(1/2013) I was one of those kids who played peewee soccer almost before I could even walk. I continued to play soccer through my senior year of high school. I also took gymnastics, swimming, and tennis. Now I play on the tennis team at the Mount.
At the end of one of those peewee soccer seasons, all of the players, parents and coaches would gather for the end of the year party. We ate pizza and spit watermelon seeds at each other, and listened to our coach talk about the season. Then, he would call each of us up individually and give us our participation trophy.
That’s right—participation trophies. The league had decided long ago that a tournament at the end of the season caused too much "competition" among the teams. Therefore, all of the players received participation trophies. Everyone that is, except for me.
My parents didn’t want to pay for any more participation trophies for me just because I played on a soccer team. Besides the fact that I have four siblings and participation trophies were not high on their priority list, they didn’t think that I needed to be rewarded just for showing up to the practices and games. It’s nice to get a
participation trophy or two, but many more didn’t seem necessary.
If sports aren’t about participation trophies, then what are they about?
When my Dad coached some of my soccer teams growing up, we had an unusual ritual after games. If we won the game, we would run a couple extra laps around the field. He wanted us to learn that practicing and training didn’t end when we won a game—
Champions strive for so much more than that.
Sports can help us become better versions of ourselves; athletes strive to "form the perfect man, fully mature with the fullness of Christ himself" (Ephesians 4:13). As an athlete, I strive to achieve victory in my sport by becoming a champion both on the field and off the field. Champions are courageous, putting everything on the line, and
they are able to keep getting back on their feet. Champions glorify God through their bodies and acknowledge their talents as gifts from God.
St. Paul reminds us: "Whatever you do, do from the heart, for the Lord and not for others" (Colossians 3:23). I am responsible for how I perform the tasks I am given in my life. This includes how I practice, how I compete, how I treat my opponents, how I work with teammates, and how I prepare my body for competition.
A champion strives for, is drawn to, and seeks excellence; this search for excellence gives the athlete a "momentary link to the Other who is perfect" (Pope Benedict XVI). Pope Benedict XVI goes even further to describe sport as "the free action of play as a sort of return to paradise, as an escape from the wearisome enslavement of daily
Sports teach us to never give up
The summer before I came to play tennis at the Mount, I competed in a number of national and high-level junior tournaments. I had some success in these types of tournaments the summer before, and I was excited about getting match-tough to play in college and posting some good stats to show to my new coach at the Mount.
My matches ended up going all wrong. I was close in every match, but ended up losing eight straight matches the summer before playing Division I tennis. I questioned whether I had made the right decision to keep playing, but I never stopped practicing. I came to the Mount that fall and had one of my best fall seasons.
Sports teach us to strive for excellence even if defeat seems imminent
The amazing thing about sports is that you never really know who is going to win before the game is over. Otherwise, we’d probably skip watching. I think that part of being a champion on the court if fighting until the end, even if it seems like winning is impossible. In the process, we will make ourselves more excellent people.
I’ve had some tennis matches in which I have had match points, and still lost the match. I also remember one distinct match my junior year when my opponent had ten match points for herself in the second set. I came back and won every one of those points, won the second set, and came back to win the match in the third set.
Sports teach us to never take the easy way out
If you put your lead foot just slightly inside the starting line on a running "suicide," you can get a significant advantage over your teammates on a short distance run. You can sometimes find a way to skip practice without really having a good excuse. You can spend extra time picking up balls between points on the tennis courts so that you
don’t have to exert as much energy during a hitting drill. There are a lot of ways to cut corners in sports, but none of them lead to greatness.
Sports teach us about sacrifice
You can’t always hang out with your friends late at night because you need sleep to perform well. You have to eat the right foods at the right time to feel your best. You have to put in extra practice time if you need help on a certain skill. We don’t always want to do these things, but we train our minds and bodies to do them anyway.
Sports help us to develop our talents
In the well-known Parable of the Talents, Jesus speaks of a master who gives talents to each of his three servants according to their abilities. After the master returns home from a journey, he finds that the first two servants have put their talents to work and doubled their number of talents. The third servant, however, buried his talent
and did nothing with what he was given. The master praises the first two servants, but admonishes the third.
Athletes are blessed with athletic talent in varying degrees of ability. How we make use of what we are given is important, and it also teaches us to use our various talents for the rest of our lives.
Sports need teamwork to make the dream work
Last year, the Mount men’s tennis team played in a quarterfinal match against Sacred Heart, the defending Northeast Conference champions. The men battled on the court and the women’s tennis team cheered from the sidelines. We didn’t just occasionally clap or call out their names—we had our attention focused on their matches and encouraged
them throughout the entirety of the match-up. We made sure to split ourselves among the different courts so that we were encouraging all of the men on the team. In the end, it came down to the final match. All of the men who had finished playing joined us in cheering for our number one player to beat the number one senior on the other team. As we rushed the court
after the match, we felt like we had won too—we had invested ourselves in their matches that day, and throughout the whole season, and were able to celebrate their joy. It was the first time in NEC tennis history that the defending champions were taken out in the quarterfinals.
Sports keep things in perspective
Sports can be used for the better—The International Military Council is one of the largest multidisciplinary sporting organizations in the world and bears the unique motto, "friendship through sport." They organize various sporting events for the armed forces of 131 member countries. Soldiers, who may have previously met on the battlefield,
now meet in friendship on the playing field. Their ultimate goal is to contribute to world peace by uniting the armed forces around the world through sports.
Sports can also be used for the worse—Athletes can sometimes feel like their life is over when their competitive sport ends. They sometimes resort to drugs or find themselves in prison because they placed an inordinate amount of attention on their sports. Athletes who are well-rounded individuals often have less difficulty adjusting to life
without competitive sports.
Sports also teach us to be courageous, and help us grow in humility. Sports offer happiness that is passing, and make us thirst for deeper joy. This is only a brief introduction to the many life lessons that I have learned from sports. I hope to learn many more in the spring—my last season of competitive tennis.
The lessons that we learn from sports can be applied to the rest of our lives, whether in our academics, spiritual life, job, or relationships. We can grow in virtue through sports and form a stronger will to make good decisions in all areas of our lives. A champion seeks to win, to take pride in giving our best in all that we do. What we
do is important, but how we do it is even more important.
"Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for
fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified." 1 Corinthians 9:24-27