The Identity of a State Champion Runner

As some of you know, I am a trainer for the Play Like A Champion Today “Character Education through Sports” program. I have trained hundreds of youth and high school coaches about the ministry of coaching and hundreds of parents on the youth sports culture and best sports parenting practices.

I received an email today from a parent who attended one of my workshops. She shared this story from the Iowa High School State (IHSAA) Track & Field meet where meet officials sounded the “last lap” bell one lap too early during the 3200-meter run (eight laps), ultimately affecting the outcome of the race.

The IHSAA eventually acknowledged the runner who finished eight laps, Joe Anderson, with a first-place award in addition to Will Roder, who was the first to finish seven laps.

The most impressive part of this story came from Anderson. After he was initially stripped of his first-place accomplishment when race officials determined they would determine results after seven laps, Anderson (@Janderson9777) tweeted this:

“My identity does not come from the trophies that I have won or the ones that have been taken away. It comes from who I am in Christ. The main reason I run is to bring glory to His name, not to win state championships.”

Joe Anderson on Twitter

Pretty impressive, kid. Congratulations on your state championship.

Symposium on Church & Sport Challenges Us to Provide Pastoral Care through Sport

This past June I wrote an article summarizing “Giving the Best of Yourself,” the Vatican’s original document on the Christian perspective of sport and the human person that was published on June 1. I was fortunate to participate in the Symposium on the Church & Sport on March 7 that The University of Notre Dame and the Play Like A Champion Today program hosted.

The symposium brought together about 60 educators, sport administrators, and sports and spirituality scholars to discuss the contents of the document and produce recommendations for United States bishops to implement the Church’s perspectives on sport.

Rev. Donald Hying, Bishop of Gary, Indiana, called the document “one of the greatest things to come out of the Vatican in years.” While “Giving the Best of Yourself” provides its own set of recommendations to enhance the sport experience, I came away from the meeting recollecting three themes – the importance of mission in our Catholic sports programs; making sports an equal-opportunity, all-inclusive proposition; and promoting the document so those involved in sports have an understanding on the Church’s perspective.

Throughout the dialogue during the symposium, I recalled some statistics on Catholic school students I came across: 70 percent of Catholic school students participate in sports. 25 percent of those students attend Mass regularly. Only ten percent of them participate in a youth group activity. As educators and sport administrators of Catholic schools, we have a responsibility to evangelize by meeting our young people where they are. And where are they? They are on playing fields, in gyms, in pools, and on tracks.

In Pope Francis’s letter in response to “Giving the Best of Yourself,” our Holy Father called sports a “formative vehicle” and “a means for mission and sanctification.” Many Catholic schools and parishes embrace this aspect of our mission. However, It has been my observation that there we are missing out on enhancing this aspect of our mission. As Catholic educators, sport administrators, and coaches, one of the first questions we must be asking ourselves is “Where are the opportunities in our sports programs to evangelize?”

“Giving the Best of Yourself” suggests the idea of “Sport for All” for pastoral planning through sport. During the course of the symposium, our group had rich discussions on how we are called to make sports more inclusive by providing opportunities for, as Pope Francis calls, the “marginalized.”

In our world full of sin – racism, sexism, religious and political intolerance – sports provide an empathic way to bring people with differences together for a common bond. Sports should bring people together and provide opportunities for everyone to play, not just the best athletes. We must provide opportunities for those with financial and physical limitations. Breaking down these limitations help build our communities.

If you have ever been to the campus of the University of Notre Dame you have probably sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Catholic identity that resonates throughout the campus and visibly through their athletic programs. After all, there is a 14-story mural of Jesus on the Hesburgh Library overlooking the campus and, most notably, Notre Dame Stadium.

It was my observation that while attending a football game, “Touchdown Jesus” isn’t the only way to identify Notre Dame as Catholic. The athletic department has embraced “Giving the Best of Yourself” and found ways to promote it. In his symposium welcome, Notre Dame Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick stated that at each home athletic contest the Irish post a banner with the following excerpt from Pope Francis’s response to the document:

Sport is a very rich source of values and virtues that help us to become better people.
Like the athlete during training, practicing sport helps us to give our best, to discover our limit without fear, and to struggle daily to improve.

Like the University of Notre Dame, I strongly encourage all of those who coach in and administer Catholic sports programs to, first, read “Giving the Best of Yourself” and share it with those associated with the programs. It can be easily accessed on the Vatican’s website. Then I challenge all of them to find people in their communities who can “champion” ways to form our young people as not only athletes but as holistic people. Finally, I urge them to promote the document and the Church’s perspective on sports. Spread the mission of our Church and evangelize on the playing fields, in the gyms, in the pools, and on the tracks.

