Teaching kids to play — and behave — like champions

In a society where scandal seems to overwhelm just about every institution, from government to entertainment to the Church, is it any surprise when we see it infect the world of big-time athletics too? 

For every feel-good story of a Tim Tebow or a Jeremy Lin, who stand out precisely for their personal virtue combined with their electric play, we get dozens of examples of the worst that sports has to offer — from high school teams bullying the non-jocks, to unspeakable sexual abuse of children by coaches under the noses of NCAA legends, to a bounty scandal that has shaken the NFL to its core, exposing a darker side of the pro game that even many sports cynics would not have imagined. And, as any parent who has spent time on the sidelines of a soccer field or basketball court can attest, the win-at-all-costs mentality has trickled down to the youngest athletes. 

But a small program out of the University of Notre Dame is trying to counter the prevailing sports culture and provide a new model for youth sports. Its aim is to help coaches and parents understand that coaching is a ministry and that a child’s time on the court or the gridiron or the ball field can and should be a time of moral and spiritual development and not simply about defeating an opponent or auditioning for a scholarship. The hope, according to the founder of the program, is that by building a new culture at the youth level, those lessons will “trickle up” for the child-athletes in sports, and in life.

Faith on the field

Known as Play Like a Champion Today (PLC), the program trains leaders of Catholic youth sports leagues who, in turn, train coaches, parents, even referees, to view their participation in a whole new way. 

“If you coach in a religious setting, you are doing a very explicit ministry,” said Clark Power, the founder and director of PLC. “If you put Holy Cross on your shirt and you go out and coach basketball, you’re representing this faith community on the basketball court. That entails a certain way of conducting yourself and relating to children.” 

Power, whose background is in developmental psychology and who has a doctorate in education from Harvard University, said the genesis for the program came from his time working as a volunteer coach for his own children’s youth sports teams. 

“I thought, wow, there’s a real opportunity here for moral education, and most of the people who are volunteer coaches are not prepared at all for this ... ” he said. “I looked around and said, ‘We have an opportunity here — I do — at Notre Dame. I’m at a school that prides itself on its athletic programs, that prides itself on its ethical, moral and religious identity, and I’m a developmental psychologist. So I better get to work!’” 

He set about developing a program, working with other developmental psychologists and educators, and even the Notre Dame Athletic Department. 

“Every head coach at Notre Dame, from football to fencing, sat down and did roundtable discussions on what they would like to see athletes learning from their youth and high school sports experience,” said Kristin Sheehan, program director of PLC. 

Sheehan, a Notre Dame cheerleader during the football team’s last national championship season in 1988, first met Power when he and his wife, Ann, were her pre-Cana host couple while she was at Notre Dame. When she returned to South Bend 15 years later, they reconnected and he recruited her for PLC. It struck an immediate chord. 

“I’m a parent of three kids,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “We spend our weekends in the gym or in the ice arena, and now it’s lacrosse. So your social life revolves around your kids’ sports, and the community that’s built around there has the potential to be very positive or, the word we use in our workshops is ‘toxic.’” 

Both coaches and parents, she said, get “caught up in the fast-paced, negative sports culture.” Through PLC, parents and coaches are given the message that the “just win, baby” attitude of the college and pro ranks has no place in youth sports. Coaches are told to give kids equal playing time and give them a sense of ownership of the team, and to provide memories that, for kids, are not going to be who won or who lost, but rather the sheer joy of playing and competing. Parents are counseled to ease up, and not expect their kid to the be the next Michael Jordan or Mia Hamm. 

“We’re not anti-winning. We’re Notre Dame; we love to win,” Sheehan said. “But we do have to remember that sport is so much more than the outcome. The process that’s involved is really what matters, not the outcome on the scoreboard. And that’s not what the kids remember. As long as they’re having fun, it has the potential to be growth-filled.” 

Rooted in virtues

Since its beginnings in 2006, PLC has developed partnerships with organizations, parishes, and schools in more than 30 dioceses, including 19 diocese-wide or city-wide leagues. To date more than 15,000 coaches and 3,000 parents have been trained in the PLC method. There is an explicitly Catholic program, as well as a secular one for nondenominational sports programs. The organization estimates the program has impacted the lives of more than a half million children and young people. 

The Johnson and Wyandotte Catholic Youth Organization in the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan., is one of the newer partners, having rolled out training for coaches and parents over the last year for their basketball, football, volleyball and track and field programs. 

“The response has been tremendous, said Peter Piscitello, executive director, who made the training mandatory for both coaches and parents. 

“In society, the perspective on youth sports has maybe gotten a little further away from what we want it to be,” he added. “So we had been using your run-of-the-mill public program — treat kids fairly and sports are fun. There’s some great programs out there, but one of the first things I wanted to do when I came on board was find a Catholic program that was rooted in teaching people virtues and forming coaches to really be ministers to the kids.” 

Piscitello found PLC through his counterpart in the neighboring Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo. Vince Fitzgerald, director of the diocese’s parochial league, said his league has been a partner since 2007, almost since PLC’s founding. The impact on coaches, he said, has been profound. 

“Once we got them into the training,” Fitzgerald said, “and you started telling them that they are youth ministers, that they do have a big impact on these kids lives — the comparison being the same qualities you’re looking for in a coach are the same qualities you’re looking for in a youth minister — you can just see their eyes light up like, ‘Wow, I never thought of that.’” 

Dennis Poust writes from New York. The next PLC conference at Notre Dame for interested programs is June 22-24. Visit www.playlikeachampion.org