US Catholic Faith in Real Life

For love of the game: Emphasizing justice in youth sports

In youth sports, we shouldn’t just be in it to win it. Sometimes that means parents need to be sidelined so kids can just play.

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In youth sports, we shouldn’t just be in it to win it. Sometimes that means parents need to be sidelined so kids can just play.

When his daughter was playing youth basketball, Clark Power found himself serving as both parent and coach. He wanted his daughter, who was a good dribbler but shy and nervous in front of crowds, to be more aggressive and animated. He remembers running up and down the sidelines during one game, trying to engage her.

“Toward the end of the first half, she walked over to me and said, ‘Hey, Dad, do you want me to play in the second half?’ ” Power recalls. Yes, of course, he responded. “She said, ‘Go sit on the bench.’ I went to the bench, and that was a game changer for me.”

The incident helped open Power’s eyes to what was really important. “I noticed that I was spending more time with my kids on sports than I was on homework. It wasn’t even close,” he says.

In 2006, Power founded Play Like a Champion Today, a national initiative that has provided education to tens of thousands of coaches, parents, and athletes. The goal of the program is to create a positive youth sports environment for all children, even as we see an increase in bullying, the desire to win at all costs, and rage from parents. 

“Not only is this good civic education, it’s good religious education,” Power says. “We all talk about the common good. Well, OK. This is real. Coaches may be the best educators we have.”

What led you to form Play Like a Champion Today?

I was in the seminary for seven years, studying moral theology. I ended up leaving the seminary, but I still wanted to stay in the game, so I decided to study moral psychology. I had taught in a Catholic school for a few years, and one of the classes I taught was ethics.

In addition, my kids played sports and I coached them. I think it was while I was coaching that I began to think, “Huh. There’s something strange about this.”

I didn’t play many organized sports as a child, but I played a lot of pickup games. I was a playground kid. My children were the opposite. Everything was organized. They played no pickup games except with me in the summer.

This was of some interest in terms of my research, because I was studying Jean Piaget, a famous child development psychologist who was trying to understand how children develop morality through how they play games. What I found was that you could actually learn a lot by looking at the way children play, and why children play. As my kids were playing, half of my brain was being a psychologist and the other half was coaching.

That experience really led me to Play Like a Champion Today. I quickly discovered that a lot of what was going on in sports was not particularly helpful to children’s social or even moral development.

What do you mean by that?

Part of it is that adult coaches in youth sports culture exercise a fair amount of control over children’s play. When you play pickup games, you choose your own teams: “You’re the first baseman, I’m the pitcher, you’re the shortstop, you play left field.” These days, adults are choosing teams. Adults scout kids. They stack teams. They set the lineups. They control the strategy.

I was observing that in many ways the adults were taking children’s heads out of the game. Adults were playing against adults. From a developmental psychology perspective, that made no sense. Once adults control the game, what’s happening can no longer be called “play.” It becomes more like work. The kids are performing to please a person who has control over what they are able to do.

But psychologists think that as a child you need situations that you can control. We play games like baseball, but we also play made-up games, variations of tag and hide-and-go-seek, where we create the rules. Psychologists think that’s really, really good.

When adults set the rules, the focus is no longer on how children will benefit from play. Instead, adults seem to be asking, “How much more elaborate can this get?” because in a sense they are now playing with other adults.

What I found was that I slipped into the culture myself. I was competing against other adults, and kids were becoming my chess pieces—even my own kids. I had a couple of moments where my own children said to me, “Dad, what are you doing?”

I think a lot of these ideas led me to Play Like a Champion. I really did feel that we should be educating coaches, especially in Catholic schools and parishes, because in my experience that wasn’t happening. I thought, “Well, here’s an opportunity; I have some expertise.” Basically I wanted to keep doing moral education and saw a great opportunity.

Can you give us an idea of what Play Like a Champion Today does?

We run the program mainly through workshops. We take a “train the trainer” approach. People come for a weekend and we give them a PowerPoint, a film, and a scripted workshop, so they can go home and share the information with their home dioceses.

We also do a parent workshop. We learned to make that mandatory, because parents don’t go if they don’t have to—usually the parents who show up are the ones who don’t need to go. We teach parents how to be sports parents, which means you’re not a coach. That’s really important. You’re there to love your kids and cheer them on and give them unconditional love, and you’re not there to critique right or wrong.

We try to help parents think about their behavior on the sidelines. You see this all the time: parents screaming at refs, screaming at coaches, and screaming at children.

We provide resources to teach coaches how to work with some childhood exceptionalities. The two big ones we’re focused on right now are ADHD and the autism spectrum. We feel that coaches need to be educated just like teachers. Why do the children behave this way? How can I help that child without getting angry?

What do you hope people take away from your workshops?

The easiest way that I describe it is to look at the very phrase “play like a champion today.”

