Youth sports and sportsmanship

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley

 Karol Wojtyla, the man who became Saint John Paul II, was an avid athlete. As a youth and young man he played soccer. As a young priest he took college students on kayak outings. After becoming pope he continued to ski and even had a swimming pool built in Vatican City.

 Reflecting on the importance of sports Saint John Paul II observed that many important human values such as loyalty, fair play, generosity, solidarity and respect are common to both sports and Christian discipleship: “Are not these athletic values,” the pope mused, “the deepest aspirations and requirements of the Christian message?” These values form the foundation of solid human virtues and strong characters.

 Recognizing that sports programs provide an outstanding opportunity to train and form young men and women, the Catholic Church has always valued athletics as a fruitful field for youth ministry. A well-balanced approach to sports helps instill human and Christian values that prepare young men and women to be good citizens and good Catholics.

 Unfortunately, there is ample evidence today that many youth sports programs have lost that balance and clear sense of purpose. Many sports programs have become costly year round activities, involving extensive travel, which often detracts from family time and even the opportunity to participate in Mass. A style of coaching that emphasizes winning above all else often shows a disturbing lack of respect for players and opponents. Examples of “parent rage” have become all too frequent and profoundly disturbing occurrences.

 What has become of the old refrain: “It’s not whether you win or lose that matters; it’s how you play the game?”

 The cynic would say that this is just a rationalization for the losers. But, there used to be a common understanding that while athletics teach young people to develop their talents and use their skills to the best of their abilities, winning is not the ultimate purpose of participating in sports. The quality of teamwork and sportsmanship that players and coaches exhibit on the playing field is at least as important as the final score. Winning can teach us much, but sometimes losing can teach us even more. A victory is hollow if it is gained by sacrificing integrity.

 As students return to school, this is a good time to reflect on the role of sports in our communities. As Catholic parents, coaches, athletes and fans we have a shared responsibility within our homes, parishes and schools to promote a youth sports culture that is truly Christian.

 Do we view athletics as a way of ministering to youth and their families? Do we recognize and value sports as a way of fostering character development and building Christian communities? Our behavior on the court, on the field and in the stands is part of the way we live and bear witness to our faith. How are we doing?