Pope Francis Calls for Youth Sports
This week, Pope
Francis will release a hard-hitting
encyclical letter on the environment that is creating a stir in and
out of the Catholic Church. Francis does not shy away from controversy
when human rights and welfare are concerned. Overlooked, however, among
Francis's more daring public stances is his advocacy of youth sports as
a means of respecting children's dignity and of helping children to
climb out of poverty.
Just a month ago,
along with 80 scholars, coaches, athletes, and Church leaders, I
participated in the international seminar, Coaching: Educating People,"
sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Laity. In his opening charge
to the Seminar, Pope Francis challenged sports leaders throughout the
world to rethink the role that youth sports can and should play in the
lives of children.
critical influence that coaches have on their players, he directed
sports leaders to open their organizations to the children who are
typically excluded and who can benefit the most from being on their
charge comes at a critical time for youth sports organizations in the
U.S. The inequalities in youth sport are growing and mirror those in
society. For those children who have the financial resources to play,
over 70 percent will drop out of sports by the time they get to high
school. Their number one reason is that they are not having fun. Many
other children, especially the poor and disabled, do not even have an
opportunity to be on a team.
Aware of the
temptation to sacrifice children's welfare to achieve competitive
success, Pope Francis spoke passionately about the need for sports
administrators and coaches to "preserve the value and nature of sports
He warned about
the "perversion" of sports and the exploitation of athletes by the
pursuit (fueled by economic gain, nationalism, and personal ambition) of
success at any cost. Pope Francis believes that sports should be play
and are meant to be fun for all children. His message is a
counter-cultural one in the U.S., where the passion to "win" leads some
coaches to turn youth sports into adult-driven work. Even at the
youngest levels, it is common to find children being cut from teams or
relegated to the bench because a coach decided that they weren't "good"
Like the renowned
Developmental Psychologist, Jean Piaget, Pope Francis understands that
children's play can have profound educational value. In his charge, Pope
Francis explained that under the direction of competent coaches, sports
can develop children socially, morally, and spiritually, as well as
athletically. Good coaching must be child-centered and developmentally
sensitive. For example, Pope Francis pointed out that at the earliest
stage of youth sport, coaches should encourage children to take risks,
face difficulties, and build confidence in themselves and others. At a
later stage, coaches should help adolescents to become good teammates,
putting the common good first. Just like other child care professionals,
like doctors, psychologists, and teachers, coaches need a "solid formal
education. Educators must be educated," he insisted.
involved in youth sport coach education for over a decade now through
Like a Champion Today sports education program at the University of
Notre Dame, I know coach education can be time-consuming and costly.
Sadly, the leaders of some youth sports organizations assume that any
well-meaning adult who knows how to play a sport can coach children. The
majority of youth sports coaches in the United States still remain
untrained while many other coaches receive only a bare minimum of
instruction through an on-line course or cursory pre-season meeting.
threw down the gauntlet stating that sports organizations must "pay due
attention to and invest the necessary resources in the professional
preparation, both human and spiritual, of coaches." Those of us, who
have reaped the benefits of play sports in our youth, owe the next
generation a comparable and even better experience. Pope Francis has
pointed out the way.