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How to be a champion on and off the field

In the world of youth sports, there can be many hurdles. Early specialization, unrealistic expectations, excessive pressure, hazing, bullying, coaches teaching skills but not sportsmanship, and pushy parents can be among the obstacles that keep a child from experiencing some of the primary benefits of athletics: fun, development, competition and teamwork.

Since implementing a faith-based sportsmanship program in 2008, the Archdiocese of Denver Catholic elementary schools have emerged as a leader in the country when it comes to playing like champions.

Play Like a Champion Today, an initiative of the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, is a worldwide program promoting a positive culture in sports for young people by instructing coaches, students, parents, administrators and officials through workshops and ongoing education.

“Through sports, children grow physically,” Kristin Sheehan, program director for PLACT, told the Denver Catholic Register Oct. 22. “Whether it develops their character or faith is a big question mark.”

Richard Thompson, Catholic schools’ superintendent, had been asking a similar question, based on his experience with schools and parents.

“The big concern was keeping athletics in proper perspective,” Thompson said. “(We were asking) what kind of initiative can we develop that celebrates sports and healthy competition, but keeps winning in perspective?”

At the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year, the archdiocese piloted PLACT in nine schools, as part of the basketball season. Training was mandatory for athletic directors and coaches in those schools, and offered to parents as well.

“I’m very pleased and proud of the progress,” Thompson said. “It’s changing the culture of athletics.”

The program was implemented for coaches in all of the elementary schools of the archdiocese during 2010-2011, and with the 2012-2013 school year, training became mandatory for parents as well. Parents take a one-hour course when their child is in fifth grade, or the first year after that if they have a student starting school athletics.

The archdiocese is one of the largest organizations in the country participating, and plans to add the program in high schools, and eventually require training for officials.

Mark Strawbridge, principal of St. Pius X School in Aurora, is in his third year as league director for the Catholic Schools Athletic League that launched 20 years ago. He does the majority of PLACT training throughout the archdiocese.

“So much of the material can be related not only to the playing field, but to the classroom and life in general,” he said.

Nearly 95 percent of coaches—whose required course is three hours—said they would recommend the clinic to others and close to 70 percent said the clinic changed their approach to coaching.

“Coaches are basically youth ministers,” Thompson said. “In embracing the PLACT philosophy they are teaching students to make the best of the gifts that God’s given them.”

Faith formation should be expected in all aspects of Catholic education, according to Strawbridge, including the athletic field or court.

“Sports are not separate from life,” he said. “But part of life.”

In that spirit of family life, the Archdiocese of Denver also changed the policy on Sunday activities in 2008. Since that time, no athletic games or activities sponsored by the CSAL can be scheduled on Sundays or holidays.

“It was a difficult transition,” Thompson said of the gradual process, “but it was good for the betterment of families.”

Lessons discovered, or rediscovered, in PLACT can also help families, Strawbridge said.

“We try to empower families to take back their (athletic) experience,” he said, by changing the culture, improving communication and building character. “It can really be used in how we communicate with our children, and create goals for them.”

Sports are part of the new evangelization, Sheehan said.

“Sports are important,” she said. “Where are kids? They’re on the sports fields. By making sports part of evangelization… we can create community on a team.”

Since launching nationwide clinics in 2006, the program has reached more than 1,000 sports organizations in 36 states. Ninety percent of the organizations are Catholic schools. In the Denver Archdiocese, 1,215 coaches have received PLACT training, and 1,566 parents.

For more about Play Like a Champion Today click here or call the Office of Catholic Schools at 303-715-3200.

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