By Glenn Rutherford, Record Editor
A room full of people at St. Margaret Mary Church — at least 150 of them — missed their Sunday professional football games to learn what it means to “Play Like a Champion Today.”
The program was developed at the University of Notre Dame in 2006 by a professor named Clark Power, who published a study back then called “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Reality of Youth Sports.”
According to Kristin Sheehan, program director for “Play Like a Champion Today,” — and one of the presenters at the Sept. 14 program — Power’s study moved people at the university in South Bend, Ind., to “consider what we could do to bring about positive change for youth sports in Catholic schools across the nation.”
“Play Like a Champion Today” is the result, and its title came from the sign that Notre Dame Fighting Irish football players touch each day on their way to the practice or game field.
Since its inception, Sheehan said, the program has been presented to more than 50,000 coaches, 20,000 parents of youth and high school athletes and at least 1.5 million athletes themselves.
“We’ve presented the program in 36 states, become partners with 30 youth leagues, most of them Catholic,” she noted.
The program presented last Sunday noted that, over the past few decades, the nature of organization and competition in youth sports has all but removed the notion of “play” and “fun” from the games.
That’s one of the things the Notre Dame program tries to get schools — their athletes, parents, coaches and others — to instill in their sports programs.
“We’ve found that many times parents sign their children up to play a sport without even asking the child about it,” Sheehan said. “What we should be doing is recognizing, all the time, that we’re creating an atmosphere where the children can ‘play,’ and can have ‘fun.’ We may be giving them a chance to take part in a sport they know they won’t be able to play in high school.”
But most importantly, the “Play Like a Champion Today” program is designed to ensure that coaches, parents and players alike know that their participation in sports is intended to create disciples for Christ.
“Do you pray with your team?” Sheehan asked. “And what does prayer do? It sets your focus; it puts everything into perspective; it reminds everyone involved of God’s presence in sports, in play.”
Jerid Miller, director of lifelong formation at St. Margaret Mary, presided over the early portion of the six-hour program, which began with a three-hour “coaches’ workshop.” That was followed by a Mass and blessing of the coaches; a meal; then one-hour each presentations to parents and students.
During his presentation, Miller noted that the Sunday program was designed to help “everyone live out their faith on the athletic field and in the classroom.”
“We want to bring ‘play’ back into youth sports,” Miller said, “but the emphasis here is the notion of getting Christ back into the center of youth sports.
“We must put God in the center of what we do, and to do that we must look at athletics as a ministry,” he noted. “Playing sports is not just about winning; we hope that we can set an example at St. Margaret Mary,” and that when their sports teams are talked about by other competitors, people will note that “they do it the right way,” he said.
Miller also noted that coaches can have a lasting impact on a child “for good or for ill.”
“That’s why as coaches we are asking you today to write down what you consider your philosophy of coaching, and to remember to think of coaching as a youth ministry,” he said.
The formation director also noted that “coaching and ministry have a great deal of overlap.”
“When you’re developing players, you are also developing young ministers, young disciples, young people who realize God and their faith should be at the center of all they do,” he said.
By virtue of our baptismal call, he noted, coaches and everyone else are called to service, and on the athletic fields of competition, coaches, athletes — and parents — must remember that they are ministers representing Christ and the church.
In her remarks, Sheehan reminded all of the coaches before her that when children are asked why they play sports, the number one answer is overwhelmingly “to have fun.”