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When Dordt University athletic director Ross Douma’s oldest son reached third grade, Douma signed him up to play club basketball.

“We were young parents, and it was very enticing to play club and AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] at an early age,” Douma said. “That’s just what folks were doing. It was the norm.”

That’s increasingly true. From 2010 to 2017, the youth sports market grew by 55 percent. It’s now a nearly $20 billion market—even larger than the NFL. Club sports, which are more competitive and expensive than recreation leagues or school sports, typically start in early elementary school. Families spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours a year, often with the goal of their child getting into college or earning a scholarship.

For four years, the Douma family spent weekends in gyms across Chicago and Des Moines. They liked the exposure to different communities and the higher level of play. But after a while, they began to wonder

Ross Douma / Courtesy of Dordt University

if it was worth it.

“We realized our son was having good experiences and forming good friendships, but we were tired,” Douma said. He was an assistant principal and men’s basketball coach at a Christian school, but he wasn’t showing up on Monday mornings refreshed from a Sunday of rest and worship. Sports began to eat up more and more time and attention until it felt all-consuming. Douma and his wife began to wonder if they were being foolish, or even idolatrous.

“The benefits were not outweighing the things that were making life challenging for us,” he said. “Our son was improving his skills to a degree, but we were compromising family time, schoolwork, and sometimes church activities. We said to ourselves, ‘This is not how we want to raise our children.’”

So they quit.

“We have not regretted it,” said Douma, who has spent nearly 30 years coaching student athletes of all ages. Over the years, he hasn’t seen the promises of early participation—that your child will be a better athlete, leading to more opportunities and college scholarships—pan out.

“I’m very passionate about youth sports,” he said. “I believe they play a significant role in the development of young children. And I know young parents mean well and want to serve their children. But this is a path that doesn’t end well. A lot of times there is burnout, overuse injuries, and no substantial scholarship at the end of that road . . . . Ultimately, you are running the great race to nowhere.”

I sit on the board at Dordt University, where Douma works. I asked him about the theology of club sports, whether kids will fall behind if they don’t play club, and what experience he prefers to see in an incoming college athlete.

I know you love sports and believe exercise and athletics are great for kids. So how do you think club sports go too far?

Sports and athletics are part of God’s creation. Like anything on this side of heaven, they can be used to really promote and glorify God, who made our bodies. They can also be a wonderful platform from which to share the gospel.

But sports can also become an idol. When our love for and pursuit of athletic achievement becomes greater than our love for God, his church, and the families he’s given us, we start to make wrong choices about how to spend our time, energy, and money.

Club sports can start off innocently, with a desire to use our bodies to glorify God. But over and over, I have seen it trap people in schedules they can’t get out of. I have seen their motivations change.

Navigating that fine line between loving sports and idolizing sports is really hard, and that’s why we need Christian coaches and leaders to help educate families on moderation—on what is enough for their family. Certainly, we are getting no help from the culture on de-idolizing athletics, so we need to be intentional. We hear loud noises from the greater sports culture saying, “Indulge, indulge, indulge.”

It’s important that we have educated leaders and coaches that help parents temper this.

Lots of parents put their children in club sports because the child likes to play—and if your children don’t play club sports, they will probably fall behind their peers. Is that a valid concern?

Because youngsters are starting earlier, they’re better at the age of 10 and 12 than they have ever been. Their skills are refined at an earlier age. But we also see them starting to leave sports at the ages of 12 and 13 because they’re burned out.

Early specialization, too, leads to earlier burnout—and to more injuries and tired joints by the time they get to college.

At the college level, we’re also seeing less of a competitive edge in our athletes. I think the reason is that teens used to play one or two games a week. Now, because of the club scenes, they’re playing two to three games a day. When you do that, losing isn’t a big deal because you still have two games scheduled later in the day. But when you play one game, you really pour yourself into it. As a result, today’s college athletes are more athletic and skilled but don’t have as much competitiveness and grit as college athletes used to.

For us, at a small college, the ideal student athlete has played two to three sports in high school and no—or very little—club sports. If they do that, they don’t have wear and tear on their body and are really just falling in love with their sport more and more as they go through high school.

