apply the principle to all forms of authority. We should submit ourselves to those in authority because this is the will of God. In the world of sports, those authorities include coaches, managers, owners, and most importantly, referees.

The other biblical principle we can apply comes from Romans 12:17–18 (and a similar statement in 1 Peter 3:9). Paul writes, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” What should we do when we are wronged? Return evil with good. Respect what is right. Even when it is just a game, we can apply this principle.

Honestly, I’m a little worried that Dale Hansen is right. He said, “A lot of people are shocked by what those two kids did. I’m almost shocked it doesn’t happen more.” Are we going to see more violence against sports officials? Have we created a culture of disrespect for referees and umpires? If our kids are paying attention and if our kids imitate our own words and actions—and they do—I’m afraid that we have no one to blame but ourselves for this culture of disrespect. And it is not just in sports.

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Dale Hansen, “Hansen Unplugged: On tackling a ref,” WFAA, 9 September 2015.

Jordan Heck, “John Jay coach suspended, reportedly told players ref ‘needs to pay,’” Sporting News, 8 September 2015.

Maintaining the Integrity of the Game

Yesterday I wrote a post about the character lessons children can learn while participating in team sports. I also included warnings to parents hoping to avoid the dangers of undermining what our kids could learn. Unfortunately, ESPN reported today that Little League Baseball has stripped the 2014 US Little League World Series title from the Jackie Robinson West (Chicago) team due to the actions of some of the adults involved.

According to the report, the team manager and the Illinois District 4 Little League administrator used falsified boundary maps to recruit better players from other districts to “build what amounts to a superteam.” These actions violated the Little League rules that are meant to ensure that all teams have an equal opportunity to advance through the tournaments and reach the World Series. Building an all-star team from multiple districts is a clear violation.

After discovering the violations and taking action, Little League International CEO Stephen D. Keener stated:

For more than 75 years, Little League has been an organization where fair play is valued over the importance of wins and losses. This is a heartbreaking decision. What these players accomplished on the field and the memories and lessons they have learned during the Little League World Series tournament is something the kids can be proud of, but it is unfortunate that the actions of adults have led to this outcome.

As our Little League operations staff learned of the many issues and actions that occurred over the course of 2014 and prior, as painful as this is, we feel it a necessary decision to maintain the integrity of the Little League program. No team can be allowed to attempt to strengthen its team by putting players on their roster that live outside their boundaries.

The most difficult part of this entire situation is that a lack of integrity on the part of adults has cost a group of boys their championship. The players did not conspire to manipulate the system; instead, it was men they should have been able to trust—coaches and local league administrators—who violated that trust and the rules.

This is a problem that is all too common in children’s sports. Adults get so focused on winning that they will sacrifice their integrity and reputations for a trophy.

When I was in college, I worked as a little league umpire for a couple of summers. One encounter with a coach still sticks out in my mind. I was calling balls and strikes from behind the plate when a boy hit the ball to right field. He hustled around the bases and slid into third just as the throw arrived. I had done what I was trained to do by running up the third baseline from home plate as I saw a play was going to happen at third base. I was standing less than six feet from the bag and watched the runner slide underneath a tag and called him safe. Immediately, a coach from the first base dugout came running across the diamond yelling at me about my call. I turned and instructed the coach to stop right before she got to the pitcher’s mound and return to the dugout. I reminded her that I had the authority to throw her out of the game if she continued to question the call I was clearly in position to make better than she could have. For the rest of the game, she grumbled about my calls and questioned my ability in front of her players in the dugout. Her actions said more about her character than my ability.

For these players from Chicago, their team’s reputation is tainted through no fault of their own. In addition, they have been shown a very poor example of how adults are to conduct themselves. The adults in this case lost sight of the most important thing—that the kids learn how to play the game with integrity. Instead these adults sent the message that you win at all costs, rules don’t apply, and integrity doesn’t matter.

Do we really want to bring up a generation of young men and women who are taught that you play to win even if it costs your name? Scripture teaches that “a good name is to be more desired than great wealth, favor is better than silver and gold” (Prov 22:1). If your name and reputation are more important than great riches, then surely they are more important than a trophy.

If we expect our kids to grow up and act like adults, then we need to act like adults. Let’s teach our kids how to play with integrity. Let’s teach them how to build a reputation. Let’s teach them that there is more to life than simply winning a game.

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Tom Farrey, “Little League punishes Chicago team,” ESPN.com, February 11, 2015.

*Image credit: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

The Character of Sports

Bellevue Soccer TeamAs the (ridiculously) short winter in Texas appears to be giving way to spring, it is that time of year when parents start signing their kids up for sports teams. Since we live in a large metropolitan area, we have the luxury of choosing almost any sport at any time of year. Football, baseball, soccer, and basketball are virtually year-round activities here. At least once a year, my wife and I have a discussion about which activities to place our children in and for how long.

For many people, sports are an unhealthy obsession, but sports can actually be good for the development of character—if done the right way. Here are a few thoughts on the character that sports can build and some caveats for parents to go along with them.

Teamwork

While there are individual sports, we mostly think of team sports when we consider signing up our kids for a season. The beauty of such team sports is that they can counter the oppressive culture of individualism we often find in our society. Rather than spending time mindlessly staring at a screen with no consciousness of the world around them, children who play team sports get the opportunity to interact with other children in a (typically) competitive environment where they have to work together to accomplish a goal.

