[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”B01EKCQN3Q” locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/518mThX5ClL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”216″]Tackling the Sacred Cow
of Youth Sports
A Review of
Overplayed: A Parent’s Guide to the Sanity in the World of Youth Sports
Margot Starbuck and David King
Paperback: Herald Press, 2016
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Reviewed by Adam Metz
One of the most impressive and respected structures in my hometown of Columbus, OH is Ohio Stadium, nicknamed “The Horseshoe,” and it is where the Ohio State Buckeyes football team plays. Originally built in 1922 (and now on the National Register of Historic Places) it has been expanded and renovated several times over the years to the point where the seating has nearly doubled its original capacity to over 102,000 seats. As the largest venue in the entire state of Ohio, Ohio Stadium illustrates just how powerful sports are in American culture.
What would our communities be without the social cohesion and identity partly forged by our allegiance to professional and collegiate sports teams? Regional pride and identity are best on display through the distinctive college mascots and corresponding colors emblazoned throughout communities: Gators in Florida, Volunteers in Tennessee, Hoosiers in Indiana, Longhorns in Texas, Ducks in Oregon, and – of course – Buckeyes in Ohio. These sports allegiances are further nuanced as attention focuses more locally. At one level, high school athletic programs foster their local community pride, while Saturday morning recreation leagues within those same communities further divide allegiances.
The reality is, sports at the highest levels are built upon youth leagues and programs throughout the United States. Major League Baseball may seem a far cry from the local tee ball league, but every professional athlete was introduced to and first learned their sport somewhere. Considering the fact that such a infinitesimally small percentage of athletes ever play professionally, it may seem strange to begin a review of youth sports talking about professionals, but the truth is college scholarships and professional sports has drastically altered the landscape of youth sports in recent decades.
As a pastor, there has been no single issue that has been more complicated for me to deal with than the relationship youth group families have to their sports teams and leagues. I regularly talk with youth pastors who are overwhelmed by their students’ relentless sports schedules and who worry about the imbalance of focus in the lives of their students with regards to sports. Equally, as a parent with children actively involved in youth sports, my wife and I struggle with our own level of participation, balancing time with our church family and time with our sports family, and choosing the right path for their athletic success. In a word it all seems: overwhelming!
It is with a great deal of sincerity that I can say David King and Margot Starbuck’s new book, Overplayed: A Parent’s Guide to Sanity in the World of Youth Sports is a level-headed, practical, honest, and, at times, challenging word spoken into a much neglected area within the church. Considering the popularity and ubiquity of sports in American culture, the lack of resources for Christian parents, pastors, and student ministers is astonishing, and Overplayed provides a much needed contribution. Written from the perspective of an experienced athletic director (David King) whose children have already traversed the world of youth sports, and the younger Margot Starbuck whose children are currently playing sports, Overplayed provides a balanced and practical perspective from authors who have “been there.”
The book is based on seven myths that parents are often sold (or sell to themselves) that help promote unhealthy experiences in youth sports. Throughout the book, King and Starbuck are quick to emphasize the point that there is no single one-size-fits-all approach to youth sports. They nuance their suggestions realizing that some children are more gifted athletically than others, that some families may decide that travel leagues are best suited for their faith commitments while others choose locally-based recreation leagues, and that each family goes through various seasons of life at their own pace where their commitments and experiences change and evolve. This is not to say that these authors affirm everyone’s status quo. Rather, any reader is sure to find King and Starbuck forcing him or her to think more deeply about many deeply held convictions about youth sports.
In Overplayed, the authors challenge some myths that are especially prevalent in today’s youth sports culture: that one-sport specialization is beneficial for young athletes, that there’s no harm in participating in youth sports, and that the money spent in youth sports can be seen as a good investment for the child’s future. Beyond these myths, King and Starbuck’s critique strikes at the heart of some of today’s most revered parental convictions: that we owe our children every opportunity (which extends to every opportunity in youth sports), that our children deserve to play with the most-skilled athletes, and that good parents attend all their children’s games. If you find yourself even remotely upholding the veracity of one of these statements, the chances are that you are just like most well-intentioned parents of young athletes. Therein lies the challenge that King and Starbuck strive to address. It isn’t that parents set out to make poor decisions regarding their children’s experience in sports, it’s just that we easily get misled by many voices within our culture.
Overplayed is a quick read that is full of real life stories of parents, young athletes, colleges and youth leagues that help reinforce the authors’ perspective. It should be noted that Overplayed will resonate with readers who share a similar background of the authors. As a high school football official who has spent a good deal of time officiating football games in inner city contexts, I would be remiss not to point out one shortcoming of the book. Throughout the book, the authors highlight the sporting experiences of families who are able to afford the privilege of things like travel leagues and elite sports structures. This perspective will resonate with many readers (it certainly did for me), however it is definitely not the experience that every individual or family has in sports. There are concerns and challenges that young athletes in poorer social circumstances face that are largely ignored in this particular text.
This takes nothing away from the book as it stands, however. King and Starbuck, write as athletes and committed parents of athletes, but firstly, they write as Christians. Too often the church has cast a blind eye in the direction of sports presuming the positive attributes of sports trumps all possible critique. Too few Christian parents spend the time to critically and carefully consider how their family’s role in sports will affect their faith before they get sucked into a system where they seemingly have no other options. I would encourage all parents who are familiar with waiting in the parking lot for practice to end, to pick up a copy of Overplayed, and use that time to read this helpful book. Chances are, it will help you think through some things you’ve never thought through before, and it will challenge you to rethink how sports has impacted your family’s faith. You will be encouraged, challenged, and, hopefully, come to a better and more intentional understanding of the role sports play in your family’s life.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com