This article may also be found in the March 15, 2019 issue of The Messenger.

Play Like A Champion Today’s summary of the symposium and videos of presentations can be found here.

Coaching Xcellence Weekly

This is the March Madness edition of Coaching Xcellence Weekly. This time always proves to be the best time of the year! The stories this time of year are always incredible and reflect the significance that a sport can have on people, whether it’s the participants or the fans.

Bruce Pearl – A Teachable Moment Used Well

There has been a lot written and said about Bruce Pearl and possible transgressions he has had in his career. However, his Auburn team’s heartbreaking Final Four loss to Virginia and his reaction with his team afterwards should be talked about for awhile. With Virginia down two points in the closing seconds, their point guard Ty Jerome committed a double-dribble that went uncalled by the officials. Kyle Guy made three free throws after a controversial foul on a three-point attempt and Virginia won the national semi-final game. What was so impressive was Bruce Pearl’s reaction. Rather than complain and berate the officials, or even at minimum, question them, Pearl stated that everyone makes mistakes and focused on how to properly handle losing. This message to his team and, even to sports fans, is an educational one and one that should be celebrated as a teachable moment that was well utilized.

Tom Izzo – Demanding, Demeaning or Both?

With Michigan State reaching the Final Four this weekend, I want to reflect on one of the biggest stories of the this year’s NCAA Tournament. That came when Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo ripped into one of his players, Aaron Henry, during the Spartans’ first round win against Bradley. I saw lots of commentary on the tongue lashing and social media was all the rage with opinions. Did Izzo lose his mind and go too far off the rails with Henry? Maybe. I found it interesting that Henry responded by playing productively in that game against Bradley and then had an efficient outing in the second round game against Minnesota. The situation brought to light one of my favorite teachings when it comes to coaching: Be demanding without being demeaning.

Did Izzo demean Henry in this situation? I don’t know. Maybe. You and I can’t really be the judge here. We don’t know what Izzo does outside of games to build relationships with his players. Some of the commentaries I read about the incident commended Izzo for his relationship building with his players, and even their parents, off the court.

The Izzo situation reminded me of a recent post-game press conference interview. My friend Scott Kerr, head coach at Cincinnati’s Purcell Marian High School, advanced to the Ohio High School State Semifinals a couple weeks ago. I coached against Scott numerous times and have watched his teams play on many other occasions. He coaches his kids as hard as any high school coach I have seen. I know he demands a lot but that is what has made him successful. And his players love him. In Scott’s post-game press conference after that state semifinal loss, you can see how much Scott loves his players and how much they love and respect him because he demands their best. This press conference proves that Scott fosters those relationships off the court. It all comes down to whether that there is love and respect between coach and players. The question of demanding vs. demeaning in the Izzo/Henry situation boils down to what happens off the court, not what happened on the court in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Lipscomb – Coach Meyer Looking Down from Above

I watched the Lipscomb Bison advance to the NIT championship game last week. The late, legendary Coach Don Meyer coached at Lipscomb for many years and I am sure Coach Meyer was looking down proudly from heaven. I had a chance to hear Coach Meyer speak a handful of times before his death but I will always have the memory of hearing him in 2010 the same day as the Final Four games I attended in Indianapolis. An “all-time” basketball day for me.

ESPN baseball guru Buster Olney authored the book How Lucky You Can Be a few years ago about this ultimate “Coach of Coaches.” While coaching at Northern State University, his last coaching job, Meyer was in an almost fatal automobile accident on a North Dakota highway in 2008. After emergency surgery, doctors diagnosed Coach Meyer with cancer. Olney’s book in both motivational and inspirational…one of the best I’ve read.

Here are three rules that Coach Meyer had for all of his players in his program:
Rule No. 1: Everybody takes notes.
Rule No. 2: Everybody says, “Yes, sir,” “Yes, ma’am,” “No, sir,” and “No, ma’am.” In other words, be courteous to everybody.
Rule No. 3: Everybody picks up trash.

Perry Reese, Jr. – A Coach Who Changed a Community

This one is from the archives. The Ohio High School Athletic Association honored Perry Reese, Jr., with the Naismith Meritorious Service Award last week at its state Final Four. Reese, an African-American Catholic, entered Ohio’s Amish country in Berlin in the 1980s and transformed the community beyond just basketball. Sports Illustrated published this article about Reese, which was reprinted as one the magazine’s 60 best articles in the 60th anniversary of the magazine in 2014.

