labA laboratory is a place where you conduct experiments – you try things out, observe, investigate and analyze – in a safe or controlled environment. Sports, as a microcosm of life, provide such a “life laboratory”.

Sports have long been heralded for the opportunity they provide to build character in this “life laboratory”. Research over the last 20 years has demonstrated this attribute. The problem is that same research shows that the experiments being run in this “life lab” are producing the wrong kind of character.

Sports Illustrated recently ran an article, In the Fields of the Lord”,  that discussed this reality and cited University of Utah’s Sharon Stoll and her research on 90,000 student athletes since 1987:

Her research shows that athletes on average score lower than the general student population on tests of moral reasoning, and athletes in “male, revenue-producing contact sports” are the most deficient of that group.

One major reason for their moral indifference, writes Stoll, is that in the culture of male team-sport athletics, “the opponent is not seen as an honorable opponent but rather an obstacle, of little worth, to be overcome.” This dehumanization of the opponent is amplified by the rules of football. Stars in all sports are rich and worshipped as heroes, but only football adds to the money and adulation a level of violence and physical domination that is deeply at odds with Jesus’ message.

So how do we turn the tables on this documented reality and begin using sports as a laboratory to produce the right kind of character? 

Here are a couple of ideas:

1)  Observe – Acknowledge this problem in your own sports.  Sports is often producing the wrong kind of behavior not just in others but also in you.

2)  Investigate – When this undesirable behavior comes out, ask “Why?”  – “Why did I act this way?”  “What was I feeling or thinking that moved me to such behavior?”  Behind every bad behavior is a bad belief.  Use the laboratory to identify and analyze. This may be done both during and after the sport.

3)  Learn –  “What can I think differently?”  “What lie can I repent of?” “What truth can I believe instead?”

4)  Begin with yourself – Focus your investigation internally rather than on your fellow competitors.

5) Share with others – As you begin to see the results, talk to others about what you are learning, casting the vision of sports as a positive laboratory.

There is much more to discuss in fully utilizing sports as a laboratory but these practical steps when implemented can begin to reverse this historic trend in sports.

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About the Author

Bob Schindler has worked at CSO since 2003. Prior to coming to CSO, Bob worked as a pastor for 18 years - eight as an Associate Pastor in Leadership Development, Outreach, and Youth, and ten as a church planter and Senior Pastor. Before vocational ministry, Bob worked in business for six years in sales and marketing and corporate training and played professional golf for four years. He still has an interest in golf but would most of the time rather play basketball or rock climb or kayak - something more active than golf. He and his wife, Beth, have four grown "kids" and a grandson and a granddaughter.

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