Sports and the Family

Participation in athletic activities and playing on sports teams has been viewed as contributing in positive manner to the character development of children. However, a remarkable change has occurred over the past 20 years in regard to the degree of involvement on sports teams by children. Today, many children are under extreme pressures from both coaches and parents to commit themselves to give an unprecedented amount of time and effort to participation in team sports, including those teams which travel regularly on weekends and during the summer.

Pope Benedict shared his wisdom on sports and youth with ski instructors in November 2010, “Important also is your testimony of faithful laymen that even in the context of sports activity, are able to give the right centrality to fundamental moments for life of faith, especially to the sanctification of Sunday as the day of the Lord.”

Dr. Fitzgibbons comments on the difficulty of maintaining balance in athletic activities for youth in an online video,

One coach commented that some children now play up to 80 baseball games over the course of a summer, including playing in double headers and in repeated weekend tournaments. This significant change in regard to children's and families relationship with sports has damaged marriages, family life and the ability of a large number of children to enjoy sports as a pleasant, relaxing childhood activity. Mark Hyman's book, "Until It Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids" and Michael Sokolove's book, Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women's Sports are important contributions to understanding this serious problem.

The development of the sports obsession

A review of Sokolove's book in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, August 2009, stated that he " provides a pertinent description of the charges in American lifestyle that set the stage for accelerating youth and collegiate sports into an adult-driven professionalized institution.  As key factors in this transformation, Sokolove cites the rise of organized sports and decline of neighborhood play, higher rates of parental anxiety about their children’s safety and happiness, and corporate greed.  These pressures combine, Sokolove states, to lead parents and coaches to start children in sports too early in life, train them too hard, and push then to specialize prematurely in one sport.  Sokolove describes girls who feel they must specialize in soccer before the age of 10 and play up to five full soccer games in weekend tournaments for their travel teams in their adolescence just to be in contention for college scholarships.  He portrays the parents of children as helplessly seduced by the pressures of the youth sport culture and powerless to intervene on their children’s behalf out of fear that they may interfere with their athletic potential and collegiate hopes.  Sadly, as children train harder and more frequently, all youth sport athletes become vulnerable to exhaustion and injury."

Reasons for growth in sports obsession

Numerous factors have influenced the present harmful obsession with sports in Catholic families.  The conflicts include:

Benefits from sports

There are numerous benefits for children as a result of participating in athletic activities and they include:

Damage to children from excessive focus on sports

In our clinical work we are seeing serious emotional conflicts in children as a result of their parents obsession with their athletic activities.  These include:

Damage to marriages and families from excessive focus on sports and from traveling sports teams

The increased excessive focus in family life upon children's athletic activities is creating a number of very serious conflicts in Catholic marriages. These include:

Parents' negative behaviors at sporting events

Immature, overly critical and angry parental behaviors at children's athletic activities have been widely reported in the media and have even included acts of serious violence.  These parental conflicts include:

Parental actions to protect children, marriages and families

Parents, particularly fathers, need to take steps to protect the culture from its present obsession with sports. These actions could include:

Reasons for parental obsession with sports

The reasons why parents enable the obsession with sports in the family include: 


Coaches can play an important role in the overall athletic and character development of children and teenagers. Positive, mature male coaches have been particularly helpful to the development of confidence in young males who suffer from the absence of a father in the home or from a distant or critical father. However, an obsession with winning and emotional overreactions in coaches can be very harmful.

Coaches can help with excessive and damaging focus on sports in children and teenagers today in a number of ways including:

Boys who don't play sports

Boys who do not play sports often experience significant peer rejection in a culture that places excessive emphasis upon athletic success as a sign of true masculinity.  These boys often have strong feelings of loneliness and sadness, few male friends, weak male confidence and resentment toward males who were insensitive to them. These boys can develop same sex attractions in an unconscious attempt to gain the male acceptance that was missing in their male peer relationships. 

These males benefit from special attention from their parents, especially their fathers. A challenge here is that fathers tend to be confident bonding with their sons primarily through athletic activities. Many fathers often have difficulty knowing how to be close to their sons who do not show an interest in sports. A common error fathers make with sons who lack eye hand coordination is to attempt to force them to play sports. Many boys simply lack the ability to learn the skills needed for baseball, basketball, soccer or football.

Fathers can bond with such sons in a number of ways including hiking, fishing, hunting, playing chess, and walking. They can also identify and discuss topics of interest to their sons. In addition, these boys also benefit from their fathers helping them to grow in an awareness of their special God-given gifts that is essential in building male confidence.

Fathers are often limited in their giving to boys who don't play sports for some of the following reasons:

Parents can help these boys and teenagers by criticizing the prevailing cultural view that sports and the body image are the most important measures of masculinity. They should present the traditional Western civilization opinion that healthy masculinity is the result of a daily commitment to grow in virtue so that one can develop a strong character or personality.  Males in particular need to hear from their parents that the acquisition of virtues and faith will make you much stronger in your life than the muscle building. 

We have found that the health and confidence of male who don't play sports can be protected by:

The role of faith can also be of benefit when appropriate in the following ways:

Many of these boys can act in an impulsive, angry or even explosive manner at times as a result of their peer rejection pain of sadness and insecurity. A number of these boys are surprised by the depth of their resentment, including at times anger with God for not giving them eye-hand coordination. Their resentment is often misdirected at siblings and the mother. Growth in forgiveness and in a greater appreciation of their special God-given gifts can diminish this anger. Also, the sacrament of reconciliation is helpful in resolving such strong resentment.

The Right Balance

A father of a large, young Catholic family related to me, "I can assure you that classical team sports, in the most modern sense of the term, will not happen in our home. We value family over that amount of busyness and, at times, craziness and cannot bend our lives around a sports schedule. That said, we go to extra efforts to provide sports experiences with other like minded families.  Such efforts have included both team and individual sports: a season of kickball, a season of baseball children of all ages can play, so the family is not segregated, and running."

There is every reason to be hopeful that Catholic families can grow in wisdom and in prudence so that their children can enjoy the numerous benefits of balanced athletic activities without becoming obsessed or controlled by them.  However, parents need to be careful that excessive team sports participation in their children lives does not interfere with the time necessary to maintain healthy friendships, the marital friendship, a healthy family life and the healthy psychological and spiritual development of their children. 

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