Research Proves Youth Sports Linked to Lower Depression

This isn’t necessarily March Madness-related but I love these articles regarding youth sports. This Chicago Tribune article details some research showing that if youth participate in sports they are less likely to suffer depression. I found the theme of community in this article as a by-product of the youth sports experience interesting in that it contributes to less likelihood of depression.

Coaching Xcellence Weekly

I am always finding outstanding articles and books that are very thought-provoking and want to begin sharing what some may find interesting. A lot of these are sports (including youth sports) and coaching-related. I like to throw in other topics such as leadership, education, psychology, spirituality, or a combination of any of these.

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  • It’s March so there will be lots of good basketball stuff out there. This is a great article about North Dakota State Men’s Basketball Assistant Coach Kyan Brown and the terrible adversity he and his family have had to face this season. Coach Brown will certainly have some extra fans this week as NDSU tips off their NCAA Tournament appearance after winning The Summit League Tournament. 
  • Some of the biggest news of the week came in the form of the recruiting bribery schemes. Michael Rosenberg explains it in this Sports Illustrated article. Rosenberg said it well when he stated, “Our nation’s favorite competitive sport is not football, basketball or baseball. It is parenting.” I wish parents understood their greed has more of a negative impact on their children than the benefit of being recognized for their athletic performance.

  • Bob Seggerson was a great high school basketball in Ohio. He has the distinction of having won a state championship in the last game he coached. His Lima Central Catholic team won the OHSAA Division 3 state championship in the last game of his career in 2010. He is a guest writer for his local limaohio.com in this article “50 Things Learned as High School Coach.”  
  • This is another profile of one of the greatest people I have ever been around. Sister Rose Ann Fleming hired both my wife and me at Xavier University and I’m not sure I have ever been around anyone that works harder. And all of that hard work is done for the benefit of other people. It’s well documented that she has helped students-athletes at Xavier graduate but this article shows her other ministries, including Pro Bono law that she has done throughout her career. 
  • This is a great article from a high school wrestling coach, Brandon Day, in Richmond, Michigan, about youth sports today. I like his emphasis on “instruction, practice, and relationship development over competition” in youth sports.

  • I’ll add in a quote of the week often and, since March Madness begins this week, this week’s quote comes from the defending national champion coach.

    Quote of the Week: “Everyone’s role is different but their status is the same.” – Jay Wright

Giving the Best of Yourself: Sports Are an Instrument of Education and Evangelization

Published in The Messenger, June 29, 2018

The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life released its first ever document on sports, Giving the Best of Yourself: A Document on the Christian Perspective on Sport and the Human Person, on June 1. While several popes have spoken about sports and their role with humanity during the last century, this groundbreaking document provides a thorough account of the Church’s perspectives on sport. In addition, it challenges Church leaders to work with sports leaders to ensure sports are being used as an educational tool.

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In a separate letter to Cardinal Kevin Farrell, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, Pope Francis affirmed the document, reminding that sports are a “formative vehicle” and “a means for mission and sanctification.”

Giving the Best of Yourself is presented in five different chapters:
1. Motive for the Document
2. The Sport Phenomenon
3. Significance of Sports for the Human Person
4. Challenges in the Light of the Gospel
5. The Church as a Key Protagonist

The Church has enhanced its role with sports during Pope Francis’s papacy but Francis has certainly not been the first Pope to engage in the relationship between sports and the Church. In 1904, Pope Pius X opened the doors of the Vatican to sports by hosting a youth gymnastics event. Later, Pope Paul VI presented his thoughts on the role of sports. Pope St. John Paul II offered dozens of addresses to sports groups during his papacy.

Under Pope Francis’s leadership, new work has been accomplished to recognize the Church’s role in sports. In May 2015 the Vatican hosted a seminar, “Coaches: Educators of People,” to address the role coaches play as ministers in the lives of youth. In 2016, the first “Sport at the Service of Humanity” Conference was held in Rome and similar follow-up conferences have been held in the U.S. Villanova University hosted one last year and Loyola Marymount University held one just last week.

Giving the Best of Yourself acknowledges the Church’s presence in art, music, and other human activities throughout its history because of the beauty that comes from God through these activities. It recognizes that sports can also be beautiful. We realize this beauty through the physical means of playing sports. A well-played game of soccer with crisp passes, spacing and proper footwork, and a football team executing their blocking assignments, route running and precision passing cooperatively provide examples of physical beauty in human movement.

The document recognizes the importance of the human dignity of individual athletes who participate. “Considering the rules and regulations of each sport along with the game strategies defined by coaches, each athlete develops personally as he strives in his freedom and creativity to achieve set goals within established parameters.”

