Every year, millions of children participate in church-sponsored sport leagues throughout the United States and Canada. In fact, the Upward Sport program reports that more than a half million 5- to 12-year-olds compete annually in their sport leagues alone. Pastors, staff and volunteers shoulder the task of creating and implementing a Christian-based youth sport experience that is fun and meaningful for children. While youth sport participants in these programs typically walk away with enhanced sport skills and a better understanding of the teachings and principles of Jesus, what often is overlooked is that youth sport serves more than the just the children.Meet the Parents
Numerous studies indicate that parents struggle to find a sense of community and belonging within their neighborhood, church and/or workplace. Despite technological advances, Americans have become less connected in their communities and have fewer close friends or even people that they feel they can talk to about important matters. Further, sense of community is connected with many physical, emotional and spiritual benefits; thus, it is vital that the church continue to find ways to connect parents in community and help them experience the body of Christ (Rom. 12:5
Recent research points toward youth sport as a means to address this need for parents. As researchers at East Carolina University and The University of Texas at Austin, we found that youth sport can play a significant role in increasing the overall sense of community that parents experienced. Simply put, youth sport is important for building relationships among adults in a community. Although church administrators often offer a variety of intentional activities in an effort to build community (e.g., small groups, potlucks, festivals, etc.), for many parents the youth sport environment also serves this function. In fact, our research demonstrated that for many sport is a preferred avenue to building community as it provides common ground for parents in and out of the church to build relationships. Our research concluded, however, this community does not build automatically. Rather, sport ministry staff and volunteers must carefully construct the youth sport environment, such that parents also reap benefits from it.Creating a Youth Sport Environment that Fosters Community
In our study of church-based youth sport, we found four key elements that work together to ensure that parents also reap the benefits from organized sport. First, the child's experience was the most important element. The parents in the study repeatedly mentioned they could not have a positive experience themselves if their children were not happy in the sport program. A positive child experience, we found, is accomplished by: 1) having a positive atmosphere that focuses on fun and teaching rather coaching, 2) having opportunities for all children to participate in meaningful ways, 3) improving sport skills so the child feels a sense of accomplishment, and 4) focusing on individual and team improvement rather than beating an opponent. It was clear the child's experience drove the parents' experience as many parents articulated the idea that if "our kids are happy, we are happy."