Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
The 2016 Summer Olympics is coming this week in Rio de Janeiro. And as World Youth Day ended in Krakow just days ago, I’m reminded of the incredible attention that was on Brazil in 2014 with the FIFA World Cup, and just a year prior to that for World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. What an amazing amount of attention this city and country has received in just a few years! It’s definitely a great chance to pray for the city, the countries competing, the athletes and staff, and all those traveling. I wrote about that here. To me, sports are analogous to our life, and even our faith. Here are a few reasons why:
We are in it to win it
Yes, I’ll start off with winning. I grew up in sports and although every kid got a trophy, not every kid won. We all wanted to be all stars, but even in my highly competitive family, I rarely came out on top. In fact, I pretty much stunk at everything growing up but I never let go of the lesson: we do our best to win. As you’ll read, that’s definitely not the only reason, but as Christians, we can all agree that we are in this thing to win. We will suffer our losses, be defeated and exhausted from time to time, but we will never stop battling for that goal: win. Gratefully, the victory is already won for us, we simply must remain faithful. As Paul says: Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12)
To learn new skills
Throughout life we are afforded opportunities to gain new skills in a myriad of subjects, but also in life we are forced to learn new skills for survival, happiness, and discipline. Sports can teach us so much: we don’t have to learn everything about every sport, but we can become passionate and talented at a particular sport. In the Church, we seek our vocations with the same perspective.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)
To be challenged
Sports are challenging, the outcomes are not always fair, and the decisions that impact us can seem ludicrous. Life is the same. In life we are given a new chance every day and in sports, every season, every game, and every shift is a chance to rise to the occasion and accomplish greatness for something bigger than ourselves.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around. (Psalm 3:6)
Be a part of a team
Catholics always need to get used to the idea of being part of a team. There is a lot of room for individuality, but there is a reason we are a Body, and not a mere part. The “personal relationship with God” I learned to have as a Protestant is relevant and certainly obligatory but the over-personalization I absorbed was like an infection that invited polarity to anything other than me. In the Body of Christ, we need to be individuals that don’t just coexist, but cooperate with each other. Let individual talents shine, but make sure we pass, assist, and play as a team.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. (Hebrews12:1)
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)
To get exercise
I believe that getting better at sports includes some amount of intentional suffering, casting hardship upon our bodies in order to become more disciplined, stronger, agile, and develop stamina. If that’s not a good definition – spiritually speaking – for mortifications, I don’t know what is. Athleticism is certainly a great tool for many people spiritually.
Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 2:3)
More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)
For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)
For the excitement of reaching goals
When a child makes a goal for the first time, that sense of accomplishment can feed him/her well into their adult years. In our Christian life we will definitely have goals. As a pitiful example of my own, every single Lent there is one Friday where, somehow, I forget to abstain from meat. During lent I make it a goal to accomplish my fast, and be perfect in my abstention. That’s one example, but many Catholic might have goals to make daily Mass, pray the divine office, and seek Eucharistic adoration regularly; all of which are profoundly worthy goals.
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day. (2 Timothy 4:7-8)
To handle disappointment
It goes without saying that from time to time in sports and in life, we will be disappointed. Teammates accomplish more, we accomplish less than we want, we feel cheated, and sometimes we let our ambition get the best of us. It might take some time and a bit more than a pep talk, but we can always bounce back.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we van imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)