Engaging Students in Spirituality, Social and Service
In Catholic schools, the role of athletics is much more than earning the championship title or winning the rivalry game. Sports can be an arena where students discover a connection with what is holy in a new way. Those entrusted to our care may realize how to live a good life through the joy of victory and the sorrow of defeat. Student athletes may find meaning in the simple but challenging task of committing to something larger than themselves. Our athletic pursuits must help all of those involved in finding truth and love.
As a coach or athletic director, your role is to build community within the school. Not only do coaches have the trust, respect and attention of those in their charge, but they also spend a considerable amount of time with their athletes on a regular basis. What better members of the community to task with forming a community of faith?
This role is one a coach may have never thought about before. For many, integrating spiritual formation may be a new and welcome challenge and for others, it is one that their own coaches modeled. One does not need to be the campus minister or a priest to have an impact on the faith life of their students and larger student community.
For some coaches and directors, this pursuit to meld sports and spirituality may be new. For others, it’s likely a practice they themselves experiences as student athletes. Whether infusing spirituality into a team is new to you, or something that is hardwired into you, there are always new ways to incorporate faith into team building.
The three S’s—spiritual, social and service—are a good way to begin to introduce spirituality to your school’s athletic program. It’s a format modeled by St. Matthew’s in Charlotte, NC. A coach need not be a theology teacher or an event planner to form their students in this way.
One simple way to introduce spirituality is through team prayer. Whether at the end of practice or the beginning of a game, prayer is a time for team members to connect. They will often ask for protection, for the team in its entirety to remain safe and without injury. Sometimes, they will ask for athletic success—a win. In either case, as the team stands hand-in-hand, or kneels, hands on each other’s shoulders, heads bowed and helmets off, it’s a way for them to connect off the field.
The root of the word for spirituality is spiritus, which means “breath.” When God breathed into Adam, he came to life. Adam’s spirit was born. Paying attention to our breath might not be a common exercise for most people. It is, however, a regular component of athletic training in many sports. For example, swimming and running all require disciplined breathing. If breathing exercises are something an athlete already practices, or would like practice, why not allow for these exercises to serve an opportunity for prayer too?
The gifts and talents of those in our larger school communities are important to learn from and recognize. Community Enhanced Activities ask student athletes to reach out to teachers, other coaches and community members in a variety of ways so they can share their expertise and wisdom, participate in the team as a community and grow in faith together. This creates a bridge between school athletics and the rest of the campus community.
In some cases, it’s appropriate to invite faculty to join in the sport for a day. To host a tournament, scrimmage or game that’s students vs. staff. Invitations can also be extended to family members and alumni. These guests are invited to participate in prayer and the team’s other pre-game rituals, often giving parents and other cherished adults a rare glimpse into the inner-workings of the team, seeing their children and students in new light. Faculty and parents are able to see the talent on the team. And girls on the team are able to see the abilities of their guests.
Service is a point of pride—a wonderful thing that is best when coupled with humility. Sometimes it’s harder to be served than to serve and though we expect to help others, what we often learn through service is that we are served.
Too often coaches have a fear of lacking time to serve. However, some of the most meaningful service opportunities can be easily integrated into practice. Invite teams to run service sites or ask them to work together to organize activities and events for others in the community—especially those who are disadvantaged or underserved. It’s a practice that leads to new friendships and fond memories that run back to campus.
Organize a beach clean-up or ask teams to choose outside organizations to volunteer with, as a team. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “everybody can be great, because anyone can serve.” So can every team. Service invites teams to serve others through their sport and with the larger community.