Athletics is a microcosm of Life, Jeff Belmondo says. He’s the director at a Renton church’s sports league.
“You have setbacks, victories, boundaries, rules, teammates,” he said.
That’s why Belmondo so passionately believes through sports kids can learn more than to score, but how to grow as a person.
The sports league, Upward, has been working out of Highlands Community Church for about 15 years. Upward is a larger organization that works with churches to bring sports to the local community, that also encourages Christian values, the website states it’s “promoting the discover of Jesus through sports.” The league, which includes basketball and cheer, is for kids from first to sixth grade and brings in much of the greater Highlands community. Each week is an hour of practice and an hour of game. The league has grown from 100 kids to 350 today.
Yes, the athletes and families hear about Bible verses, but there’s something more to it than preaching. About two-thirds of the kids involved don’t attend Highlands, and even one-third of the volunteer coaches, Belmondo said. The online registration fills up overnight.
“You can’t go to Highlands and not hear about Upward,” Coach Jim Quigg said. “You can’t go through Renton without hearing about Upward, it feels like.”
Parent Somer Martinson is one of those out-of-church families involved, but she was married at Highlands. Two of her kids have been involved in both cheer and basketball for about two years, and she’s had a lot of friends’ kids also join the league who don’t attend church. She thinks its cool how the league has become a neighborhood event.
She tells other parents that out of the other sports programs her kids have been in, this is by far one of the most organized, positive and uplifting leagues. Her daughter, Kendall, is in select soccer where there’s a lot of intensity and competitiveness, and she said Upward is a “breath of fresh air” from that. The league is also stays on schedule, respecting the families’ time. Her kids also love it. Her son Nolan started this year and she said he has a lot of friends on the team. Her daughter Kendall also enjoys the prayer circles, and the league is a one-stop shop for both athletics and ministry.
This year, the season is focusing on the ideas of self control and commitment. In the middle of practice, and during halftime at games, the kids hear something from scripture and then they are asked questions that apply the values learned into their daily lives.
“This is for everybody, and all kids learn the same things. You don’t have to know the Bible verses. These are just basic tenets that we think are important for kids to know and apply to their lives,” Belmondo said.
But the best learning happens during game time where every student, no matter the skill level, is encouraged by their coach and families. Using guidance provided by Upward, the teams have evenly-matched players and a schedule makes sure each player gets equal time on the court. The coaches don’t have to worry about it, Belmondo said.
After each game, the coach gives players recognition in five different areas: offense, defense, effort, sportsmanship and Christ-likeness. Christ-likeness, Belmondo said, means the kids are showing care for their fellow players on the court.
At a game one recent Saturday, Quigg was watching his team for specific moments where he could recognize the players. He was trying to give each one a category they hadn’t received in a while. He sectioned off parts of the pages in his notebook to fill in for each girl on the team, their name and what he was trying to recognize them for at the top.
He has been a coach at Upward for three years, he and his wife attend Highlands and his daughter is on one of the teams. He coaches all his kids’ sports, but Upward’s 10-week season is probably his best part of the year. He said the time and commitment requirement for coaches is “more than you’d expect” but he’s proud to work under Belmondo. He said Belmondo works hard to make sure all coaches are on the same page, and frequently talks to coaches about ways they can help the games be more equitable and positive for the players.
Coaches and parents are all part of Upward’s “circle of validation” concept. The parents are meant to watch how the coaches handle the games: positive, working alongside referees and being excited for the kids. The families involved participate in a orientation during the first week that helps them understand the values in the Upward league. And at each game, a poster reminds parents to encourage their kids, and not make all of the compliments based off skill and performance. The poster reads, “I Love to Watch You Play.”
Summer said as a parent she liked the mantra, and it’s been good for her husband, too. It helps get away from the competitiveness. The reminder helps him stay on the positives when talking to the kids after the game.
Of course, coaches still want the kids to excel. Quigg said he will cushion advice inside the praise for the girls. He loves to see the kids excited about growing in their skills and loving sports. But the primary focus is biblical principals, but many people just come here for the amazing basketball.
“What’s so different about this place, why is it so positive and diligent? It’s Jeff (Belmondo). Jeff and Jesus,” Quigg said.
Much of the credit for keeping the mission of equity and positivity in sports so strong goes to Belmondo, Quigg said. He is this league. Martinson also agreed that Belmondo’s passion is contagious.
Belmondo coached his kids and grandkids teams all over the country while serving in the coast guard over 30 years. He said “I love to watch you play” is an easy validating way talk to the kids, and he figured that out early on in his coaching. He started at Highland’s Upward league 13 years ago and found the structure reinforced what he already was passionate about for coaching, while offering a ministry and hyperlocal missionary opportunity.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of people going on mission trips to go overseas, well I’m just not wired like that,” Belmondo said. “So it’s really cool we can have this mission-feel right here in the Northwest. Where kids come in, and the whole point of the program is to reach the community and give them an opportunity to have a great sports program, but also to help them grow.”
More information is available at highlandscc.org/upward. The league is hosting its end-of-season celebration March 15 at Lindbergh High School.