Pope Francis and Sports
On June 1, 2018 the Vatican released it's first ever official document on sports. Titled Giving the Best of Yourself : A Document About the Christian Perspective on Sport and the Human Person, the release from the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life goes in-depth on the history and potential of sport in human development. It promotes the formative nature of sport and advocates for all in the Church to understand sport as a means for mission and sanctification.
The document is the latest in a recent emphasis by the Vatican and Pope Francis himself in understanding sports as a place of formation that deserves our attention. With Play Like a Champion at the forefront of efforts to provide formation for coaches and parents of youth and high school athletes, we're proud to be involved in conversations at a number of levels that seek to increase and improve these formative efforts.
On May 14-15, 2015 about 80 scholars, coaches, athletes, and Church leaders participated in the International Study Seminar, “Coaches: Educating People,” sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Laity. In his opening charge, Pope Francis challenged those present, ecclesiastical authorities, and sports leaders throughout the world to acknowledge, respect, and support the critical role that coaches play as educators of and ministers to youth.
One of the liveliest informal conversations that went on throughout the Seminar was the religious character of youth sports themselves. Some presenters and participants saw youth sports primarily as an opportunity for coaches to pray with young athletes, give religious testimony, and catechize. Others, like Patrick Kelly, S.J., maintained that the sports experience itself should be valued as an inherently
“graced” expression of human freedom, a “signals of transcendence” in the words of Sociologist Peter Berger.
Pope Francis described religious faith as providing a balanced perspective on sport protecting it from influences that would “absolutize” it on the one hand and “pervert” it on the other. He spoke eloquently about the need for coaches to “preserve the value and nature of sports as games.” Like Professors Norbert Muller (member of the IOC Commission for Olympic Education and Culture, Germany) and Gerhard Treutlein (Head of the Center for Doping Prevention, Germany), and many conference participants, he expressed grave reservations about “invasive economic interests” and the exploitation of athletes.
It is within the framework of sports as play that Pope Francis described youth sports as an inherently educational activity, which, under the direction of competent and committed coach-mentors, can develop children socially, morally, and spiritually, as well as athletically. Pope Francis’s understanding of good coaching includes but goes beyond teaching skills and strategies of a particular sport and being a good role model. In his view, good coaches should be child-centered teachers, who understand what children need to grow as people and how to nurture that growth in the context a welcoming team climate.
Because of the emphasis that Pope Francis gave to cultivating children’s personal, social, and emotional competencies, he insisted that coaches receive a solid formal education: “Educators must be educated.” It is up to sports organizations “to pay due attention to and invest the necessary resources in the professional preparation, both human and spiritual, of coaches.” Pope Francis has effectively challenged all of those responsible for youth sports programs to show respect for children and for their educators by providing coaches with the very best preparation we can give them.
Pope Francis also challenged the leaders of youth sport organizations to include all children, particularly the poor and the less athletically gifted. He went much further than countering inequality and defending every child’s right to play. With growing support from social science research, he argued that youth sports can and should be a vehicle for social mobility by developing children’s social competencies and connecting them with supportive social networks. A week earlier Pope Francis had commented that sports participation along with education and employment opportunities can lift children out of poverty: “There are three paths - three fundamental pillars - for children and young people: Education – in the school and in the family, sport and work. When we have all three … then there exists the conditions to develop a full and authentic life.”
- F. Clark Power, Pope Francis's Bold Vision for Youth Sports