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March Madness signals sports ministry to return this spring

After a year-long hiatus, March Madness is returning this spring with a bang. Amid COVID-19, the sports community has come together to play a full regular season and kick-start a new tournament season.

Alli Nguyen, far right being held, and her Upward Sports league in Erie County in western New York.
Alli Nguyen, far right being held, and her Upward Sports league in Erie County in western New York. | Courtesy of Vinh Nguyen

The return of collegiate sports brings hope for youth sports. Young athletes and families are ready to get back in the game. As churches look for ways to safely reengage with communities this spring, sports ministry may be the key. Young athletes need responsible and creative leadership to restart the vibrant sports communities, and churches can meet this need.

The loss of youth sports amid COVID-19 has been hard on our youngest athletes, as crucial opportunities for exercise, character growth, and play are at stake. As sports had provided an emotional and physical outlet for many, our young people today are at heightened risks of suicide as feelings of depression, anxiety, and loneliness loom due to quarantine and social distancing.

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Churches must understand how vitally important youth sports leagues are. Sports are a wonderful way for young people and children to express their emotions, acquire new skills and develop their personalities through play and teamwork. But sports are also vital ministry and counseling opportunities; through sports, kids can learn important lessons about Christ-like values like humility, kindness, honesty, and perseverance.

For all of these reasons, sports communities should be of the utmost importance for kids. For young people, sports are a way to live joyfully and purposefully through time well spent with their friends, peers, and adult role models. Not only that, sports ministries allow churches to connect with every member of the community. Young athletes come out and play, older siblings and parents volunteer as coaches and grandparents rally around games to cheer on their loved ones.

Our young people need sports now more than ever. During the pandemic, the average child spent 6.5 fewer hours per week on sports than they did before COVID-19. Due to the scarcity of sports and other forms of contact with their friends and the wider world, young people are suffering from many adverse mental and physical health outcomes. Sports were once a way that these kids bonded with their parents, developed talents that could be rejoiced in, and achieved things they could be proud of. Separated from the sports field, as well as from their friends and coaches, these kids are now struggling to find purpose and hope.

A recent survey reported a 500% increase in the number of kids who spend six or more hours per day online. We aren’t made to sit inside all day and stare at screens. We are all at our best when we can interact with each other. Young people, especially, have a deeply felt need to get out, be active, and share experiences.

The fact of the matter is that kids need sports. And luckily, America’s faith communities have shown us that they are ready to come out and play.

Some of our church partners at Upward Sports, like First Baptist Church in Ozark, Missouri, have seen a record number of young athletes and positive responses from parents as they begin their sports leagues again. Others are starting COVID-19-safe indoor basketball leagues and rebuilding their basketball and flag football leagues to be more accessible to special-needs children.

Church leaders are seeing the need for sports and are getting creative to rebuild the sports communities our kids need. Whether its sports leagues modified to fit COVID-19 safety protocols or one-day sports clinics, churches are stepping into the leadership gap and bringing sports back to our youth athletes.

Like anything else during this pandemic, sports will take careful preparation and hard work. There’s no going back to the way things were. But there can be a new way forward. And with vaccines continuing to roll out and with the warmer weather approaching, now is the right time to start bringing sports leagues back. We can do sports safely. And we owe it to our nation’s youth athletes to try.

We can all celebrate the return of collegiate sports, and it's time that youth sports returned, too. Churches must continue to lead the charge. To further reengage with families and communities this spring, sports ministry must return.  

Kevin Drake is the executive director of Upward Sports.

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