Identity & Purpose

Ten Messages for Young Catholics in Elite Sports

5 Minute Read - By Brett Powell

For 17 years our kids have been active in elite sports. It can feel like a grind at times but it has provided valuable lessons and faith building experiences as well. Here are 10 messages we have repeated to the kids over the years. I hope that parents will be encouraged to support their kid’s passion for sport while keeping Christ at the centre.

Athletic ability is God’s gift to you, what you do with it is your gift to Him. Honour the Lord by humbly deflecting praise and point to the contributions of your teammates. Always demonstrate appreciation for your family and former coaches who have contributed significantly to your development as an athlete and as a person.

You don’t have to like your coach but you must respect him or her. After your training sessions and games, shake hands and say, “Thanks for your time, coach.” Jesus spoke about honouring God by respecting the authorities placed over us, this includes coaches and managers. 

Keep Sunday sacred. Elite sport involves going on road trips. Missing mass is never an option. Lead your life by planning ahead. If you have a team meeting at 10am on Sunday morning and a competition later that afternoon, plan to get to Mass early in the morning or when you return home. Never make an excuse for missing, find a way to get there as if it’s the most important part of your day – it is! 

Never forget who you are and Who’s you are. Road trips will take you to cities and hotels where nobody knows you. Teams can create environments that promote a, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas mentality.”  Be who you are, no matter where you are or who you are with. You have an audience of One. The call and the challenge is to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, not just a kid who goes to Church or attends youth group. 

Focus on things you can control.  Many things will grab your attention during a game or training session. Fixating on things you can’t control will foster a victim mentality. Focus on things you can control – your preparation (especially getting a good night sleep); your work ethic; your attitude and concentration. Don’t focus on bad calls from an official, the behavior of the other team, the weather or unfavorable playing conditions. 

Learn to lead by learning to encourage. Witness to your faith by using encouraging words with your teammates. Your buddies may not remember all that you accomplished as an athlete, they may not remember all the things you said or didn’t say. But they will remember how you made them feel. Use your words to encourage the heart of your teammates and build their confidence. People that feel good about themselves, produce good results. Jesus was the ultimate encourager, following Him means encouraging others. 

Learn to interpret the right meaning. It’s not what happens to you that matters but the meaning you attach to it. Teenage athletes can exaggerate negative interpretations of their performance or situation. When I was growing up, a young athlete took his life because he didn’t get the scholarship he thought he should. What a horrible tragedy. A bad game doesn’t make you a bad player. A poor performance doesn’t make you a failure for life. Even the best athletes in the world have bad days. What separates champions, is that they don’t let the bad days define them. Remember, this too shall pass. You will have a better day tomorrow. 

Let others praise you. Proverbs 27:2 says it clearly, “Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips.” I have repeated this so many times with my own kids that now they often give it back to me. Recently I was driving one of my boys to his soccer game. We narrowly avoided an accident en-route to the game. After gaining my composure, I joked, “Well, that was a fine piece of driving right there,” to which my son replied, “Let others praise you, dad.” 

Character has its own reward. There will be times when you’re tempted to cheat or take a short cut. Don’t do it, expect the greater reward for staying true to yourself and God’s laws. Even with something as simple as running a set of lines, go all the way to the end line, don’t take a short-cut even if your teammates do. Your commitment to character will pay off big-time down the road. What is it called when you try to run from home base to third base without going past first or second? Little league!  It’s cute when little kids try to take a short-cut but it’s not cute when an 18-year young adult tries to cheat or take a short cut. The long-term impact of cheating and short cuts is a shallow and shaky character that will not sustain you over the long haul of a career or family life. 

Never give your identity to sport. The burning question every young athlete needs to answer is this: who am I? If you give that question to sport, it won’t end well. Eventually, it will tell you, “you are nothing, you are done, it’s time to move on.” Consider the powerful perspective from Trevor Linden the day after his last game in the NHL. He said, “I went from being an old hockey player to a young man overnight.” If sport doesn’t leave you stronger, more resilient and ready to take on much bigger and more important challenges, it has failed you. 

There is a place for intentional disciples to play seriously high-level sports. It will require that you make some important decisions on the front end and then manage those decisions all the way through your playing career.  Elite sport can give you a powerful platform to witness to your faith in Jesus Christ. Stay true to your relationship with Him. Honour Him in word and deed and watch the doors open all the more.

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