By Dennis Hammond
“The body should be trained to be able to obey the counsel of wisdom and reason, whether it be a matter of work to be done or trials to be borne.” -Cicero
As winter’s long shadows are upon us, it is a time when we largely take to the inside. The outdoor, physical activity of warmer days gives way to more sedentary pursuits and we dive into indoor projects. Many in our culture eschew the projects and while away many hours with remote in one hand and cool drink in the other, feet propped up, eyes affixed on the sporting offerings of the airwaves. That pop culture phenomenon known as the Super Bowl fast approaches.
At some point in our recent history, we became spectators instead of active players. We have given a prominent place to watching sports and the mind-numbing drivel of the latest and greatest advertising hooks of the corporate world. Hey, it’s much easier to watch football than to actually go out and play it!
But is it really more edifying to God to sit slack jawed in rapt attention as Third and Eight plays out, or to go outside and throw the football around with your sons?
Winter is a banquet table of NFL and college football, hockey, pro and college basketball and countless other dishes for our consumption. Anyone who has played any kind of sport understands the exhilaration of competition. The gut feel of pitting your skills and heart against an opponent is something that is very difficult to duplicate, unless you’re engaged in real battle. We can fully appreciate what it takes for the athletes on TV to be successful, to be winners. We can project ourselves into the action. And that is both the allure and accompanying potential trap.
Athletics and physical activity goes to the very core of man, so we are physical in nature. We are born to protect and provide. This requires bodily toughness and the ability to endure hardship and challenge. It is no doubt one reason that men are drawn to sport. Sport prepares us for war and defending what ought to be defended.
The ancient Greeks developed sporting events and the Olympics as a training device for soldiers to keep them strong, in shape, and maintain their edge. Modern militaries subject their troops to all kinds of rigorous physical training. Countless weekend warriors run 10K’s and pull hamstrings playing softball with their work buddies. The more hardy souls might try a Triathlon or even dare to scale Everest.
But why do we do it? Is it to gain more control of mind over body? Is it to better ourselves in God’s eyes, or for more humanistic reasons? Maybe it’s just to say “I did it”. Or it could be for what the Greeks called kleos–glory and reputation. What will people say about me?
What is the real purpose of sport? How do we keep it in perspective and to give it proper place and scope for ourselves and in our families? We have grown (or descended!) into a society that values someone who can nail a jump shot or catch a football more than we value teachers, firemen, or our priests. Our pseudo heroes tend to be uneducated, selfish and all too often unworthy of accolades, while the real heroes toil in obscurity.
Teaching our sons to test their mettle physically and learn to push their body’s limits is extremely important. It gives them the grace and ability to control and subordinate their will. How many times have we heard that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak? Probably less often than we have actually experienced it! Sixth and Ninth Commandment issues (IE custody of the eyes) is a man’s cross to bear. Athletics can help young men strengthen control of the flesh and be in command over the body.
Enduring the rigors of sport gives us confidence that we can overcome hardships. We can fast and mortify ourselves. We can take on tribulations of both body and mind. And our soul strengthens as a result. But athletic endeavors have to be kept in perspective. They have to be a means to sanctification, not a be all and end all. And the benefit is in the active participation in the skirmish of life, not sitting by and passively watching.
One of the benefits of team sports is the need to subject or subordinate our individual desires and goals for a bigger, broader goal. The success of the team has brought the somewhat trite phrase, “I’m just trying to help the team”. It may be trite but it is noble and it is a great lesson to be learned.
Men and boys come together from different upbringings and with different skills to work toward a common goal. Their individual strengths are blended together to produce a sum greater than the individual parts. Sacrifice is required and it teaches one of life’s great lessons. There is something bigger than me out there. Its not about me, it’s about a greater common good.
Baseball has the sacrifice. Basketball and hockey have the assist where a skillful play results in a teammate scoring and the team benefits. Every championship football team has the unsung heroes throwing blocks and controlling the line of scrimmage in selfless and thankless effort while someone else scores the touchdown. This builds camaraderie and trust as those scoring know why they did. And when you have scored due to someone else’s efforts, your unselfish acknowledgement of them further strengthens the bond. This is a lesson that carries over to family, the Faith, even to work situations. It’s a validation for selflessness and putting others before ourselves to accomplish goals that we can’t do by ourselves. It is often said that it is amazing what can be accomplished when nobody cares who gets credit. And it is dead on!
This is, of course, the way it is supposed to be. Growth in virtue through sport is the goal. But our culture has turned to sport as the mountain top. Virtues have been brushed aside in favor of selfishness, greed, and win-at-all-costs chest thumping. Overbearing dads (and moms) complain that little Johnny isn’t getting enough playing time and his future scholarship and millions are in jeopardy as a result. And Johnny is only a seventh grader!
