Sports Coaches as Educators
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CHRISTIAN COACHES AS EDUCATORS Luke A. Burgis, Co-Founder of ACTIVPRAYER Speech in Rome, Italy, to a gathering of Christian athletes
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Today’s coach has an essential role to play in the integral formation of the human person. With the rising popularity of sports and the breakdown of traditional structures of education, the coach is now a critical educator in young people’s lives. It is fitting, then, that we are gathered here today to better understand the role of coach as educator, the theme of this year’s seminar. To renew the culture of sports, we must begin by rediscovering its highest and noblest aims. Education has always been among them. The concept of paideia, the education of citizens in the integral good of the human person, was central to Greek culture 2,500 years ago. The role of sports in paideia was one of educative and formative value: training (ascesis) was chosen specifically to the extent that it would help a person develop the excellence of character (aretè) that the Greeks so highly desired: endurance, courage in battle, strength of will, and more. They always situated sports and fitness training in relation to the finality of a human life. They asked one simple question: how will this type of training help me develop the virtues to live a good life? The idea of modern fitness, so often disconnected from human virtues and with no greater purpose than aesthetics, self-esteem, or extending a life span, would have been incomprehensible to them.
It’s important to understand that paideia, the work of formation, was never solitary work. The entire Greek community took responsibility for shaping the values of its young citizens so that they could achieve excellence in every area of their lives. Sports and training often played an essential role, but they were always seen as only part of a much broader vision of the human person. If sports and fitness did not open its windows to the world, its noble aims would quickly be lost; it would become closed back onto itself, restricted to its own limited reach, and incapable of finding the fresh oxygen that it needs from different spheres of life. We, too, should strive to undertake the mission of educating through sports not as individuals but as a community, collaborating and supporting one another with our diverse experiences, gifts, and talents. A fitness trainer or sports coach should strive to have just as many friends in different disciples of education as in his own. Now Christianity transformed paideia by rooting the formation of human persons not in the image of the ideal citizen (as in the Greek polis), but in the image of Jesus Christ, perfectus deus, perfectus homo, who “reveals man to himself”1. The Church has spoken constantly in this way for over 2,000 years. St. Paul refers to sports activity to point out the spirit of courage demanded by the Christian life. The Second Vatican Council recognized sporting activity as something that belongs to the general heritage of humanity and which is of great influence in forming souls and molding the person2. In a culture in which there is no longer a common commitment to shared values, the Church plays a critical role in the preservation and handing on of Christian values in the formation of the young. In today’s world, it is Christian pastors, chaplains, associations, and coaches who continue this perennial tradition of seeking the integral good of the
person in every human activity, illuminated by the light of Christ. There is perhaps no person more instrumental in this effort than the coach, which is the focus of our seminar this year (Coach as Educator). While not every team has a chaplain, every team has a coach. In today’s world, where traditional values are in flux and many children may spend 10 times the amount of time practicing and playing sports than they spend in catechetical instruction or a church, the coach is a stable point of reference, a mentor, and a source of encouragement to young people. He is on the front lines of our apostolic activity, at the heart of every team, and in the core position to educate and form athletes in the integral development of “the values of the body, the spirit, the heart, and the soul thirsting for the absolute.”3 Coaches, in response to the great dignity of their mission, should first of all be striving daily to confirm their own lives to image of Jesus Christ. Our Lord must become incarnate in their lives, in their words and their actions, in order to inspire trust and confidence in the athletes entrusted to their care. It is only when a profound bond of trust has been formed that coaches and athletes can work together to recover the primacy of the person and blaze a trail through the world, lighting up stadiums and gyms with the fire of Christ that they carry in their hearts. My hope is that we illuminate the pathways on which coaches can travel to the heart of the human person, where they come into contact with sons and daughters of God and are not only educators, but primarily instruments of God’s love. For love is the principle of integral human development. Excellence in sports or the development of certain abilities can perfect man only in a particular aspect; it is love alone that perfects
the whole man4 and establishes the foundation of all dialogue, solidarity, and missionary zeal. Coaches: you must love your athletes in Christ. If you do this, they will know it. They will be able to see in you the image of our Lord, who teaches us always in love, even when the lessons are hard. In order to be true educators, we must model ourselves after our Master. This will give us the foundation and the spirit to “go to the peripheries”, as our Holy Father Francis has urged us to do, and to build bonds of dialogue and solidarity with all athletes, including the poor, suffering, or disadvantaged. Ultimately, the bond between athletes and the bond between coaches and athletes runs deeper than a common sport, a common team, or common physical abilities; rather, it is based on our fundamental dignity as sons and daughters of God, created in his image. Inspired by this confidence, may we embark on the important work of this seminar together, asking that we may continue to be educated in the school of the Holy Spirit so that we, more closely united to Christ, can educate others in the world of sports and beyond.
1 Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Homonis 2 Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Christian Education Gravissimum Educationis, n. 4. 3 Pope John Paul II, Address to the Representatives of the UEFA Meeting in Rome, June 20, 1981 4 «Simpliciter autem et totaliter bonus dicitur aliquis ex hoc quod habet voluntatem bonam, quia per
voluntatem homo utitur omnibus aliis potentiis; et ideo bona voluntas facit hominem bonum simpliciter; et propter hoc virtus appetitivae partis secundum quam voluntas fit bona, est quae simpliciter bonum facit habentem» (SAN TOMMASO D’AQUINO, De virtutibus in communi, q. 1, a. 9, ad 16). Cfr. ID., In III Ethic., lect. 6, n. 4).