10 Life Lessons from Youth Sports (Part 3)

Soccer !, by Craig Sunter, Flickr

Soccer !, by Craig Sunter, Flickr

This is part 3 of 3 in my series reflecting on 10 Life Lessons from Youth Sports.

In this season our family has been asking a few questions as we make decisions regarding where to invest our time with youth sports:

  • In what way are youth sports meaningful?
  • How do they contribute to the development of children and youth?
  • What life lessons may be learned from participation in youth sports?

In response to these questions we landed on a list of “10 Life Lessons from Youth Sports” that fall into five main categories: Physical Lessons, Emotional Lessons, Relational Lessons, Mental Lessons, and Spiritual Lessons.

In my previous two posts I shared lessons 1-6 in the physical, emotional and relational areas.

Physical Lessons

  • Lesson 1: Physical Health Is Important
  • Lesson 2: Athletes Are Born and Made

Emotional Lessons

  • Lesson 3: How to Lose, and Win, Well
  • Lesson 4: How to Press through Perceived Barriers

Relational Lessons

  • Lesson 5: We’re in This Together
  • Lesson 6: How to Respect, Engage, and Share in Authority

Now we turn to lessons 7 – 10 in the mental and spiritual areas for this final post.

Mental Lessons

Lesson 7: Successful Execution Engages the Mind

Although success in sports is tied in part to physical, emotional, and relational dynamics, successfully execution involves a significant mental dimension as well.

At every level of competition, athletes must stay focused. They must learn their specific job on the court, field, and mat. They must remain engaged. They must effectively execute on their job. They must be able to recognize challenges to their play and make necessary adjustments.

In sports, successful execution engages the mind. On the practice field, in the midst of a game or match, and in reviewing performance after the fact, athletes must stay mentally engaged.

Teammates depend on each other to know and execute their role in the right way and at the right time. Athletes not only need to learn their own role well, but also must be mindful of how their role coordinates with those around them on their own team, and how the opposition is working against them in the competition. Youth sports provide an opportunity for kids to stay focused mentally and to execute on this understanding.

Lesson 8: Pursuing Perfect Effort

One of my son’s favorite movies is When the Game Stands Tall. The movie provides a dramatic account of the De La Salle Spartans’ journey to a 151-game winning streak in high school football. The coach of the Spartans was Bob Ladouceur, and he built his program on the philosophy of expecting perfect effort from his players.

In the movie, this principle of perfect effort is communicated by the coach in the following manner:

We’re not asking you to be perfect on every play. What we’re asking of you and what you should be asking of each other is to give a perfect effort from snap to whistle.”

Perfect effort requires engagement from the whole person. Athletes need to be present physically, emotionally, relationally, and mentally. They must be ready to engage, and stay engaged, with their whole self to offer the perfect effort of which Ladouceur speaks.

Spiritual Lessons

Lesson 9: You’re Not Alone

Youth sports can be tough at times. Youth athletes can feel pressed in all of the areas noted above: physically, emotionally, relationally, and mentally. When things get tough, as they do in sports at times, it is an important opportunity for individuals to recognize that they are ultimately not alone.

To begin, players are surrounded by the many people who care for and support them along the way (fellow players, coaches, and loved ones). But even when this is not the case, when it feels like so many who are surrounding are not being supportive, athletes are able to turn to the one who is faithful through it all.

In the book of Philippians, the Apostle Paul writes, “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret…. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13).

Though many athletes may want to quote such a verse to point to God’s help in providing them with a victory in a match or game, the reality is this verse is not about victories in sports. It is about finding strength in the Lord, whether in victory or defeat.

Paul did not write these verses from a place of comfort and excitement. Paul wrote these verses to his friends while sitting in a prison cell because of his faith in the Lord. So in the midst of joy and sorrow in sports, and in the midst of joy and sorrow in life, we can say with Paul that we “can do all things through him who strengthens” us. In competition and in life, we are not alone.

Lesson 10: Play to Win the Prize

Finally, youth sports provide a context where individuals and teams compete to win. On one of our kids’ teams, the coach emphasized playing for the greater reward.  This meant several things: (1) playing for the win, (2) playing to improve as an athlete, and (3) playing to grow is a person of character and commitment.

Lessons like these point to playing for the greater spiritual reward as well. In the Bible, the Apostle Paul speaks to the greater reward of the gospel in the following manner:

I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Cor. 9:23-25).

