As a child, I was captured by the stories that my grandfather told about life on the farm in Oklahoma in the early 1900s. The images I’ve held are not those of pleasant surroundings and ideal conditions; they are impressions of twelve-hour days spent working the land, dust storms that could devastate a crop, blistered and sunburned skin, and poverty unlike most Americans know today. Life, in general, was harder then, but interestingly enough, character seemed much stronger—it was a time when commitment, integrity, and honesty stood in place of contracts, disclosures, and bylaws. A handshake and a man’s word were generally good enough. I’m not suggesting that we return to that time in history, but that we learn from the past and strongly encourage those same character traits today.
Through the 1960s until the 80s, my father, Jim Idleman, and his dad, helped build a Little League field in the small town of Quartz Hill, Ca. Baseball has been flowing through our veins ever since, and my brother started a baseball training center in this town a few years ago.
Recently, I was asked to manage a team. Stepping onto the field again, this time as a manager, many memories called out from the past. These several years later, I’ve found that, while some things have changed, others have not:
1. “It’s Not About Winning” is not an overused cliche’. Most of us are competitive, and for good reason…we wouldn’t accomplish much without it. But when we value winning above character, we compromise integrity. When winning is the main objective, coaches (and parents) snap at players, yell at umpires, and throw fits, all under the watchful eye of our kids. I understand the drive to win: at 12 I was throwing 63 mph…people were clocking my speed regularly and making big plans for my life. But it all came to a screeching halt when I was scheduled for surgery on my right elbow. The fast lane ended. I spent the next five years trying to catch up, but when you lose a year of development at that age, it’s nearly impossible to recover. My hope for the future changed. The desire to win had cost me. Even at that young age, I learned that winning was no longer as important as character. The desire to win at any cost has left our nation in a moral, as well as a spiritual crisis. We’ve become a society focused on prosperity instead of provision, we value wealth over wisdom, and we are drawn to charisma instead of character. Strive to win, but don’t compromise character.
2. Take your eyes off the scoreboard. We need to know the score and have correct numbers, but we also need to put them in perspective. Parents often project their hopes onto their children. The home run we never hit, the game we never won, the Big Leagues we never made can show up in our expectations for our kids. This leads to an unhealthy view of sports. When we look at life through the lens of the scoreboard, parents and coaches are more apt to yell at kids and umpires. When winning, we are happy, but grumpy when losing. Kids need encouragement and for parents (and coaches) to love them regardless of the score. The score is important, but not as important as attitude.
3. We often miss the primary reason for sports. Yes, they teach kids athletic skills, but more importantly, sports offers the opportunity to teach them about life. When they don’t agree with a call or a decision, do they throw a fit, a bat, or a helmet? Do we allow them to pout until they get their way? Are they learning anger by the actions of the coach? In sports, we can easily spot the kids who will have a high probability of being problems at 18. If anger and selfishness aren’t harnessed at 8, its ugly at 18. Parents and coaches, we are to use sports to teach character. This establishes the foundation of self discipline and self sacrifice.
4. Priorities have changed. Recently, I drove through Valencia, California on a Sunday morning. I noticed something far different from years passed: The church parking lots were nearly empty, but baseball fields were full. The Little League pledge begins with “I trust in God,” yet we seem so far from believing and acting on this foundational principle. Brian Jones, in a recent article about church attendance shifts, made the following observation: “The lure of having your child play sports in college has increased the pressure parents feel to help their child get ahead by having them play on travel teams with paid coaches, trainers, speed and agility sessions, and competing against the best competition in the region. In our area this can start as early as second grade.Youth sports has generated an ‘Abraham sacrificing Isaac on top of Mount Moriah’ type of situation. Who do parents love more – their children or God? Well, the jury has come back, and there is no question who parents love more.” This may upset, but its true. There is nothing wrong with a travel team per se’ or working on agility with a 7 year old, if priorities are aligned correctly. Sadly, its often not until our children have grown that we fully see the consequences of removing God from our personal lives.
We need to wake up. Kids are watching. We are subtly telling them, “God doesn’t matter, but sports and success does.” Parents, and coaches, our families would rather “see” a sermon than “hear” one: “The lectures that you give may be very wise and true, but I’d rather get my lesson by observing what you do. For I may misunderstand you and the high advice you give, but there is no misunderstanding how you act and how you live” (Edgar A. Guest).
BIO: Shane Idleman is the founder and lead pastor of Westside Christian Fellowship in Lancaster, California, just North of Los Angeles. He recently released his 7th book, Desperate for More of God at www.ShaneIdleman.com. Shane’s sermons, articles, books, and radio program can all be found at www.WCFAV.org. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/confusedchurch.