Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Power of Ritual: A Case for the Prayer Circle

I displayed this photo in Sports and Spirituality, an elective course I teach to seniors, several of whom are in the photo. The prayer circle was taken after the second football game of the season between two non-league rivals: Marin Catholic and St. Ignatius College Prep. I already knew:
  1. who won the game. 
  2. the athletes in my classroom were not unfamiliar with this ritual; they had joined in a prayer circle after a league game the season prior.
  3. in both instances, the opposing team initiated the invitation to pray together following the contest.
What I knew and what I wanted to know however prompted me to ask them about their experience of this postgame ritual. I was aware that when the football team prayed with their opponent after the game last year, SI won. This year was different. I was sensitive to the fact that seeing this photo would remind the players in my class of a game they believe should have gone the other way. I was curious to hear what it was like to pray after a defeat...besides the victor....or to some, the enemy. Was that tough to do? Was it strange? Was it meaningful? Is there power in this ritual?

These questions, this experience reminded me of the weekly column I read in Catholic San Francisco but the Canadian Oblate, Father Ron Rolheiser. In "The Power of Ritual" he writes, 
I don’t always find it easy to pray. Often I’m over-tired, distracted, caught-up in tasks, pressured by work, short on time, lacking the appetite for prayer, or more strongly drawn to do something else. But I do pray daily; despite the fact that I often don’t want to and despite the fact that many times prayer can be boring and uninteresting. I pray daily because I’m committed to a number of rituals for prayer, the office of the Church, lauds and vespers, the Eucharist, and daily meditation.
Perhaps he could have added after a loss or in times of disappointment as examples of when it's not easy to pray. So why partake in this ritual? Could a prayer circle really make a difference? He writes
And these rituals serve me well. They hold me, keep me steady, and keep me praying regularly even when, many times, I don’t feel like praying. That’s the power of ritual. If I only prayed when I felt like it, I wouldn’t pray very regularly. 
Ritual practice keeps us doing what we should be doing (praying, working, being at table with our families, being polite) even when our feelings aren’t always onside. We need to do certain things not because we always feel like doing them, but because it’s right to do them. 
And this is true for many areas of our lives, not just for prayer. Take, for example, the social rituals of propriety and good manners that we lean on each day. Our heart isn’t always in the greetings or the expressions of love, appreciation, and gratitude that we give to each other each day. We greet each other, we say goodbye to each other, we express love for each other, and we express gratitude to each other through a number of social formulae, ritual words: Good morning! Good to see you! Have a great day! Have a great evening! Sleep well! Nice meeting you! Nice to work with you! I love you! Thank you! 
We say these things to each other daily, even though we have to admit that there are times, many times, when these expressions appear to be purely formal and seem not at all honest to how we are feeling at that time. Yet we say them and they are true in that they express what lies in our hearts at a deeper level than our more momentary and ephemeral feelings of distraction, irritation, disappointment, or anger. Moreover these words hold us in civility, in good manners, in graciousness, in neighborliness, in respect, and in love despite the fluctuations in our energy, mood, and feelings. Our energy, mood, and feelings, at any given moment, are not a true indication of what’s in our hearts, as all of us know and frequently need to apologize for. Who of us has not at some time been upset and bitter towards someone who we love deeply? The deep truth is that we love that person, but that’s not what we’re feeling at the moment. 
If we only expressed affection, love, and gratitude at those times when our feelings were completely onside, we wouldn’t express these very often. Thank God for the ordinary, social rituals which hold us in love, affection, graciousness, civility, and good manners at those times when our feelings are out of sorts with our truer selves. These rituals, like a sturdy container, hold us safe until the good feelings return. 
Today, in too many areas of life, we no longer understand ritual. That leaves us trying to live our lives by our feelings; not that feelings are bad, but rather that they come upon us as wild, unbidden guests.  Iris Murdoch asserts that our world can change in fifteen seconds because we can fall in love in fifteen seconds. But we can also fall out of love in fifteen seconds! Feelings work that way! And so we cannot sustain love, marriage, family, friendship, collegial relationships, and neighborliness by feelings. We need help. Rituals can help sustain our relationships beyond feelings. 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer used to give this instruction to a couple when he was officiating at their wedding. He would tell them: Today you are in love and you believe that your love can sustain your marriage. But it can’t. However your marriage can sustain your love. Marriage is a not just a sacrament, it’s also a ritual container. 
Ritual not only can help sustain a marriage, it can also help sustain our prayer lives, our civility, our manners, our graciousness, our humor, our gratitude, and our balance in life. Be wary of anyone who in the name of psychology, love, or spirituality tells you that ritual is empty and you must rely on your energy, mood, and feelings as your guiding compass. They won’t carry you far. 
Daniel Berrigan once wrote: Don’t travel with anyone who expects you to be interesting all the time. On a long journey there are bound to be some boring stretches. John of the Cross echoes this when talking about prayer. He tells us that, during our generative years, one of the biggest problems we will face daily in our prayer is simple boredom. 
And so we can be sure our feelings won’t sustain us, but ritual practices can.
So what did my students say? To a large degree, they said what I thought what they would say...and what they should say. They were uncomfortable. The ritual was in thought a nice gesture, but tough to do. I asked them if they were required to participate in the prayer circle. They said no, they were invited to join the other team. So why do it? They said it helped them center themselves. They are grateful for the opportunity to play in a game knowing a lot of people give of their own time to make that possible. I asked them if they would do it again. They said "yes." Do rituals sustain them? Perhaps more than they know...
Another important ritual, ND football players run to the end zone and take a knee
before the game to offer a personal prayer—indiviually, though collectively.
Thinking about my own prayer life, I know how often I go to God with requests for help, petitioning God's intercession for healing and more. I make an effort to offer prayers of gratitude; these are easy to say. But, when I have lost and feel defeated, the last thing I want to do is pray. But as Rolheiser mentions, anyone can be polite, can do the right thing and can pray when it's easy, when we encounter a person we like, or when we win. But when we are tasked with being kind to someone we dislike, when the right thing is hard to do, and when we lose...not so much.