Victories on the field, court, or mat feel great. But these victories in sports are temporary. Paul says there is a greater reward that will last. For Paul this lasting reward is all about the gospel—the relationship with God made available to us because of the forgiveness offered in Jesus Christ.

So run for the athletic prize, but recognize this is pointing to an even greater reward. Nothing matters more than finding peace with God in this life. The prize of peace with God is found in Jesus Christ.


Youth sports provide countless opportunities to learn lessons about life and leadership. In these posts, I’ve highlighted 10. I hope you enjoy the life lessons that you are learning along the way as well, whether through your own involvement with sports, or as your children are involved in sports.

Take a moment to share your insights below!


Here are all of the posts in this 3-part series:

10 Life Lessons from Youth Sports (Part 2)

Play Ball!, by TMAB2003, Flickr

Play Ball!, by TMAB2003, Flickr

As with many families, our kids are regularly involved in youth sports. With so many demands for time in the life of a family, it is important that parents are intentional about where they invest their family time.

In light of this, as a family we took some time recently to ask a few questions about youth sports:

  • In what way are youth sports meaningful?
  • How do they contribute to the development of children and youth?
  • What life lessons may be learned from participation youth sports?

In response to these questions our landed on a list of “10 Life Lessons from Youth Sports” that fall into five main categories: Physical Lessons, Emotional Lessons, Relational Lessons, Mental Lessons, and Spiritual Lessons.

In my last post I shared lessons 1- 4 in the physical and emotional areas.

Physical Lessons

  • Lesson 1: Physical Health Is Important
  • Lesson 2: Athletes Are Born and Made

Emotional Lessons

  • Lesson 3: How to Lose, and Win, Well
  • Lesson 4: How to Press through Perceived Barriers

Now we turn to lessons 5 – 6 in the relational area.

Relational Lessons

Lesson 5: We’re in This Together

Along with the physical and emotional lessons, youth sports provide a significant opportunity to learn about the value and importance of working as a team. In the realm of most youth sports, the priority of teamwork is pronounced. Even in individual-oriented sports like wrestling, gymnastics, or tennis, individual effort is working toward team outcomes. In other arenas like basketball, soccer, or football, the priority of coordinated teamwork is expressed in an added level of team commitment.

Through such dynamics, kids learn that they are “in this together” with those around them. There are interdependencies that abound. As an athlete, they are motivated by the support and care of their family and friends. They are guided by the insights and direction of coaches and officials. They are strengthened by the encouragement and performance of fellow teammates.

This sense of interdependence was pronounced on the football field this past season. Quarterbacks and running backs could not move the ball without the protection of their offensive line. Linebackers could not do their job without defense ends and corner backs doing their essential work of containment. On the football field, you quickly learned both that others are depending on you to do your job, and that you in turn are depending on others to follow through with their jobs. Success comes when the coordinated efforts of the team moves toward a desired outcome.

Lesson 6: How to Respect, Engage, and Share in Authority

Along with learning the lesson of being in this together and being mutually dependent in a team, youth sports provide an important opportunity to learn how to respect, engage, and share in authority. First, youth athletes encounter authority in the form of coaches and officials.

Coaches and officials make many decisions throughout a game. Coaches decide how to run practices prior to games. Coaches decide which players to put in and what time to put them in the game or match. Coaches decide on key plays that will be made or strategies that will be utilized in light of the team’s performance on the court or field.  Similarly, officials of various types make judgements about athlete performance and adherence to the rules of the game or match.

Anyone that has played sports long enough realizes that good and bad calls are made both coaches and officials. In light of this, one of the key lessons is how to respond well to these calls. When a bad call is made, will athletes stay focused on the work that is before them, or will they become distracted and disrespectful to these authorities.

In addition to respecting authority, youth sports also provide significant opportunity for youth athletes to begin to exercise authority in appropriate ways. Coaches cannot personally enact the strategies and plays they call. Only the youth athletes can do this. And so they learn to take responsibility and authority on the field, court, mat, and beyond. And, they learn to share this authority with others, learning to take direction from fellow athletes when needed. Youth sports help young people to learn how to respect, engage, and share in authority.


I’ll pick up next time with Mental and Spiritual Lessons associated with youth sports.

