High school athletes are juggling more than they ever have, between school and practice and games and family responsibilities, and learning to walk out their faith in the midst of all this is a heavy task. In this article, Tresta Payne, a former athlete and now a parent and coach of teen athletes, shares 3 areas of personal growth for your teen athlete that aid in character building in sports and help them flourish both on and off the field.
It’s that time of year. My washing machine is full of stinky practice gear, my garage houses the cleats that aren’t welcome inside, and our calendar is loaded with events. With only one child left in high school, our schedule still bends to the dictates of practices and games, cancellations, postponements, and last minute changes. This is high school athletics these days.
It’s a great time of year, but it’s exhausting. This morning I’m thankful we all got to sleep in a little after a combined six hours of driving in opposite directions for events last night.
High school athletes are juggling more than they ever have. Between school and practice and games and family responsibilities, their world is exploding with change. On top of their busy lives, there is also the growing knowledge of the world and themselves. And they are learning to walk out their faith in the midst of all of this. It is a heavy task.
NUTRITION AND REST FOR TEEN ATHLETES
As a former athlete, a parent of athletes, and now also a coach of high school athletes, I am still learning how to compete with character and how to bring out the best in an athlete. Nutrition and rest, a willingness to learn, and healthy communication can make all the difference. And involved parents are key to an athlete’s well-being.
The Importance of Nutrition
I coach high school girls so I hear a lot of talk about food and fat and body issues. I’m also the mother of two daughters, and a woman myself. But as the mother of two sons, I know that body image is important to both genders. Athletics, handled wisely, can be a good way for parents to teach healthy body management.
Teens are famous for being tired and hungry. Consulting your doctor or nutritionist would be the best way to make sure your particular athlete is getting what their body needs. But as a general rule, healthy protein, carbohydrates, and fats help us build new muscle, concentrate in class, recover from exertion, and cope well with the stress of life. That means we should limit or consumption of processed foods. We should strive to get good protein from things like meat, dairy products, and nuts. Good carbohydrates come from whole grains, vegetables, and fruit (think broccoli, not bagels!). Healthy fats are things like avocado, olive, coconut oil, butter, and fat from animal products.
Snacks between meals and before practice or a game are important. However, they can also be a trap for bad food choices. I’ve found that many kids don’t have any idea what is healthy and what isn’t. A muffin or an oatmeal cookie may seem like a good choice. But both are loaded with sugar and will not leave them with the energy or focus they need.
Make the decision to ‘eat for fuel’ as simple as possible for your athlete. Make boiled eggs, cheese sticks, and smoothies readily available. Have sliced deli meat, cut-up fruit and veggies, and low-sugar yogurt as quick and easy options. Everyone will have their preferences and some will have certain restrictions. But eating well is essential for teen athletes.
The Importance of Rest
If we help our athletes focus on what their bodies need, we can’t forget to talk about rest. Lack of good sleep will have a negative effect in the classroom as well as in sports. Not to mention the havoc it can wreak on hormones and emotions. (You can listen to a podcast on this topic here.) Teenagers need role models and accountability in this area, too. Help them work backwards from a sufficient bedtime. Try to ensure they get eight to ten hours of sleep. This means setting a wind-down time for homework, television, computer, and phones. Keep phones out of bedrooms, or at least away from the bed. Using your cell phone for your alarm works best if you actually have to get out of bed to turn it off in the morning!
It’s possible they will complain about the food choices or the phone and bedtime rules. But remind them that playing sports is a blessing. We all have to shape our choices around the things that are most important. If playing is important, good food and rest are non-negotiable.
COMPETITIVENESS IN HIGH SCHOOL ATHLETES
Whether your athlete competes for a club or a school team, the competition can be tough and the requirements demanding. Walking as a Christian in a competitive environment requires prayer and attention.
Some personalities shy away from competition, even if they are talented athletes. They put in the work and do their job, but they don’t relish the pressure. Others thrive on competing and will turn everything into a game to be won, from unloading the dishwasher in record time to running the fastest in drills at practice. Both personalities can contribute to a team. Both are valuable for bringing balance and insight to a group.
Failure is a Teacher
Whatever your athlete’s personality when it comes to competition, failure is a teacher. Maybe your non-competitive teen resists any situation that sets them up for failure because they don’t believe failure is acceptable. They can learn to set reasonable goals for themselves and be taught to break them down into steps they can make progress on. When they fail, the goals or the methods for achieving them can be reevaluated. We can help our kids view failure as the beginning of a new lesson to learn, rather than the end of their hopes and plans or as a judgement on them as a person.
Losing is never fun and it’s not why we play sports, but everyone will experience that feeling of coming up short. Your uber-competitive athlete may need to learn how to handle failure with grace. Win or lose, how we treat others and how we learn from our mistakes says more about our character than an undefeated record.
Like it or not, failure is a great teacher and athletics provide many lessons to learn about humility, grace, forgiveness, perseverance, and discipline. Those car rides home after a loss can be tough, but sometimes our best approach as a parent is to just give them time to process quietly. Our everyday life should be an example and reassurance to them of their worth in Christ, apart from any performance.
A PARENT’S ROLE
Sometimes, the ones struggling most with competitiveness are parents and coaches. We’ve seen the parent in the stands yelling their guts out—whether at the referees, the players, or the coaches. We’ve seen the coach who pushes an athlete for more than they are willing to give, who aggressively yells at players or uses shame and insults to try to motivate a team. Athletics can be a fine balance between meeting your own expectations and meeting the expectations of others, and our kids need more than verbal reminders of who they are in Christ and what matters in the long run—they need examples of people living it.
As the parent of an athlete, you lead the way in creating a positive experience for your child and their team. Put your energies into being the biggest fan! Ask the coach how you can help out with snacks or team meals, if the program needs donations, if there are jobs like taking stats or running the scoreboard you can do. Our local teams have parents who are skilled with a camera and donate their time to editing and posting great shots of our athletes. There is a lot that goes into making a sporting event happen, and most coaches I know are thankful for parents who see the work involved and offer to help.
CONFLICT IN HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
Not all of our athletes will be blessed to play under godly leadership or surrounded by godly teammates. Some athletes will have a bad experience, even with a good coach. Parents often feel helpless in this situation, and navigating a difficult experience can bring tension to the home and test the convictions of a family. Do we let the athlete quit? Do we press them to continue even when they are miserable?
Most of us are not raising future professional athletes. We are raising men and women who honor God in all they do, using their gifts and personalities to bring glory to Him and hope to the world. Keeping that in mind will help us navigate the inevitable tensions that will come up in a sports setting.
Biblical Wisdom for Conflict
Whether the team is organized by a secular or a religious organization, biblical wisdom applies to conflict. We should always address those who’ve offended us in private first (Matthew 18:15), assuming the best of the other person (1 Corinthians 13:7), and waiting to hear all sides (Proverbs 18:17) before we make a judgement.
No one likes conflict but it is an inevitability, and helping our teenagers learn how to work through disagreements in a godly way is our responsibility. Again, athletics provides the classroom for this life lesson.
Allowing our kids to compete in high school sports is a commitment from the whole family and one that should be weighed carefully. If we look at it as another opportunity to form godly character in ourselves and our kids, athletics can help us practice healthy habits of eating, competing, and communicating, all for the glory of God.
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