Defeat, disappointment, and loss are a real part of life. We will have those experiences as the person next to us is celebrating and filled with joy, which is why a ritual like this one might be important. Even the victor who is in the prayer circle is aware that not everyone feels that same way. He or she can express gratitude at that moment and yet hold humility in their heart. Why? It can and does go the other way.

God can handle it all; the question is can we? A team and a ritual, they are not to be underestimated in getting us there.

Photo Credits


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

What Makes a Coach Great?

One of my very favorite questions to discuss is "Why is X person a great coach?!" I want to know the tangibles and the intangibles, the controllables and the x factor(s). I love to break this down with other coaches, loyal sports fans, athletes and students of the game. There are a lot of good coaches, but great ones?! Even the criteria separating good from great is a worthy discussion, and I'm curious to know more, to hear what others believe and consider what examples can offer. In the 15-plus years I have been a coach and worked as an assistant to some great ones, I think and hope I have learned a thing or two about what distinguishes certain coaches. What this posting will reveal might not be what you expect. 
When I visited my brother in Washington DC this past summer, we broke down the demise of the San Francisco 49ers. The firing, excuse me, mutual parting of ways between Jim Harbaugh and the Niners has resulted in a team that won 5 games in the 2015 season and just 2 last year. "You may not like Harbaugh, but his players will take a bullet for him," he told me. This stopped me in my tracks. I wanted to know what is it that the khaki pants wearing red ass do with these athletes in practice, on the road, before during and after games that cultivate that type of devotion. A person is only loyal to a person they care about. How does Harbaugh show his care? Michigan fans, feel free to weigh in.