One of the great qualities that all who participate in sports should demonstrate is joy. It is necessary that we not only protect this joy in our athletes but foster them. Jesus speaks often about joy in the Gospels. “These things that I have spoken to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” (John 15:11) I watch NBA player Stephen Curry play basketball and see a youthful joy with which this famed celebrity and world champion still plays.

Sports provide an opportunity for people to learn to interact with others and grow in their humility. “To belong to a sports club means to reject every form of selfishness and isolation, it is an opportunity to encounter and be with others, to help one another, to compete in mutual esteem and to grow in brotherhood.”

In our Play Like A Champion Today “Coaching as Ministry” coach trainings, we discuss the words of St. John Paul II who observed that the cardinal virtues (justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude) can play a major role in developing the character of our athletes. The document reminded us of St. John Paul II’s words that the Cardinal virtues can facilitate growth in our athletes.

While many great qualities can develop within individuals through sports, there are still threats that we must be aware of and address, most notably debasement of the body, doping, corruption through sport policies and gambling, and spectators’ deviant behaviors. In combating these threats, Giving the Best of Yourself suggests parents continue to remain their children’s first teachers, encourages parishes to provide sport opportunities, asks schools and universities to promote an understanding of sport aimed at education, inclusion, and human promotion, and inspires pastors and educators to form alliances with coaches and sport managers.

The final chapter of Giving the Best of Yourself provides a basis of where the Church is in its relationship with sports and the potential of where it can go. As Pope Francis says, “the way of the Church, is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant…” Many of those who are distant can be found participating in sports.

One profound message that resonated throughout the document was that the Church considers sports as an instrument of education. As Pope Francis said, they are a “formative vehicle.” We must use sports as a medium to teach not just proper movement, techniques, and strategy, but also to form character, moral reasoning and social justice. We need them to work in solidarity with others. “Sport needs educators and not just service providers.”

This article may also be found in the June 29, 2018 issue of The Messenger

To read the full version of Giving the Best of Yourself, access it here.

Town known for creating Olympic athletes, a model to follow

Published in The Messenger, February 15, 2019

The town of Norwich, Vermont, is unlike many towns in our country. Their record of producing Olympic athletes is remarkable, considering its population of only 3,000 people. Norwich has generated an athlete in each Winter Olympics since 1984 except for one. Those Olympians have combined for three medals.

But the town, nestled along the border of Vermont and New Hampshire near Dartmouth College, has not achieved their athletic prowess by raising their young people in a cutthroat, everyone-for-themselves, sports environment like other communities.

In her 2018 book Norwich, Karen Crouse shares how Norwich rears its young people in a way that appreciates the nature of the Northeast while connecting the residents, especially their youth, with each other and fostering them into happy adults.

What makes the town truly unique is how it collectively rears its young athletes to success without burning them out or compromising future happiness. Parents of young Norwich athletes have learned that the most effective way to be a “sports parent” is to value participation, sportsmanship, fun, community, and self-improvement.

It was noted that many of these young athletes did not get into their sport and compete at the highest international level to get rich, but instead, to enrich their own lives. Three-time Olympian and Norwich-native Hannah Kearney is a case study in how an athlete should be raised and supported by her community and parents. A highly-competitive athlete, Crouse explains that rather that nurturing her competitive obsession, Norwich helps take the pressure off Kearney.

In a town known for its winter sports successes, one would assume Kearney spent her youth in isolation on ski slopes during the cold-weather while training in Olympic training facilities during the summer. Wrong. Kearney craved balance in her life. She rode horses, ran track, and was an all-state soccer player in high school. Track and soccer provided outlets to any pressure the success of her skiing provided.

One may also think that Kearney came from an affluent family that flew her all over the country competing in national skiing events in the hopes that her skiing success would result in their own family success. Others may think the family took out a second mortgage so she could achieve international success traveling the world. Wrong.

Kearney’s parents informed her that if she wanted to fly across the country to compete she would have to find her own sponsors. She found a sponsor, a relative of a Norwich resident, one who said he would support her if her report card grades continued to maintain excellence. Her mother, Jill, still remains director of the Norwich recreation program.

As a favorite to win gold in her first Olympics in 2006, she fell out of the top twenty and failed to make the finals. The town still threw her a parade. And in turn, Kearney pays it forward. She has donated earnings to the Norwich Public Library and supports the less affluent in the town.

As an educator and parent, a phrase I often hear, and have said a time or two myself is, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Parents are the primary educators of their children, but it does take many people in their lives to enrich them and guide them in becoming fit and emotionally-stable adults. Coaches. Teachers. Grandparents. Aunts and Uncles. Parents of friends. Neighbors. All of these influential people can model and mold the young people around them. Norwich seems to have figured this out.

