Jennifer Fitz is the author of Classroom Management for Catechists from Liguori Publications, and a contributor to numerous Catholic books, magazines, and online publications. Find her online at JenniferFitz.com.
I never imagined I would become a sports mom. I was the kind of person who would nod knowingly at articles like this satire from The Federalist on the American religion of “Athletica”. Now that I’ve seen up close both the benefits and pitfalls of intense sports involvement, I’m convinced an honest examination of conscience is in order. Are sports keeping me from carrying out my God-given mission, or are they serving their role of helping me become the person God created me to be?
Let’s look at how sports can hurt or help our efforts to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves.
The Strength to Love God?
I’m going to start with strength because that’s what sports are most about: Improving our physical abilities. The Athletica satire piece mentions the epidemic of sports-related injuries. The virtue of prudence does not require us to live in a perfect protective bubble. It does require that the risks we take be proportionate to the good we’re achieving.
Sports should help us become stronger and healthier. Training in the right sport should result in an increasing sense of physical confidence and comfort with the bodies we’ve been given.
So we ask ourselves: Is this sport helping me to become physically and emotionally stronger? Am I growing in my ability to serve God with all my strength? If it is, I’m on the right track.
A Mind Able to Love God?
It is necessary that we use our minds to know and love God better. When we don’t do that, we become unbalanced. We are unable to properly love God.
Kids and adults often turn to sports for not just physical but intellectual challenges. Sports require strategy, planning, and a vast body of knowledge. If I master of the subtlest intricacies of my sport but I think a second-grade education in theology is sufficient, chances are I’m loving the sport with all my mind, not God.
Sports, rather, should be a tool for sharpening my thinking – thinking I’ll then use to ably slice into the mysteries of God. (As St. Paul did.) Wrong: I know everything about baseball, nothing about the Bible. Right: When I read the Bible, something that might not have made sense to me before I can now understand, because the work I put into training and competing taught me lessons that apply to my Catholic faith.
A Heart for God & My Neighbor?
People turn to sports for community. A group of friends gathers at the tailgate, celebrating together week after week. Everyone on the team works together to overcome obstacles and achieve victory. We find companionship, affirmation, and a sense of belonging. Often when someone joins the religion of “Athletica” it’s because their need to love and be loved, know and be known, has not yet been fulfilled in a relationship with God.
There’s nothing wrong with finding friends through sports. What I’m looking for, though, is whether the fruit of my participation in sports is helping me grow in friendship with God. Am I gradually growing more fervent in my devotion to God, or am I slowly slipping away? Do I look at my neighbor and see a beloved child of God or an opponent to be crushed? Does watching my child play bring out the best in both of us, or the worst?
Sports should be filling me with a sense of dignity and capability that I desire to use for the good of others – especially in serving our Lord in distressing disguise.
And finally, the friendships I’m making should be helping me become a better Christian. Sometimes God will put me alongside a teammate, coach, or fellow fan who needs me to be the face of the Good News. Other times I’ll befriend fellow Christians. Do we Christians on the team gradually grow lukewarm in our love of God as we excuse each other from our religious obligations? Or do we help each other to faithfully serve God even when our sport makes demands on our time?
A Soul that Longs for God Alone?
Our increasingly secular culture no longer sets aside Sundays for church, making Sunday morning the “perfect” time to schedule games. Even among my Bible-Belt Protestant friends, very few take time out of a tournament weekend to attend a church service away from home. God bless the coach who gave my daughter’s team lectures on the importance of finding someplace to worship on Sundays while traveling.
While we should never settle for a bare-minimum practice of our faith, we can use the obligations laid down for us by the Church to tell us how to prioritize, and to recognize where we have flexibility and where we must hold firm. Almost every athlete and fan will sooner or later hit a situation where Sundays get complicated. How I respond is a real litmus test of the state of my soul.
Do I look for ways to excuse myself from Mass? Do I fear losing my spot on the team if I tell the coach that getting to a Sunday Mass is a non-negotiable? Do I resent the Church for complicating my life?
Or does the practice of speaking up and finding a way to get to Mass help me grow in my appreciation for the value of Sunday Mass? Do I find myself more and more grateful for the ability to worship on Sundays? Do I find that I treasure the communion of saints all the more as I kneel down elbow to elbow with people I otherwise never would have met?
Sports are a kind of formation. Physical, emotional, and spiritual pressure shapes us in new ways. When we consider sports for ourselves and for our family members, the natural question takes on new meaning. Sports are a great way to “get in shape.” What shape is my soul taking as a result of this sport?
Jennifer Fitz is that lady from out of town who took your favorite pew and filled it with kids in game jerseys.