I’m not the only one saying this. There are mountains of research proving that starting early is more likely to wreck than to jump-start a professional career or Division 1 scholarship.

But what about scholarships? College is expensive, and some parents are hoping an athletic scholarship could help with the cost.

Over and over, I have observed young parents exhausting themselves and compromising their family schedules in the name of trying to pursue a college scholarship. The truth is, most college athletic scholarships only cover part of the tuition.

If you took the money you’re spending on travel and training sessions and invested it well, you’d almost certainly have more money for college than a sports scholarship will earn.

So club sports might not be as promising as they sound, but are they actually harmful?

If kids play sports too early and too often, it can be harmful physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

For example, we are now seeing more Tommy John surgeries among Little Leaguers than among professionals. ACL surgeries are also up, as are all stress fractures and all types of worn-out joints.

When our first child played on several club teams, our family seldom had time at the dinner table together or did family activities. We couldn’t go on vacation because he always had a game. Sunday was not a day of rest.

With our younger children, we had our weekends back. Our family could spend time together, go on vacation together, and be at church more. It was a very healthy thing for all of us.

So if you don’t advocate for club sports, what should our kids be doing instead?

If the danger on one side is too much organized sports, the danger on the other is inactivity.

Over the years, we’ve seen an increase in screen time correlate with a decrease in organic, recreational play—and not just for kids but also for adults. Participation is down for adult sports leagues from flag football to basketball to softball.

There is also some correlation between screen time and lack of competitive fire and creativity. So first, we should encourage kids to put down their screens.

Decades ago, young people would go out and formulate games and scrimmages on their own or spend time teaching themselves how to play. I’m a proponent of that kind of organic and grassroots athletics—I hope that’s not a bygone era, where kids can generate and schedule activity on their own by going to a park or playground to play.

In the same vein, I encourage student athletes to play multiple sports and to make sure they have an offseason, so they can enjoy play overall.

What advice do you have for the parents of student athletes?

Sometimes parents put expectations on themselves—they think if their child is a great student, performs well in theater, and performs well in the athletic arena, then that reflects good parenting.

But I’m more interested in how a child treats his teammates or respects his teachers. To me, that’s a better reflection of good parenting. Our priorities for our children should be spiritual ones.

It’s also a better indication to me of how long their athletic careers will last. When prospective student athletes at Dordt are curious about their teammates or wondering about their majors, those are good indications to me they will play for all four years. If they’re narrowly focused on playing time or depth charts, there’s a good chance they’ll experience burnout.

You can also make sure your child doesn’t specialize too early and takes regular, substantial breaks from organized play. Check in regularly to make sure your child still wants to play—if not, look for other sports or physical activities she can get involved with. I was a basketball player, but one of my kids turned out to be a golfer and another is a runner.

Do your research and pray before you make decisions. Think about what is important to your family and for the overall health and well-being of your child.

I know all of this is hard for parents. I wish I could give them a 30,000-foot view of what is going on. When you’re in the weeds of day-to-day living, it’s difficult to see clearly. That’s why parents need assistance from local school administrators, coaches, and even more experienced parents to help them see through the facade of youth sports.

Remember, this is a billion-dollar industry. While many clubs really do have the best interests of their players at heart, there are many children playing sports who are being used as commodities.

As Christians, we must keep speaking into it, knowing that there are benefits associated with youth sports but pitfalls as well.

Photo by Kylie Osullivan on Unsplash

Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra is senior writer and faith-and-work editor for The Gospel Coalition. She is also the coauthor of Gospelbound: Living with Resolute Hope in an Anxious Age and editor of Social Sanity in an Insta WorldBefore that, she wrote for Christianity Today, homeschooled her children, freelanced for a local daily paper, and taught at Trinity Christian College. She earned a BA in English and communication from Dordt University and an MSJ from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She lives with her husband and two sons in Kansas City, Missouri, where they belong to New City Church. You can reach her at

Ross Douma (BA, Northwestern College; MA, Governor’s State University; EdD, University of South Dakota) is the director of athletics at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa. Previously, he taught and coached at various high schools. The last two years, he’s been named the Great Plains Athletic Conference Athletic Director of the Year.