Karen Crouse’s account of Norwich’s Olympic success provides us with some great, though basic, lessons on how our own “village” can support youth athletes:

  1. Encourage our young people’s passions. – Avoid making our own passions theirs.
  2. Support them win or lose. – Don’t allow the result of competition define who our young people are.
  3. Refrain from micromanaging your own children’s lives – As Crouse says, “act as their guides to charity, well-roundedness, curiosity, perspective, and a healthy life.”
  4. Support and encourage the opponents of your own children. – As I say in Play Like A Champion parent workshops, those opponents could one day be your child’s classmate, teammate, best friend or work colleague.

Our Church is the body of Christ. All of the parts of our Church, when working together, make for a strong, healthy body, mind and spirit. Our sports programs are one of those body parts. When it is working to bring the greater good to the Church, our local Church community and individuals within them thrive in order to become the good people God created them to be.

Norwich, Vermont, is not our model to create Olympic athletes. It is our model to raise our young people who God created them to be.

This article may also be found in the February 15, 2019 issue of The Messenger.

What I Love about Loyola’s Run to the Final Four

The Loyola Ramblers’ men’s basketball team has become the darling of the 2018 NCAA Tournament. As the fourth number-eleven seed to make the Final Four, the lowest seed to ever make the Final Four, they have caught the attention of the entire nation in one of our country’s premier sporting events. And I love it.

I love – heck, everybody loves – Sister Jean! The 98-year-old nun who serves as the team chaplain has become the media darling of the NCAA Tournament. But she has been Loyola’s darling for a long, long time. While the players and coaches usually get the attention in the tournament, and rightfully so, Sister Jean represents all of the support staff members of each team who does not normally receive recognition.


I also love the media’s coverage of Sister Jean where the country can see the mission of the Jesuit, Catholic university that is carried out by the leadership of the program. Head coach Porter Moser said it best after the Elite Eight victory: “God is good!”

Too often we get lost in who wins, who loses, and who are the Cinderellas in college athletics, and we forget that the most important things going on in these institutions are the student-athletes being educated and supported within the mission of the institution. It is apparent that the mission of Loyola University to “seek God in all things and work to expand knowledge in the service of humanity through learning, justice and faith” is alive and well in the men’s basketball program.

I love that Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson, two of Loyola’s star players, have been lifelong teammates, flat-out winners who helped lead their Kansas high school to a couple state championships and now are taking their college team to the Final Four. They represent the bonds and relationships that are capable of forming through the great game of basketball.

I love the coach, Porter Moser. I have watched Loyola play before the NCAA Tournament and was impressed with his approach and style. And I love that he reveres one of his coaching mentors, one of the great basketball “junkies,” the late Rick Majerus.

I also love that our country will learn more about the 1963 NCAA Tournament champion Rambler team this week, the only champion team that hails from the state of Illinois. Many basketball fans are familiar with the movie Glory Road, the true story of the first African-American starting five at Texas Western University who defeated the University of Kentucky for the 1966 national championship, in what many people believe began breaking the racial barriers in college basketball. It certainly had a major impact but it did not tear down the first bricks.

The “Game of Change,” a 1963 regional semifinal in East Lansing, Michigan, between Loyola and Mississippi State first began breaking down those barriers. Mississippi State’s team was not permitted to play against teams with African-Americans at the time; however, the team ignored an injunction by the governor and secretly boarded a plane in Tennessee to participate in the tournament. Loyola won the game and went on to win the tournament. I love that people will learn more about the “Game of Change” this week.

I love that we are going to see more of the star of that 1963 championship team, Jerry Harkness, who played professionally in my hometown of Indianapolis for the ABA’s Indiana Pacers. You may learn that Harkness hit the longest shot in the history of professional basketball, a 92-footer that was…well, a buzzer beater…in a 1967 ABA game. See, Donte Ingram and Clayton Custer aren’t the only Ramblers who have a propensity for dramatic buzzer beaters.

You saw Harkness during the coverage of the Elite Eight win over Kansas State. You may learn this week that he has, to no surprise, been a civil rights activist throughout his adult life. You may also learn he was the first African-American sportscaster in the city of Indianapolis.  As a kid growing up a sports fan in Indianapolis during the 1980s, I revered him for his booming broadcasting voice. He may have the best broadcasting voice of anyone who has ever been in front of a microphone that many have never heard. You may get to hear that voice.

And I also love that in a time when the integrity of leadership in college athletics has been in question and the academic charge is sometimes pushed aside, Loyola does it right and their student-athletes complete what everyone who attends college should be striving to do. They graduate 99 percent of their student-athletes, ranking first in the country.

I also love watching this Loyola team play basketball.