Sport as Ministry
Play Like a Champion’s Sport as Ministry approach enables Catholic schools and leagues to fulfill their mission through sports programming. We believe it is possible to sponsor a highly competitive sports program in a Catholic setting while practicing fair play, teamwork, respect, kindness, and sportsmanship. The Play Like a Champion Sport as Ministry Initiative is designed to make sports an opportunity for faith formation and to develop athlete’s spirituality and relationship with God. Inspired by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Renewing the Vision: A Framework for Catholic Youth Ministry, our approach centers on the conviction that the coach’s ministry is to serve children by helping them learn how to be more Christ-like through organized sports, by promoting gospel-oriented virtues and spiritual formation linking play to prayer.
How does Play Like a Champion implement this approach with Catholic organizations and schools at the youth and high school levels?
Through Coaching as Ministry Clinics that integrate faith formation that helps coaches to understand their unique role and gives them tools to help them lead athletes closer to God through sport.
Through Parent Like a Champion Workshops that empower parents as the primary educators of their children and provide resources for a faith-filled approach to sport.
Through seminars and retreats that form high school student-athletes as servant leaders and help them realize their full potential as both athletes and children of God.
Through additional resources and ongoing education that assists partners in their efforts to infuse the faith in athletic programs and implement the Coaching as Ministry approach with coaches, parents and athletes.
Check out a few of Play Like a Champion's most popular resources for Catholic organizations and schools:
Play Like a Champion Participates in Vatican Summit on "Sport for All"
International Gathering Promotes the 'Precious Good' of Sport for All Humanity
Play Like a Champion was thrilled to be among those invited to the Vatican on September 29-30, 2022 for a landmark summit titled Sport for All: Cohesive, Accessible and Tailored to each Person. Following in the footsteps of a 2016 meeting and 2018's Giving the Best of Yourself (see below), this two-day event gathered leaders in sport from around the world to engage in discussion on the importance of sport in society and the ways in which we can make the benefits of sport accessible to all persons. Emphasis was placed on the ability of sport to promote "human, educational and spiritual growth" while taking action within our own communities to open opportunities to children and adults from low socio-economic areas as well as those with physical or intellectual disabilities.
The highlight of the event was an audience with Pope Francis, who spoke of the formative power of sport and the importance of opening participation to all. He noted that “We should be committed to giving everyone the opportunity to play sports, to cultivate – one could say to be “trained” in – the values of sport and transform them into virtues.” You can view a full video of this audience here and read his full address here (a summary is also available here). As part of the event, Pope Francis also signed a declaration put forward by the summit that outlines common goals those gathered are committed to achieve moving forward.
"The Church feels close to the world of sport, because she sees games and sporting activities as a place of personal encounter for people, a formation in virtue and fraternity. For this reason, sports find a home in the Church, especially in schools and parishes or youth centres." ~ Pope Francis, Address at International Summit on Sport for All (September 30, 2022)
Over the event's two days, an influential group of athletes and leaders from around the globe addressed those gathered and participated in discussion groups designed to develop concrete ideas for moving forward with a cohesive, accessible and tailored approach to sport.
Cardinal Kevin Farrell began the summit by highlighting the Church's interest in sport, while International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach gave an important speech focused on the power of sport to unify communities and persons at both the local and global level. Play Like a Champion's own Kristin Sheehan led a panel discussion with Special Olympics President Tim Shriver, International Paralympics President Andrew Parsons and two Paralympic Champions.
In total, this unique event offered both inspiration and a distinct call to action. There is much work ahead for all leaders in sport to realize this vision. We encourage you to view the links above and consider how you can take steps to make sport more cohesive, accessible and tailored in your own school, organization or community. Then review Play Like a Champion's Pastoral Action Plan below and further consider how you are living out the Church's call.