The level of teamwork varies with the sport, but one thing is consistent—the team is essential. No single child can compete against an entire team and be successful. For that matter, not even LeBron James could take the basketball court by himself and compete with even a decent college-level team.

Learning teamwork is important for our children because the “adult world” is full of interaction with others and collaboration to accomplish goals. From marriage to the workplace to church, we constantly interact with people for the sake of pursuing common goals.

As a leader, Moses learned this lesson from his father-in-law in Exodus 18. Jethro came to visit Moses in the wilderness and to bring his wife and sons back to him. While there, Jethro observed that Moses was handling all the disputes of the people by himself and advised him against such an approach. Jethro counseled him to “select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. Let them judge the people at all times; and let it be that every major dispute they will bring to you, but every minor dispute they themselves will judge. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this thing and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people also will go to their place in peace” (Ex 18:21–23). Even the prophet Moses needed a team to accomplish the goal of judging the people and bringing them into the Promised Land.

The Warning for Parents

Children’s sports sometimes bring out the worst in parents. Many of us consider our child to be the next Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter, or Michael Jordan. However, our kids still need a team. They also need a team that respects them. When parents grandstand for their own child to be the focal point of the team, it actually does the child and the team a disservice. Camaraderie, selflessness, and unity are necessary for success on the field and in life. Even the most talented team can lose to another team that has learned to play together. Instead of promoting your own child, promote the team.

Discipline

I’ll never forget one of the coaches from my childhood. I didn’t really like him very much. He made us run long distances. If you were last, you might have to run another lap. He constantly worked on drills to teach skills. All I wanted to do was score (which I rarely did). Then he expected us to go home and work more between practices. I didn’t like what he required us to do. But he was teaching us the lesson of discipline.

Discipline is important in life, and sports have a built-in mechanism for teaching it—practice. Most kids are not blessed with the athletic ability to pick up the intricacies of a new game the first time they play. Yes, it may come easier to some than others, but even the best athletes practice (unless you’re Allen Iverson).

The discipline children learn in playing sports can translate to the rest of life. Schoolwork requires discipline. Jobs require discipline. Spiritual growth requires discipline.

Paul teaches us the lesson of spiritual discipline using illustrations from sports. He writes:

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1 Cor 9:24–27)

Thus, sports can help children learn the discipline necessary for life. Team sports in particular teach us that others are dependent upon us exercising our own discipline.

The Warning for Parents

The danger for parents when it comes to discipline in sports is the tendency to fall into one of two extremes. We can demand perfection from our children that they simply cannot deliver or we can let them off the hook of practice and discipline. By always demanding absolute perfection, we may drive our children away from a desire to participate. By giving in to the temptation not to require practice, we may send our kids a message that practice and discipline are not necessary. Both extremes are problematic. Balance in this area is necessary.

Perseverance

One of my fondest sports memories came around the age of 9 or 10. I had been playing basketball in a church league for a few years already, but my church’s team was not very good. In fact, we had not won a game in more than two full seasons. But this game was different. By some miracle, we had actually taken the lead at the end of the game and just needed to run out the last few seconds on the clock. We were inbounding the ball from under the opponent’s basket and they were surrounding us to try to steal the ball. I broke open, caught the pass, and avoided the defense until time expired. We won! The taste of victory was sweet. It was even sweeter due to the lingering taste of defeat for more than two years.

Losing is a part of sports. Very few teams go undefeated. Learning to lose is an important lesson for life. It teaches perseverance. People who fail to learn how to pick themselves up after defeat tend to struggle mightily in life. At some point, we will be passed over for a promotion, or someone will critique what we say or write, or someone will tell us that our idea is a bad one. What we do when that happens says a lot about our perseverance.

Losing every game for two seasons was not fun, but most of our team stuck together. Over time we got better because we continued to discipline ourselves and trust one another. By the time we quit playing together in high school, we found ourselves in the city tournament.

In our spiritual lives, there will be trials and difficulties, but Scripture tells us to stand firm. Romans 5:3–5 reads, “[W]e also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

The Warning for Parents

We as parents do not like to see our kids lose. As a result, some parents refuse to allow their children to play on a team that loses. At the first sign of a season turning south, they will pull their child off the team in order to find a better one—often bad-mouthing the coach on the way out. Another possibility is to blame the losses on someone else and never acknowledge our child’s role in the team’s loss. That doesn’t mean we need to be hyper-critical of our children’s faults, but we need to teach them where they can improve. I’m sure I cost my basketball team a number of games due to my abysmal free throw shooting. But that is why I spent afternoons in the driveway shooting free throws—at my dad’s suggestion. Failure is not fun, but it may be the best teacher.

This spring and summer, we will most likely have our kids in different sports and activities. I may even coach one of them. I hope they are successful, but I am more hopeful that they learn teamwork, discipline, and perseverance. Those are life skills they will take with them long after their days on the field or court are over.

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*Thanks to my friend and former teammate Achaz Foster for the “throwback” photo of one of our soccer teams back in the day. Yes, I’m the chunky kids second from the left on the back row.