Raising the Bar in Every Area of Life
Belmont Abbey College’s high-jumping president calls for excellence and virtue on and off campus.
As a two-time NCAA Division I All-American and National Champion high jumper, Bill Thierfelder had long been accustomed to raising the bar in a literal sense.
Now, he does so in a metaphorical way by promoting excellence and virtue in every aspect of life. In fact, each light post at Belmont Abbey College is adorned with a banner reading “Excellence & Virtue,” serving as a reminder of what every member of the Belmont Abbey community is called to embody.
Thierfelder has frequently spoken about his insights into a virtuous life in classrooms, boardrooms, meeting halls and training facilities across the country.
Now, for the first time, he is imparting this knowledge through a book, from TAN/St. Benedict Press, called Less Than a Minute to Go: The Secret to World-Class Performance in Sport, Business and Everyday Life.
He recently spoke with the Register about his new book, pursuing virtue and the state of Catholic higher education.
Why did you write your new book, Less Than a Minute to Go?
That’s a great question, since I really had no time to write it, and I have never considered myself a writer. Being president of a college is almost a 24/7 job, and my wife, Mary, and I have 10 children, so spare chunks of time are few and far between. (We are still praying for the gift of bilocation!) Add to that the fact that I’d never written a book before, and you’re talking to one of the least likely candidates for the job.
I never thought I’d write a book, but friends would encourage me to get one out. They wanted me to share, in a written format, some of the insights I’d gained over the years. I can’t claim any credit for those insights; that credit goes to the Holy Spirit. However, I did see the validity of my friends’ point. A book would be a great way to reach beyond the immediate Belmont Abbey community to share great things with others.
I knew if I wrote a book that I would donate all of the royalties to Belmont Abbey College. The final validation for writing the book came when St. Benedict Press asked me to write it and then offered to donate all of their profits from the book to the college. Unlike larger schools, we have a very small endowment with which to support our operations, so the opportunity to bring in funds for the school was an important consideration. Not only would I be able to share helpful insights and techniques with others in a new way, but I would at the same time be able to help support the college.
It was a sometimes arduous path, as I often stayed up until 3am writing. Then, on what was supposed to be our family vacation, I wrote all day and night. Without the encouragement and editorial advice of my entire family, including my 6-year-old, Matthew, it would not have been possible. In fact, by making it a family affair, it brought us even closer together.
The book isn’t only for athletes, is it?
The book is filled with examples of how athletes from various sports perform at the highest levels, but it shows how anyone, at any level, can significantly improve their performance. On the deepest level, it is also a book about how to be truly happy in this life and the next. The book shows how world-class performance and virtue are not mutually exclusive and why we will be most successful and happy when pursuing both.
Sport is a wonderful metaphor for illustrating how virtues are developed and strengthened over time. It provides an environment that can reveal insights about how our bodies, minds and souls work. While the book may be a great aid to anyone looking to improve athletic performance, it also offers tips and advice for improving other areas of life.
The first section of the book, [about] preparing the mind to win, helps us to see ourselves and others more clearly and avoid the ways of thinking that can hurt our performances. The second section, [focusing on] making peak performance a common occurrence, shows how and why peak performances happen. The third and final section, [on] playing with a passion that never ends, shows how sacrifice is essential to our success and happiness in this life and the next.
A recurring theme of the book is that, ultimately, what we do is far more important than what we say. We hope people’s words will match their actions; but in the end, the way you really know them is by what they did, not by what they said. Having given us life and free will, God is essentially asking us, “Do you love me?” Our response to that question comes forth very clearly by the way we choose to live our lives.
Do you find that, despite the many problems in sports today, virtue is slowly working itself into that world?
Most athletes are very good people, the kind of people you would treasure as friends. Examples include Mike Sweeney, Jeff Suppan and many others you have interviewed for the National Catholic Register.
The problem is that the vast majority of the media tends to focus exclusively on the athletes who practice vice. It leads us to believe that all athletes are terrible individuals with no morals or virtues. As fans and spectators, we should expect and demand more from the media and those athletes who choose to live lives of vice. After all, we are the ones paying to support their careers.
Do you find that most students appreciate the Catholic environment at Belmont Abbey?
Definitely; even those members of the community who are not Catholic appreciate it. As a Benedictine abbey and college, we welcome each guest as we would Christ himself. This permeates the entire campus — whether you’re in the classroom, the basilica, the library or the gym. We strive for balancing life intellectually, spiritually, socially and athletically. The warmth of our Catholic [college] home draws people from all walks of life who desire to double their talents by seeking the truth and living in response to it.
Many of our full-time students are already solidly grounded in the faith, while some are still on a journey to deepen their faith. One really fascinating fact about Belmont is that nearly all of our evening students are not Catholic. This might seem strange, until you consider that North Carolina has a relatively small percentage of Catholics and that it is the only Catholic college between Virginia and Florida.
Why would so many non-Catholics seek out a Catholic school when so many other private and public institutions are available to them?
I think our appeal to non-Catholics occurs for two reasons, both of which are inextricably linked to our Benedictine identity. Following the Rule of St. Benedict, we receive each visitor as we would the person of Jesus himself. This welcoming attitude resonates well with the Southern tradition of hospitality.
Another reason for our appeal to non-Catholics is that we have a love of Scripture, as expressed in the practice of lectio divina. For over a millennium, this love motivated the Benedictine monks to preserve the Bible by painstakingly reproducing it by hand, one copy at a time. This reverence for the written word of God is obviously very attractive to Protestants, who witness the monks praying Scripture (the Divine Office) every day.
What are your biggest challenges at Belmont Abbey?
The greatest battles are always spiritual. The devil has us on his radar, [which means] we will continue to fight the good fight for religious liberty, the sanctity of marriage, the right to life and the teachings of the Catholic Church as applied to colleges, found in Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church).
The other significant challenge is not having an endowment that [would help] make first-class Catholic education and formation available to more students. My hope and prayer is that this book will help to bring attention to the good work being done by our amazing faculty, coaches and monastic community at Belmont Abbey College.
I have often said, “I don’t believe in accidents.” I believe in divine Providence. If you’re reading my words right now, it’s no accident. God is calling you to look, discern, pray and to say, “Maybe I’m supposed to be [at Belmont Abbey College]. Maybe I’m supposed to be contributing in some way to what God is calling that place to be.” And I’m hoping that you’re going to come and join us.
What is the current status of Belmont Abbey’s battle with the Obama administration over the HHS mandate that would force organizations such as your own to pay for abortions, contraceptives and sterilizations?
There have been many other stories in the news recently, so the HHS mandate is not getting the attention it once did but still deserves. The battle continues, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has just refiled our lawsuit in response to the recent actions by the Department of Justice.
This remains a serious issue that will require all of us banding together in order to win. The martyrs of the Church are the standard-bearers for us in this fight. They gave up every material possession — even life itself — for what they believed in. It may not come to that for us, but if necessary, we need to be willing to follow the examples of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher and be ready to answer with our lives.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.