Kristin Sheehan leads a panel discussion at Sport for All International Summit
Pope Francis meets with IOC President Thomas Bach as part of Participation in Sport for All International Summit
Kristin Sheehan greets Pope Francis during audience at Sport for All Summit
Play Like a Champion's Pastoral Action Plan
Following the call of the Vatican's Giving the Best of Yourself
In June 2018, the Vatican's Dicastery for Laity, Family & Life released Giving the Best of Yourself: a Document on the Christian Perspective on Sport and the Human Person. Believed to be the first document dedicated to sports released by the Vatican, it recognizes the deep connection between Christianity and sport while emphasizing the immense impact of sport in our world today. Further, the document discusses the ways in which the worldwide church should approach sport and encourages everyone to respond in their own communities [Pope Francis also wrote a letter on the importance of this document and Play Like a Champion wrote a summary and review.]
It's release came on the heels of meetings with world leaders in sport over the past few years, beginning with the 2015 Seminar Coaches: Educating People, that included Play Like a Champion's Clark Power and Kristin Sheehan. Now Play Like a Champion is working with a national network of lay partners and United States Bishops to develop a Pastoral Action Plan and take important steps that respond to the document's call to action. Learn what we're doing and how you can get involved!
Inspired by the 2019 Symposium and the Vatican's commentary on sport, Play Like a Champion has written a new book titled Play Like a Champion: Following the Vatican's Lead to Elevate the Culture of American Sport. Authored by Dr. Clark Power, Kristin Sheehan and Peter Piscitello, the book offers a "Call to Action" for our American Church, with details on how to elevate the culture of Catholic-sponsored sports programs and increase the availability of sports for children across our country. It provides readers an understanding of the overall value of sport in supporting the integral development of people and how sports can be what Pope Francis called an "instrument of encounter, formation, mission and sanctification.” Packed with information and resources, it's a terrific asset for leaders in both the Church and sport.
Published in 2020 by the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), the book is available through the NCEA's online store with 25% off if you use the promo code "PLAY25OFF". You can also purchase the book via Amazon.
The Vatican document lists four elements of a Pastoral Action Plan for sports to be well run and to live up to the Christian vision:
1. Ensure sport serves the human person in their integral development.
Play Like a Champion and all our youth partners reject the win at all cost mentality that pervades our sport culture by making a commitment to equal playing time for children sixth grade and below so that youth sports serves the integral development of every human person. This attends to the physical development of all youth. Here are examples of how our partners accomplish this goal:
Seattle CYO has a playing time policy to ensure participation, enjoyment and development for all athletes. Staff attend and monitor the playing time of children during play-off games.
Clear rules requiring time played by children are written into league by-laws for several partners.
In addition our “Character Education through Sport” program is deeply committed to promoting the moral virtues that are part of every sport encounter and are essential to a person’s whole development. Here are examples of how our partners accomplish this goal:
Seattle CYO sponsors a wristband project in which an athlete who exemplifies character during play receives a Play Like a Champion wristband as a way to recognize their display of virtue.
St. Josaphat School in Chicago has a C.H.A.M.P.S. group (Character, Honor, Morality in Play by Student Athletes) that supports student-athletes in their character development through sport.
2. Sport programs must address training for sport pastoral workers.
Play Like a Champion works with partners across North America to ensure coaches and sport parents are educated on the expectations of a Christian sport program, giving them strategies so they live the vision of faith-based and character-informed athletics. Here is how we are accomplishing this goal with our partners:
With a Train the Trainer model, local leadership is empowered to train coaches and sport parents in their community using with a quality curriculum. Play Like a Champion currently has 100 trainers across 87 dioceses and 42 states.
Since 2006, well over 200 Play Like a Champion partners have educated 120,000 coaches & sport parents in the United States and Canada. Partners range from large to small, with some of our largest diocesan partners including: Brooklyn, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Fort Worth, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, Philadelphia, Sacramento, and Seattle.
In addition to training coaches, partners in Columbus, Covington, Denver and Miami all commit to training all sport parents in their program.
Seattle CYO hosts Coach Meetings for each individual sport, with each team required to have a representative in attendance to review and discuss expectations and policies.