We start by emphasizing play. Our program is fighting to say play is good. Play is important. While we offer workshops to both Catholic groups and secular youth programs, I think Catholics should be all over this concept.

We start with an understanding of a creator God who creates freely out of love, not out of compulsion. If we look at the account of creation in the wisdom literature, you have wisdom playing before the eyes of God.

We have a God who endows us with freedom, who wants us to be happy, and who gives us the will and intelligence to be able to do that. Partly what we do, because of our nature as humans, is we make up games, which are meant to be fun. We try to connect our program with the idea that God wants this for us. Even for us adults, it’s good to play. We shouldn’t feel this compulsion to be working all the time.

Sports are play. We don’t have to do them, but they’re very satisfying. We enjoy playing them. We enjoy watching them. We have to preserve this for our children. Play Like a Champion’s emphasis is that children should be playing. We spend a lot of time talking about play in our workshops for coaches and parents. What we say is, “What your kids are doing—it should be play.”

Once we’ve established this, what Play Like a Champion does that makes us relatively unique among national programs is we say that you have to give equal playing time to children. From a purely moral standpoint, as a matter of justice, every child has an equal right to play. That’s not dependent on whether you’re a good athlete or a bad athlete, whether you’re deaf or partially blind. Every child has a right to play and a right to play sports in our country.

There is no reason for some children to be sitting on the bench watching other children play. That, I think, is immoral. I think it’s a matter of justice. It’s not a matter of being nice to kids. It’s a simple matter of justice.

So what does it mean to play “like a champion”?

Children everywhere in the world know that playing like a champion means not just playing to win, but also playing with good character, trying your hardest, and not giving up.

We break it into three things. The first emphasizes qualities like perseverance and courage. Second is social: You’re a good teammate. You’re generous with the ball, or with the puck.

You appreciate your competitors and you realize that they are there to have fun. You shouldn’t play in ways that would hurt them or demean them in any way, because the fun is that you’re competing. You need to show respect for the referees because you can’t have fun without the rules. If you’re well educated as an athlete, you appreciate the rules.

The third part is that a champion is a leader. A champion makes good decisions. A champion takes responsibility for himself or herself and others. “Play like a champion” really defines what we’re trying to do in the workshops.

We say to the coaches, “Your role is to help children play like champions.” In our programs in Catholic schools and parishes, we’ve said, “You’re a minister of youth.” To be a minister means you’re the servant of the children. They’re not playing for you.

We borrowed this phrase, but we often say that you should act like a guest at their game. They’re your hosts. You’re a guest and your role is to help them to enjoy their game. Your role is not to win games. It’s not to be famous. It’s to help those children.

What kind of reactions do people have when you say that everyone has to have equal playing time?

We worked a long time on this. And really, the issue of playing time is just for grade school kids. We do handle this issue very differently in high school. High schools have cuts and tryouts.
We just encourage those coaches to try to give kids some playing time. Sometimes people run the score up and that isn’t fair. But we understand that in high school, you’re going to play to win. You’re going to give some kids more time than others. We don’t challenge that.

But here’s one way we approach this with youth coaches. Here in South Bend we have a farm team for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Mark Hurley is the general manager of the single-A farm team. Kirk Gibson is the manager for the Diamondbacks. I’ll say to coaches, “OK. You’re coaching seventh-grade basketball. Who are you more like: Mark Hurley or Kirk Gibson?” More often than not, they’ll respond that they see themselves like Kirk Gibson.

But minor leagues exist to develop talent, just like in youth sports. Do you think Mark Hurley gets paid anything to win? He doesn’t get paid at all to win. But he is evaluated based on how many players he can develop, because he’s trying to get the guys to the major leagues.

I say to coaches, “Isn’t that what you’re doing?” These are little kids. You can either help them develop or you can play to win. But you can’t really do both. Mark Hurley has to play the great-hitting shortstop on defense at the end of the game when he’s trying to protect the lead. He still has to put that player out on the field, because that guy needs fielding experience.

People understand that. But coaches often find it frustrating. If you don’t want to be responsible for developing players, you’ve got to work at the high school level or above.

We always ask the people in our workshops if they think that sports build character. And 99 percent say they do. Actually, I’m less sure about that. But if you truly believe that, then why aren’t you playing all of your kids equally?

I think there’s a great opportunity for the Catholic Church to be prophetic in this area—that our programs are going to insist that children have a right to play. We’re going to give them quality programming no matter what their athletic ability is, through the eighth grade.

Why do you say that you aren’t sure if sports build character?

People will often say sports build the virtues of hard work and perseverance in the face of adversity. Of course, such virtues have their place, but what about the virtue of justice and other social virtues, like compassion and respect?

Lance Armstrong held himself up as an exemplar of character. Did he exemplify fortitude? You bet, he overcame cancer. But what about the virtue of justice? He cheated and lied about his use of banned performance-enhancing substances. In the Play Like a Champion program, we emphasize that qualities like hard work and fortitude are only virtues if they are related to justice. 