What are your top lessons from youth sports? Please take a moment to share your thoughts below.

10 Life Lessons from Youth Sports

IMG_4560 - Copy

We just finished another season of youth sports in our household. Over the years our kids have participated in a variety of team sports including soccer, football, wrestling, softball, baseball, and basketball.

As a larger family with five children, we need to be intentional both with how we invest our time as a family and with the activities in which our kids participate. This includes the need to be intentional about involvement in sporting activities.

As a family thinking through the stewardship of our family time, it is helpful to think about youth sports not only from the angle of what is fun, but also from the angle of what is meaningful. In light of this…

  • In what way are youth sports meaningful?
  • How do they contribute to the development of children and youth?
  • What life lessons may be learned from participation in youth sports?

On the heels of another season, a few members of the Irving household sat down to think through the value of youth sports. Out of this conversation came our list of “10 Life Lessons from Youth Sports” that fall into five main categories: Physical Lessons, Emotional Lessons, Relational Lessons, Mental Lessons, and Spiritual Lessons.

Physical Lessons

Lesson 1: Physical Health Is Important

To begin, youth sports remind us as a family, and remind our children in particular, that physical health is important. As parents we really do not care about what specific sports our children engage. We just want to them to engage a sport, or an activity, because through this engagement they are able to stay active and physically fit. When their days of youth sports end, we hope that they take the value of physical activity with them into adulthood. Care for our physical bodies is not the only part of life, but it is an important part. Youth sports help children value the importance of physical health.

Lesson 2: Athletes Are Born and Made

Youth sports also make it clear that although each individual is equally valuable as a person, not everyone is equally gifted with particular skills. To say it another way, athletes are both born and made.

People are born with gifts that differ from others. Those engaged in youth sports quickly see that not every person on a mat, field, or court has equal abilities. Youth sports provide an opportunity to face such realities, and these are realities that are true in other areas of life as well.

Although everyone is born with different levels of specific gifts and talents, everyone has the opportunity to make the most of what they have been given. Discipline and hard work go a long way in the realm of sports and in the realm of life.

Regardless of the level of talent that one has at the start, everyone can take the talent they’ve received and make it grow through discipline, hard work, and practice. Youth sports teach such lessons. Youth sports help young people to recognize that athletes, and mature humans in general, are both born and made.

Work with what you have been given and then take this talent to the next level.

Emotional Lessons

Lesson 3: How to Lose, and Win, Well

As with recognizing different levels of gifting, youth sports also provide a chance to recognize that not all outcomes are the same. Some teams win and some teams lose. Such realities raise emotional lessons for life as well and provide powerful opportunities for maturing. While defeat is difficult, youth sports generally provide a safe environment where children can learn how to both lose, and win, well.

Another way to talk about this is how to win and lose graciously. As individuals and teams battle it out on the mat, field, court, and beyond, they encounter the need to face deep emotions such as fear, disappointment, sadness, joy, excitement, and more.

Through defeat and victory in youth sports, children are able to face diverse emotional experiences in a structured environment. Although the world of youth sports may not always feel gentle, the adult world will likely be less forgiving. Learning to engage both loss, and victory, is ultimately a gift and a key life lesson that youth sports provides.

Lesson 4: How to Press through Perceived Barriers

Along with the flood of emotions noted above is the reality of facing both real and perceived barriers. Whether it is in a challenging practice or in the heart of a sporting event, youth sports provide numerous opportunities to bump up against barriers. In these moments, when it feels like quitting or giving up is the easiest solution, children are challenged to dig deep emotionally and find a bit more to offer to both themselves and their teammates.

The feeling of wanting to give up, and the feeling of being so tired that you can’t go on, is not limited to the world of sports. It relates to life in general. It relates to the world of study and academics. It relates to the world of family and relationships. It relates to the world of work.

Youth sports provide a place for children and youth to recognize that the feeling that there is nothing left to do or nothing left to give is not always the reality. The emotion is real, but the emotion is not always accurately expressing reality. Sometimes there is more that can be done. Sometimes the barriers that are felt are perceived rather than actual. Youth sports teach how to press through such perceived barriers.


I’ll stop at Lesson 4 today and pick up next time with Lessons 5 – 10 in the relational, mental, and spiritual domains.

In the meantime, how have youth sports contributed life lessons to you or the youth you know well?