by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Continuing with last week’s focus on sports, I am delighted with the success of Sporting Kansas City — our professional soccer team that plays in the new arena located in Kansas City, Kan.
When I was growing up in St. Louis, unlike most areas of the country at the time, every parish had soccer teams. This was largely due to the fact that soccer was a big sport at the seminary — in part, because it is relatively inexpensive, requiring relatively little equipment. After seminary, young priests started soccer clubs in parishes that eventually developed into youth leagues.
The former baseball player and Hall of Fame broadcaster, Joe Garagiola, had a brother by the name of Mickey. Mickey was a waiter at several popular restaurants in the Italian neighborhood in St. Louis. People would go to these restaurants as much for the entertainment Mickey provided as for the food.
Through the pastor at my first priestly assignment, I was introduced to Mickey. One Saturday afternoon, I was attending our eighthgrade boys soccer game. Mickey had a grandson playing on the opposing team.
At halftime, Mickey came over and asked if he could stand on our sideline. I told him he was most welcome, but asked him why he did not want to remain on the sideline of his grandson’s team.
Mickey asked: “You see that lady in the red coat on the other side?” I replied: “Yes?” He continued: “She knows everything there is to know about soccer. She is yelling at the refs, the players, and the coaches with all sorts of suggestions. And she’s not the only one.” Mickey observed: “If those kids listened to everything their parents are yelling, they would be running in circles.”
I told Mickey he was most welcome to stand on our side, but I warned him: “I am not sure you are going to find our fans much of an improvement.” Mickey said: “Well, maybe not, but at least I won’t embarrass my daughter and grandson if I say anything over here.”
In a few minutes, play resumed. Almost immediately, one of our dads was yelling at our players. Mickey turned around and asked the man: “Where were you with all these good ideas at practice last week?” The man was dumbfounded and feebly asked: “What?” Mickey said: “You seem to know everything there is to know about soccer, so where were you with all these good ideas when the team was practicing this week?” The man fell silent, as did the rest of our sidelines. No one was communicating with the refs or the players, except the coach. Our fans were still cheering the team, but no one was yelling at the players! I asked Mickey if I could rent him for the season.
Athletics are a wonderful opportunity for young people to grow and develop in so many ways. I am delighted that we have CYO leagues in the major population centers of the Archdiocese.
In addition to developing muscular strength and athletic agility, young people through team sports develop many life skills and virtues: e.g., 1) to be unselfish in their play by being more concerned about the success of the team than individual achievement; 2) to practice and work hard; 3) to play fair and to respect proper authority — both coaches and referees; 4) to encourage and support teammates as they work toward a common goal; 5) to be gracious in victory or defeat; and 6) to fulfill commitments by showing up faithfully — not only for games, but also practices.
Our CYO leagues should be different than other community youth athletic programs. Just as in every other area of our young people’s formation, faith needs to be woven into their experience of sports.
Coaches leading their teams in prayer before games can help young people to recognize that, as Catholics, God is part of everything we do. To do this, our coaches need to be men and women of prayer themselves. They need to ask the Holy Spirit to guide their work with our young people. They need to pray for the wisdom to know how to motivate a gifted player who is dogging it on the field as well as how to encourage the less-talented player.
Coaches set the tone for the team. Kids pick up immediately if coaches are just about winning. They notice if coaches give almost all their attention to the more gifted players. Great coaches realize that the less naturally talented players are the ones who most need their instruction. Good coaches also know that at some point in the season, the success of the team will depend on each player making a contribution, no matter the level of their raw talent.
Unfortunately, sometimes, rather than team sports providing opportunities for children and youth to learn physical skills and develop virtues, an overemphasis by coaches and parents on winning can place excessive pressure on young athletes. Sometimes youth athletics become more entertainment for adults than recreation and learning opportunities for youth. On the other hand, team sports can help young people develop the virtues that will serve them well in other areas of life.
A good Christian athletic program teaches our kids to compete well. It helps them realize that what they do on the athletic field must be consistent with what they profess in church. Striving to do their best on the field or court, as a means of glorifying God, is a much more powerful motivator than any trophy. Catholic youth athletic programs are not about producing future professional sports stars, but helping our young people become saints — stars for God. Will some of our CYO athletes go on to achieve success at the college and even professional level? Absolutely! However, they will not only have the athletic skills to compete well on the field but, more importantly, the strength of character to succeed off the field, in their personal and family life.
I am so pleased that under the leadership of Peter Piscitello, the director of the Johnson and Wyandotte counties’ CYO athletics, our coaches and parents participated this past year in the program, Play Like a Champion. The segment for coaches was entitled: Coaching as Ministry. Coaches, next to parents, are some of the most powerful influences on youth.
Play Like a Champion’s parent component is called: Parent Like a Champion. It helps parents realize how they can encourage and support their children without placing undue pressure on them. It teaches parents how they are called to model for our young people Christian virtue by the manner that they, as adults, conduct themselves on the sidelines.
I promise this space is not going to turn into a weekly sports column. However, I hope these last two articles have served to illustrate that our Catholic faith has an important bearing on every aspect of our lives.