This week, Pope Francis will release a hard-hitting encyclical letter on the environment that is creating a stir in and out of the Catholic Church. Francis does not shy away from controversy when human rights and welfare are concerned. Overlooked, however, among Francis's more daring public stances is his advocacy of youth sports as a means of respecting children's dignity and of helping children to climb out of poverty.
Just a month ago, along with 80 scholars, coaches, athletes, and Church leaders, I participated in the international seminar, Coaching: Educating People," sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Laity. In his opening charge to the Seminar, Pope Francis challenged sports leaders throughout the world to rethink the role that youth sports can and should play in the lives of children.
Emphasizing the critical influence that coaches have on their players, he directed sports leaders to open their organizations to the children who are typically excluded and who can benefit the most from being on their teams.
Pope Francis's charge comes at a critical time for youth sports organizations in the U.S. The inequalities in youth sport are growing and mirror those in society. For those children who have the financial resources to play, over 70 percent will drop out of sports by the time they get to high school. Their number one reason is that they are not having fun. Many other children, especially the poor and disabled, do not even have an opportunity to be on a team.
Aware of the temptation to sacrifice children's welfare to achieve competitive success, Pope Francis spoke passionately about the need for sports administrators and coaches to "preserve the value and nature of sports as games."
He warned about the "perversion" of sports and the exploitation of athletes by the pursuit (fueled by economic gain, nationalism, and personal ambition) of success at any cost. Pope Francis believes that sports should be play and are meant to be fun for all children. His message is a counter-cultural one in the U.S., where the passion to "win" leads some coaches to turn youth sports into adult-driven work. Even at the youngest levels, it is common to find children being cut from teams or relegated to the bench because a coach decided that they weren't "good" enough.
Like the renowned Developmental Psychologist, Jean Piaget, Pope Francis understands that children's play can have profound educational value. In his charge, Pope Francis explained that under the direction of competent coaches, sports can develop children socially, morally, and spiritually, as well as athletically. Good coaching must be child-centered and developmentally sensitive. For example, Pope Francis pointed out that at the earliest stage of youth sport, coaches should encourage children to take risks, face difficulties, and build confidence in themselves and others. At a later stage, coaches should help adolescents to become good teammates, putting the common good first. Just like other child care professionals, like doctors, psychologists, and teachers, coaches need a "solid formal education. Educators must be educated," he insisted.
As someone involved in youth sport coach education for over a decade now through the Play Like a Champion Today sports education program at the University of Notre Dame, I know coach education can be time-consuming and costly. Sadly, the leaders of some youth sports organizations assume that any well-meaning adult who knows how to play a sport can coach children. The majority of youth sports coaches in the United States still remain untrained while many other coaches receive only a bare minimum of instruction through an on-line course or cursory pre-season meeting.
Pope Francis threw down the gauntlet stating that sports organizations must "pay due attention to and invest the necessary resources in the professional preparation, both human and spiritual, of coaches." Those of us, who have reaped the benefits of play sports in our youth, owe the next generation a comparable and even better experience. Pope Francis has pointed out the way.