Brianna Heldt is a writer, speaker, and radio show host. She blogs at www.briannaheldt.com, has been a featured guest on BBC Radio, and her work can regularly be found in other online publications as well. A convert to the Catholic Church, Brianna explores topics ranging from faith and social issues to adoption and large family life. She and her husband make their home in Denver, along with their eight children.
If you had told me even five years ago that I’d be blogging about a new Vatican document related to sports and the Christian person, I’d have laughed in your face.
Because truth be told I am not, nor have I ever been, any sort of an athlete.
Aside from my season-long T-ball stint in kindergarten, and a brief foray into freshman tennis in high school (which resulted in little else besides splitting headaches triggered by practicing in the 90-degree California heat), I have played zero sports in my life. Zero. I was a horrible runner, couldn’t do a pullup if my life depended on it (hello Presidential Fitness Test alternative of “flexed arm hang”), and was generally chosen last when it came to picking teams.
Sports just wasn’t my thing. Writing, speech-giving and debate were, and still are, much more my speed. (Turns out the latter two come in mighty handy when you have teenagers. Who knew?)
So imagine my surprise when, upon throwing a bunch of my young kids onto a summer swim team four years ago, I found myself really kind of loving it.
Seeing sports through the eyes of my children opened up, for me, a whole new appreciation for competition, the potential for personal growth, and the joys and challenges of perseverance. I enjoy watching each of my children work hard, develop a positive body image, and hone self-discipline. They’re developing skills they maybe wouldn’t as easily develop elsewhere.
It is fitting, then, that the Vatican’s new document about sports is titled “Giving the Best of Yourself.” Because isn’t that really the ultimate goal we have for our children? The document quotes Pope Francis when it reads, ”The Church is interested in sport because the person is at her heart, the whole person, and she recognizes that sports activity affects the formation, relations and spirituality of a person.”
We also read that, “According to John Paul II, the Church regards sport with esteem because she values ‘everything that contributes to the harmonious and complete development of the person, body and soul. She encourages, therefore, what aims at educating, developing and strengthening the human body, in order that it may offer a better service for the attainment of personal maturity.’”
The pairing of responsibility with freedom, obedience to rules, opportunities to resist temptation to cheat, and the cultivation of lasting commitment (in a typically throwaway culture) are but a few of the personal virtues and benefits derived from participating in sports.
Basically, this latest offering from the Vatican is a must-read for parents of kids young and old — especially if you, like I did initially, have your doubts about the value of early morning warmups, or multiple afternoons of practice each week. If you’ve only heard negative things about “sports culture” — and yes, there are certainly less-than-great aspects, some of which we’ve encountered--believe me when I say it is also highly possible to find quality coaches, kind and encouraging teammates, and a program that suits your family. Don’t think that just because you have a bajillion children, or kids who are perhaps not athletically inclined, the benefits of sports aren’t available to you. I can pretty much guarantee there is something out there that your children will both enjoy, and be challenged by. Whether it’s rec or competitive club level, a good athletics program will be something of potentially great value.
Now for some of my own thoughts, based on my personal experience with youth sports over the years.
1. Swimming is an excellent and very doable sport for large families. Oftentimes kids of both ages and genders can practice and compete together, all at the same time. (Winning, for a mom-to-many!) You can choose to just do a summer swim team (some of which are extremely laid-back), or opt for your child to swim year-round. And if you happen to have a kiddo (like I do) who doesn’t necessarily love the pressure of playing on a volleyball or basketball team, because she’s worried she might mess something up, swimming is the perfect activity. Because although it has a team aspect to it, it is also very much individualized. Kind of the best of both worlds.
2. It might take awhile to find a good fit. But it’s worth it. Don’t give up. We had kids playing club soccer for a time, which for the most part was good. BUT we ended up eventually moving away from that, because it became very impractical with multiple kids on multiple teams. It was a positive experience, but we didn’t find it to be sustainable for our family over time. Same thing with a horseback riding program my kids participated in for awhile. (Two of the three wanted to quit. But one wanted to keep going. The time commitment was insane, so they retired.) Which brings me to my next, and final point...
3. You will want to find something that is not only good for your individual child, but also workable for you, your husband, and your other children. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. One of our aforementioned soccer players, for example, really didn’t want to give it up. They enjoyed soccer more than swimming. And, I felt kind of bad making that decision for them. But weekends had become complicated, and yet another kid was wanting to join a soccer team (which really would have been a mess because we already had kids spread between two teams, and this would have meant a third.) Basically, it was time to move on and find a better fit. (See point number one.) And the great thing was that everybody eventually accepted that we simply can’t do everything, and sometimes individual wants must be sacrificed in service of the greater good, for the family. Which really isn’t such a bad life lesson, either.