Last year in Texas, a disgruntled dad brought a gun to a football practice and threatened the coach over his son’s playing time. In an everyone-plays-in-every-game little league baseball game last summer, a coach during warm-ups had his pitcher deliberately bean (throw at the head) a member of his own team. The boy that was hit by the pitch was a physically disabled boy, who, as it came out later, would hurt their chances to win. So they reasoned, “hit him in the head and he can’t play and won’t hold us back”. And it was the coach that put the player up to harming his own teammate. Unbelievable. These are only two of, unfortunately, many examples.
Clearly we must tread lightly in the sports and athletic realm with our children. We will be exposed to influences that are not always virtuous and to people who will lie, cheat, and steal to win. But it is also an opportunity to be the coach, overcome these challenges, and set the proper example for others. Sure it will take time, and we have all of Eternity to celebrate the rewards it will bring.
An important aspect of sports is that many times we are “outgunned” or against someone who is simply better than us. Or they were for that play. We get knocked down, we strike out, or are bested for a play or maybe a game. What do we do? Wallow and quit? Or do we get up and learn from what happened and try again? We make adjustments. We look in the mirror and objectively assess where we are lacking and diligently work to correct and improve.
This should sound very much like the journey to sanctity. We need to assess where we are on the road to holiness and correct the course. True, sports are manufactured and not hugely important in the grand scheme, but if we learn self awareness, humility, and how to better ourselves from them, we have gained a tremendous advantage. Apply what you learn. Forget the last play, mistake, or failure, and be better the next time.
Men generally have a natural make up or composition to give their all between the lines and leave it there. If someone takes a cheap shot or does something outside the rules, we remember it and if in the course of action we can rectify it, we will. And it ends there. Things are evened, then forgotten and play continues. We likely will even share a beer and laugh about it later. Having coached women’s high school basketball, I saw first hand that this was different with women. They couldn’t–or wouldn’t–let it go. They carried a grudge that festered and grew. Resentment and hard feelings lasted long after a particular game.
The first time I experienced this was on a bus ride to a rematch with an archrival. I overheard several young women talking about specific plans of retaliation against a specific opponent from our previous game. When I suggested that they should be more focused on tactics to defend opposing players and what to do to win, they were dumbfounded. Revenge was on their minds, not true competitive spirit. It was a wake up call for me about the difference between men and women, especially when it comes to sports and competition.
Don’t get me wrong, exercise and physical fitness are as important for women as for men. But how do competitive sports fit in? Any man who has seen his wife give birth would be an idiot to question her mental and physical toughness. We as men should be so lucky to be this strong! But the grace from God that gives women this capacity, also gives them the nurturing heart and sensitive soul to raise children, put up with their husband’s faults, build a home and help pull and keep things together.
Women are caring and pull for the underdog. They reach out and help the weak, those who can’t help themselves. In competitive sports, the way to victory is to find and attack weakness. To hone in on the weak link and exploit it. To attack the weak, not help them. How can it not be confusing at some level for a woman or girl? How can it not compromise a nurturing, caring nature? And let’s face it: the height of feminine beauty is not a girl or woman with a manly swagger in a sweaty uniform, faces grimacing, and elbows flying in the midst of battle! These are my observations from many years of sports involvement, so ladies, please hold the hate mail. Be wary of competitive athletics, but not of exercise and activity.
In his book The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity, Dr. Leon Podles contributes his view on sports:
“Agonistic masculine play was the origin of civilization. In the modern world, sports are the emotional center of countless men. Sports are a traditional means to attain masculinity…. Because sports provide an initiation into masculinity, they can easily become a religion. Sports are often the way the boy puts away the soft, sheltering world of the mother and her femininity and enters the world of challenge and danger that makes him a man…. Team sports develop masculinity; they are ‘the civilized substitute for war’ and sublimate male aggression into channels less harmful than crime…. Sport forms character, manly straightforward character, a scorn of lying and meanness, habits of obedience and command, and fearless courage.”
Competitive sports can build masculinity in our boys and men. It is in many ways the last acceptable bastion of masculinity. From a father’s perspective, this is needed for my sons but not my daughters.
Athletic competition and testing our physical limits prepare us for mental and physical challenges that will inevitably lie in our path. Subordination to a larger goal and mortification of our physical being are lessons and experiences that tragically few in our modern culture understand. Sports and athletics kept in proper perspective can teach us these lessons. Parents must be prudent and vigilant.
To dismiss sports and keep our sons away because of the abuses of modern culture wipes out the potential for valuable experience. However, we cannot get sucked into the win-at-all-costs attitudes so prevalent today. Get off the sofa and get active. Start small and work at it. Get out in the yard and throw that football around. Get involved. Volunteer to coach so that you can help instill the right lessons and attitudes. Physical fitness goes hand in glove with spiritual and mental fitness. “So run that you might win!” (1 Corinthians 9:24)