Parents often approach me to ask whether they should enroll their children in sports academies as opposed to regular programs. In my opinion, while many aspects of academy life are beneficial, there are also some serious potential challenges. While the lessons of hard work and learning how to win are great, as are travel opportunities and the development of lifelong friendships, but Catholic parents should also be aware of possible pitfalls.
The most basic question might be the age of the child. I personally am not a fan of having children under the age of 9 or 10 being involved in one sport for an extreme numbers of hours per week. Many repetitive use injuries can occur in cases like this.
It is a good idea for young children to become well-rounded. It is best to expose children to different activities, including those that are non-athletic and that help develop their Catholic faith. The fact they are not totally immersed in one sport at such a young age will not prevent them from being successful at an older age. Kids must have down time, family time, unstructured time, and prayer time.
Secondly, the cost of having a child in an academy can be significant. Registration, equipment, tournaments and private lessons can add up to thousands of dollars annually for just one child. As Catholic parents, we should be prudent in how we spend our money. Do we help the church financially? Do we give to worthwhile charitable causes? Are we risking overall family financial stability for academy expenses? We must be good stewards of our finances.
Thirdly, if parents do enroll their child in an academy, they should ensure the coaches share their values. This means paying attention to what is going on at the academy. Do the coaches teach with trash talk and foul language, or do they insist on keeping it clean and showing discipline? Do they encourage cheating (ie. bad line calls in tennis, diving in soccer, fighting in hockey) or do they insist players show respect for opponents, officials, rules, and their family name? Do leaders make excuses or accept responsibility? Do they foster the virtues of fortitude and persistence, or do they give up too easily? In defeat, do they demonstrate anger and poor sportsmanship, or do they help young athletes see losses as learning opportunities?
Humility can be lacking at times in academies. Having a belief in one's God-given skills and what the a team can accomplish is good, but for athletes to believe they are superior to others is wrong and must be kept in check by parents and coaches.
In today's culture, parents must make sure coaches are not abusive or permit inappropriate talk and behaviour in the locker room. Coaches should use positive reinforcement as often as possible. If parents witness bad behaviour, they should not be afraid to speak the coaches. If coaches will not help change the culture, parents can speak to the association, or if necessary, pull their children out.
Of major importance is the issue of whether the coaches and the association respect a family's faith. Never miss Sunday Mass because of a game. The main reason a young person is in the academy in the first place (besides the fact they registered) is because of talents and opportunities supplied by God, our creator. Many children do not get these chances and out of gratitude we must always give our best to God.
While I do believe parents and children always should do their best to commit to as many practices and games as possible in fairness to coaches and teammates, Mass is very special. Children must always understand that this is our priority. When non-Catholic coaches see a family's commitment to their faith, it can be an opportunity for evangelization, also.
My intention in these words is not to disregard the many benefits and rewards a child can reap from academy training, but having been in the sports industry I have seen many parents and athletes sell out to academies at all costs. Catholics, we must not let sports become our God. Instead, we need to bring the Lord into our decision making.
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