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.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.