When we discuss the virtues, we refer to the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The virtues of fortitude and temperance support the virtues of justice and prudence. Sports tend to overemphasize the virtues related to fortitude. In Play Like a Champion, as I said, we emphasize justice, which is essential for any kind of competitive game. We also emphasize prudence, which in the faith tradition is the virtue of making responsible decisions in light of what is right and good.

We also remind coaches, especially, of the virtue of temperance, which we typically associate with eating and drinking, but it also applies to winning. Coaches sometimes want to win so badly that they will violate the virtue of justice by cheating or keeping their weaker players on the bench. Coaches can get so caught up in the excitement of a game that they will scream at a referee or umpire if they don’t like a call. If you practice the virtue of temperance, you will keep winning in perspective. You will recognize that you are supposed to be teaching children about justice.

What are the children learning if their coaches are trying to manipulate, intimidate, or demean the officials, who are out there trying to enforce the rules? If we are serious about sports building character, we need to educate our coaches.

What are some of the other justice issues involved with youth sports?

The biggest issue is the growing inequality of opportunity to participate in organized sports. Over the past few decades we have seen a dramatic shift from publicly to privately funded sports programs.

Even public schools are starting to have a “pay to play” model. Schools have deficits. People don’t want to pay any more money for the public schools. If your school building is falling apart and you have to heat the place, you might have to drop your sports programs. The only way to keep them is pay to play.

Pay to play is going to hurt kids. Just think of it. Travel is enormously expensive. You’ve got to pay for gas, or stay at a motel. Poor kids can’t do that. Plus, take a look at the equipment. A sport like ice hockey is not accessible for most kids from low-income families. About 45 percent of the children in our country come from low-income families, and about half of those families live below the official poverty line.

These families simply can’t afford the fees and equipment that club programs require. Catholic schools and parishes have a tremendous opportunity to step in and serve these children by providing a quality sports experience. We created the “Champions for Children Initiative” to encourage this outreach, and I am hoping that our church leaders will support this. 

Ironically, the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church depleted the resources that many dioceses had directed to youth ministry. The Catholic Church in America has done a commendable job of educating coaches and all adults who work with children about sexual abuse.

Yet I believe that we as a church ought to be doing a whole lot more to demonstrate our commitment to all children, whether or not they are Catholic. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we reached out to the children at the margins, who typically lack quality recreational as well as educational opportunities?

This is a societal problem. It’s a problem in the church. City schools and programs are shutting down while the suburban programs are flourishing. Kids are not getting to play. They don’t have the same opportunities for fun. They are in unsafe places.

Dick’s Sporting Goods has recently started a campaign to save youth sports. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to read about the Catholic Church also being at the forefront of this issue? If Dick’s Sporting Goods can do it, why can’t we do it?

What do you think might be holding us back?

There’s another moral issue here that I think needs to be addressed in our society. We know we’re being moral when we take care of our own families, but I think we’ve overstressed that being a good mom and a good dad means you say, “I spend time with my kids. I go to games, and I coach.”

We are each other’s keepers. We have to take an interest in other people’s children. We have to do that to succeed as a society. If we continue down the path that we’re on, I think the inequality that we’re seeing is going to get a lot worse.

One thing that parents often say they learn from our Play Like a Champion workshops is that just by interacting with other parents, you learn that your kids aren’t the only children on the team. Now, this seems obvious. Everybody wants to see his or her child play. I’ve never gone to a game expecting my child to sit. I think my child is better than some players and deserves to play, but I also think that my child should have a fair chance.

You should see this as part of your obligation as an adult Catholic, I would say. It’s not enough that you’re working for your elite soccer team or your parish basketball team.

We should be working together. These poor kids actually need coaches. A lot of adults in the more affluent places are fighting about who gets to be the head coach. There are kids right down the street who don’t have anybody coaching them. I think that’s huge. I think very few people are taking that on.

What have been some of the rewards from doing this work?

We’ve seen some nice changes. We’ve had principals who have told us that they receive many fewer complaints, and that parents and coaches are much more well behaved.

What has been more difficult is the follow-up. How can we sustain these messages over the course of the year, beyond a three-hour workshop, or an hour-and-a-half parent workshop? How can we do more during the year to help parents and coaches to integrate this within their parenting, within their idea of Christian service and Christian mission? There would be a great opportunity, I would say.

Our Play Like a Champion clinics have been very successful in helping coaches in Catholic-sponsored programs to embrace their role as youth ministers. We have tens of thousands of “coach ministers” who are dedicated to helping children to grow morally and spiritually as well as athletically. I have written to some of the bishops in dioceses in which we work about their service. We need to thank and support these new ministers whose work is so desperately needed today.

This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 9, pages 22-26).

Image: Flickr photo cc by woodleywonderworks