Faith and sports: playing like champions


By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger

DAVENPORT — Coaches from boys and girls athletic teams at Assumption High School gathered to learn about incorporating faith and sports through Notre Dame’s “Play Like a Champion Today” education program.

Heather VanSeveren
Members of the Assumption High School volleyball team in Davenport pray with members of Alleman High School in Rock Island, Ill. The two Catholic schools’ junior varsity teams play each other and pray together yearly.

Kelly Bush, Assumption’s director of student wellness, learned about the program while teaching in Dallas, Texas. When she arrived at Assumption, she asked President Andy Craig about offering the Notre Dame program at the high school. “We’re on it,” he replied.
Bush and Anthony Wittemeyer attended a clinic in June to learn more about the program. He is a physical education teacher, assistant varsity football coach and assistant varsity basketball coach. “Kelly and myself attended the training and thought it would be a great fit for our school.”

Kristin Sheehan, program director for Play Like a Champion, led the Assumption presentation. She “brought a great amount of energy and passion to her presentation and I’m confident all of the coaches in attendance left the training with a new perspective,” Wittemeyer said.
The program helps the Assumption community to show that they are as disciples of Christ in every area, Bush said. “This program is collaborative, engrains faith in sports and can help us live out our Christian mission,” she added. During the presentation, she told the coaches that faith permeates “all that we do. Sports is like a family.”


Sheehan opened the presentation by asking the coaches who they think of when they hear the word “coach.” One recalled a high school coach who pushed athletes in a positive way. Another shared a negative experience which led her to strive to be a positive coach.
“We’re here to reflect on our roles as coaches,” Sheehan said. “Your athletes will remember you.”

Because the presentation addressed faith in sports, she asked: “How can you bring Catholic theology and encourage it in your sports teams? … Sports is another classroom,” she said. “It’s not just an extracurricular activity, but co-curricular. You should challenge students and encourage responsibility. Be disciples of our church.” Work with parents, too, she said.

Coaching is a ministry, she continued. “You need to teach more than skills.” She showed several videos featuring well-known athletes and coaches. One video featured former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz. He said: “You don’t need to be another friend. Be someone who provides leadership and inspiration to be the best they can be. Leadership is influence. Coach with your heart.” In another video, Holtz talked about how values hold a team together. “Trust one another. Commit to excellence. Care about each other.”
The Assumption coaches reflected on the school’s motto “One in the Spirit” and how prayer is a responsibility to help live out the mission of the school and church whether at practice or at a game.

Bush said a presentation will be held this fall for coaches unable to attend the summer event and one will be offered for parents. (A presentation for parents was held the evening of the coaches’ presentation.

Tim O’Neill, head track coach at Assumption for 17 years and first-time head cross country coach, said the program “was a great outline of what faith-based programs should include. I think there are some great recommendations for coaches both young and old. I feel that I was able to take something with me that I can implement into my program immediately.”

Before the talk, O’Neill said he allowed each student athlete to have his or her own relationship with God. “I have felt that I never wanted to force religion on our kids since they attend religion class daily. I want them to develop their own relationship with God.” After the presentation, he said he could see himself adding prayer to the pre-race or pre-meet routine. “Eventually I can pass that off to the athletes as they feel comfortable leading it.”

Heath Donath, head sophomore and assistant varsity volleyball coach, said the presentation was very well done. “Instructors were organized and kept the information rolling. He appreciated the group experience in which coaches got to know each other better. “A lot of us are not teachers so we do not get a chance to talk very often.”

Donath said the experience made him aware of praying at practices as well as games. “Usually I just said prayers for games….This is a great program for all who attend. I highly recommend it for anyone that coaches or has children that play any sport.”

Wittemeyer said in his short time at Assumption he has come to realize “what truly sets us apart from our competition is our culture. The people, the relationships and standards we have in place are far more important than play calls or schemes. Even as our teams are winning state championships our athletic department and administration are committed to raising the bar.”


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