This may seem like a strange subject for me to write about since I’m not the greatest example of physical fitness, but I believe that my experience in these areas may be helpful to Catholic families trying to find a balance in our society.
My Wife and I
My wife had no background in sports or fitness and has none today. She’s been like that since I met her in high school. She a beautiful, healthy woman, bore ten healthy children and is a hard worker who has no problem with farm and garden work, but her interest in sports and exercise is less than zero.
I, on the other hand, grew up immersed in sports, watching and playing sports year-round. I went to school because it was required to play sports–and that’s the only reason I went. I was on traveling all-star teams and played at one of the top high school baseball programs in America which required year-round training, but two injuries during my junior year of high school–one playing football (dislocated shoulder) and another playing baseball (broken catching hand)–derailed my sports career.
When sports ended for me, I found myself in a world I had never thought about, a world outside of gyms and baseball fields, where the next game wasn’t the main event on the weekly calendar. I was completely unfamiliar with and unprepared for that world and I quickly realized that the 12-13 years I had spent playing sports was a great waste of my time–and my family’s time. My whole family attended my games–parents, sisters, grandparents, uncles and aunts. All of that was over. Sure, there were lessons learned from sports, but as many of them were bad as were good and I will argue that the so-called benefits of sports are greatly overrated in comparison to other options available to our children.
When sports ended for me, academics replaced them as my life’s contest. I devoted myself to studies as recklessly as I had devoted myself to sports. I made classes and exams my games and my professors and classmates were my opponents. It was the same competition, just a different activity, with greater implications in my real life. When college was over, teaching and business became my sport and I devoted myself to them with the same tenacity I ever played sports with. I was still as much of an “athlete” as ever–physically and mentally. It was just a different sport, and one far more satisfying. When I moved to rural North Carolina, farming and gardening became new sports for me, with the same physical and mental challenges as any football or baseball games. Today, the sports I play are real contests and I love the challenges of the Christian life.
When my first child was born, I had no interest in introducing him to sports, even though I was still playing on the church softball team and coaching basketball. I had better plans for my kids and I didn’t want my wife playing chauffeur the way my mother had to. Thankfully, my son (along with my other kids) was interested more in climbing trees and fishing than in playing sports, and playing 2-on-2 basketball in the driveway, “ghetto” soccer in the field, or just throwing a football around, were enough for him. There was too much physical work to do on the farm to look forward to sports as a recreation. Farm work made him tough and taught him the lessons sports are said to teach boys–but much more effectively.
When he reached his teens, however, interest in sports picked up a little bit. Studies were increasing and the desire for “artificial” physical activity increased as well. We considered what our options might be, but I decided againt organized sports. Instead we invested in the equipment we needed to build a home gym out in the garage. I bought a weight bence and starter set of weights and bars for Jonathan and told him that if he uses them, I’ll buy more. Over a few years we ended up with more weights than he could ever use and we used Christmas and birthdays as opportunities to keep adding pieces until we had everything needed.
At age 14, Jonathan started working out with me and I taught him the basics, but I was not interested in starting any kind of rigorous exercise program. I taught him what to do and gave him the supplies he needed to do it. He started to work out regularly and fell in love with it. Within a year, he was working out 2 hours a day, getting into the gym as soon as the school day was over…every single day.
My daughter Elizabeth, coming up behind him, was his exercise partner, spotting him while he worked out and, eventually she started to work out with him. Elizabeth also started running and became quite fit. The two of them worked out together every day and we continued to add to our workout equipment, whatever they needed.
David was next and eventually worked his way into the routine. He became Elizabeth’s running partner, and the three of them worked out every day together. No skipping a workout with Jonathan around.
Once they began working out daily, there was no more talk about sports and they developed a personal discipline that was, honestly, impressive.
There were a number of benefits in investing in weightlifing and fitness for our children:
- the kids were home and out of trouble
- the kids have no interest in bad habits–drinking, smoking, junk food, etc..
- the effeminacy seen in most Christian boys today was kept away
- the kids were able to maintain an orderly daily routine
- the kids have been given good local jobs because of their fitness/work ethic
- there was no disruption to our family schedule
- exercise equipment and apparel make great gifts
- the kids were spared any stupid sports injuries
- the kids were physically fit and healthy
- the kids became best friends and enjoyed something together
- the younger kids are looking forward to their turn
- working out is something they can continue throughout life
- establishing the home gym was relatively inexpensive
Now, there have been times where I’ve needed to reel them in a bit. I’ve had to steer Jonathan away from bodybuilding magazines, Elizabeth away from yoga pants and limit “mirror time”. I’ve had to explain why eating a dozen eggs for breakfast isn’t a good idea and why protein shakes and supplements aren’t as good as some fresh meat, vegetables and a glass of milk. Those, however, have been the problems we’ve had to deal with as our teenagers have grown up–no locker room filth, no post-game parties, no immorality. I know what that life is like and my kids don’t, thank God.
Therefore, if you find yourself wrestling with the question of sports with your kids, I recommend starting something as we did. I don’t recommend trying to push kids into organized sports or martial arts because those things require commitment and you can’t force commitment. There’s no virtue gained from being forced to participate in a sport that you have no interest in–it probably does more harm than good. I remember the poor kids I played with who didn’t want to be there–it wasn’t good for them. They just got embarassed, or injured, and were usually on the bench anyway. With exercise and fitness, it’s personal and private and always available.
I hope that’s helpful, and I’m happy to talk about any specifics if you’d like to. Please don’t think it’s silly to dig into practical nuts and bolts–I’d argue that that’s exactly where the truth is found on many of these issues which are, actually, very important.