3. Sport to create a culture of inclusion.
The reality in our current world is that children who cannot afford to play and children who are not a part of our Catholic schools or parishes are not invited into our sport programming. Play Like a Champion works with several inner-city sport programs to enable children in these neighborhoods to have access to safe, fun and developmentally-focused athletic experiences along with trained mentor coaches. Examples include the South Bend Breakers Youth Basketball program in South Bend, IN; the South Bend Police Athletic League; the St. Louis Police Athletic League; and the North Lawndale neighborhood in the city of Chicago. Here are examples of how our partners are accomplishing this goal:
The North Lawndale Athletic and Recreation Association (NLARA) in Chicago, IL links youth sports programming organizations under a common culture and provides training, data collection and analysis and funding support for its members. The youth sports leaders in the community are committed to providing the youth in the community with a supportive culture that provides a positive alternative to drugs and violence.
The St. Louis Catholic Youth Council (CYC) opens their athletic teams to any child, not just children in the catholic schools or children in the parishes.
The Cleveland CYO has a Scholarship Fund that enables children who do not have the means to pay for their sport participation the opportunity to be on a team.
The Georgetown Titans youth hockey program in Washington DC collects additional funds from their families who have the means to pay the fees in order to scholarship a third of their skaters who cannot afford the fees.
Seattle CYO has policies that allow non-Catholic children and teams to participate in CYO Athletics.
4. Sport to create a culture of encounter, peace and mercy.
Our world is increasingly segregated along racial, cultural and socioeconomic divides. Sport can be the great equalizer when all play together on a field as equals, all as children of God. Here is how our partners accomplish this goal:
St. Therese Chinese Catholic School (Chicago, IL) experienced a difficult basketball game involving a local school with high tensions. The next time the two teams met, they held a prayer service for both teams at center court prior to the start of the game and the game; the game was played peacefully.
St. Edmond’s High School (Fort Dodge, Iowa) student-athletes visit a food pantry to assist with special projects to feed their community.
Bishop O’Connell High School (Arlington, Virginia) sponsored a “gently used” soccer equipment drive and donated the items to an inner-city school while they sponsored a soccer clinic for their youth.
Seattle CYO begins each contest with a Pre-Game Prayer and a Sportsmanship Handshake. Games conclude with a Play Like a Champion bracelet exchange, where teams select one player on the opposing team that lived out the "spirit of CYO" and award them a rubber bracelet in recognition for their effort and demonstration of virtue. The following statement is also read prior to each game:
Champions are those that maximize their potential. We need to create the environment in which Champions are made. We will respect and support coaches and officials by remaining in the designated spectator areas. We will remember that youth participate for their enjoyment, not ours. We will remember our role as a fan and applaud good effort by all competitors. We will encourage the athletes to improve their skills, be good teammates, and play by the spirit of CYO Athletics.
Pope Francis has been a strong proponent of sports as a place of encounter with Christ.
Click here to read more about his bold vision for sports and access information on initiatives and quotes from the Holy Father related to sport.
A Symposium on the Church & Sport
On March 7, 2019, the Symposium on The Church & Sport marked the beginning of efforts to create a Pastoral Action Plan that can guide the American Church's efforts in sport. Hosted by the University of Notre Dame, with Play Like a Champion Today as one of the event's co-sponsors, the event provided an academic focus on the Vatican document as well as a practical response to the document's charge in the United States. This landmark event featured addresses and discussion with Catholic leaders and experts from across the country.
Prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life praises Symposium, offers blessing.
The symposium began with Mass and opened with a welcome from Notre Dame Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick and keynote addresses by the Most Reverend Donald J. Hying (Bishop of Gary, IN) and Fr. Patrick Kelly, SJ. Following group discussion, an expert panel broke down key components of the Vatican document and discussed application in our local communities. The afternoon session featured an address by Phil Andrews, who related his work as the Director of Violence Prevention Initiatives in the Archdiocese of Chicago to youth sports and character education. Group discussion focused on developing culture and overcoming organizational challenges culminated with closing comments by Bishop Hying and a call to action for our communities and the American church.
For more background, consider the following reading Fr. Patrick Kelly's Article, "Why the Church Cares About Sports." Fr. Kelly was a keynote speaker at the Symposium and played a key role in the Vatican document at the root of Play Like a Champion's efforts.