On the high school level, there are many ways a coach can show their athletes they care. My mom says that "discipline is love." Yes, and sports demand a lot of it. Maybe we coaches ought to put that quote on repeat for I discipline my team on a daily basis. The principal believes that practice is the "7th period of the day." Indeed, the amount of time a coach spends with their athletes is more than a professional investment, it's a personal one. And we coaches give a generous amount of time—a precious resource—to our athletes and for our athletes. No one can put a price on that. But, what I have heard time and again in interviewing athletes for Genesis (the alumni magazine of St. Ignatius) for this blog and in class is something that isn't a limited resource, like time or all that hard to do—like discipline. It's basic, it's simple, and it's human. It costs literally nothing except for one of two things: pride and ego. 
Haley is truly one of the best coaches I know.
I have learned so much from her.
What is it? Great high school coaches tell bad jokes. They aren't afraid to laugh at themselves. They are self-deprecating if not down right goofy. I've heard this from too many winning teams and outstanding athletes to think otherwise. NB: I do believe things are different in collegiate and professional sports. Yet another blog posting?!

Life isn't easy, even for adults. When you are a freshmen, sophomore, junior or senior it can be that much harder to figure it all out, let alone look good while doing it. Sports adds a tough layer to the mix. Athletic competition is high stress; the adolescent athlete can't help but feel that everyone is watching his or her performance. Their perception indicates that their peers are judging their every move. Even their coaches are evaluating their performance and their character. A young person may feel as though one false move or a big mistake could lead to...x....y....z. Such fear, anxiety, cause for concern and more is why laughter is so important.

The coach who tells a bad joke is suddenly vulnerable. The same coach who is expected to give inspirational speeches and successful directives is now also someone who isn't perfect. Ideally, they are comfortable enough with themselves and their role that the desire to even tell a bad joke is part of their strategy. Other coaches have the uncanny ability to make fun of themselves or at the very least, allow their team to laugh at them. I don't think I'm a great coach but I was reminded of this truth with my own golf team earlier this season.

My JV girls' team consists of more new than returning golfers and we are still getting to know one another. During our van ride to the course, I told them about my Labor Day weekend travel and the experience of running into someone I hadn't seen in 20 years. I then shared the photo from climbing Half Dome in Yosemite, taken in the late 90s. One of my golfers immediately yelled out "Coach Stricherz!!! Looking good??? Look at your hair. You look like that golfer..."

I waited to hear who she would say. Though I modeled my haircut after Meg Ryan at the time (Think "You've Got Mail"), I realized it wasn't looking good and her rhetorical comment was catching everyone's attention.

"Phil Mickelson!" she said. "Phil Mickelson?!" I yelled? I said, "I love Phil as a golfer, but I don't want to look like him." She pulled up his picture on her iPhone and showed the entire van of girls. They loved it; team bonding 101.
I shared my story with my friend Haley, the field hockey coach. She laughed as hard as my team did. She then offered a bad photo of her own from middle school for me to look and marvel at...but who doesn't look bad in 7th grade?! 

The next day, I got a text from Haley with my photo spliced beside Mickelson's, and hers beside Jim Carrey's. There was only one thing left to do: show my team. They laughed, I laughed. Good times.

These girls have swung and missed (golf shouldn't be hard...the ball is a non-moving target). They have hit a tree and had the ball bounce literally right where they started. Golf can be a cruel game, one in which it's easy to get frustrated and hard to look good. One day the same player can make every stroke look easy and 24 hours later it's as though you have never swung before. 

Every sport has its challenges. Some are much more open for public consumption. Among others, the pressure and the stakes run high. The high school coach who can smile or snort, tell a joke that may fall flat, who can laugh at themselves and allow their athletes to do the same is the one who is good. The coach who can do all that plus discipline, who puts in the time, who makes their athletes selfless and sportsmen, that coach is great.

Photo Credits

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Magis: Sports Can Reveal What It Is and What it is Not

The Magis might be the most misunderstood term in all of Ignatian Spirituality. Even the video Do You Speak Ignatian: Terms in Ignatian Spirituality leaves the viewer wanting...well...more (no pun intended here).The website states: 
“Magis,” Latin for “more,” is a key concept in Ignatian spirituality. But while our competitive society often thinks in terms of doing more, magis calls us to depth and quality in what we do. Magis invites us to consider how we can serve the world better, with fire, passion, and zeal. 
A lot of people can do more, but that's not what the Magis asks of us. This term points to how we are called to live and be. To strive for the Magis is to live like Christ, a man who asked His disciples not to throw more nets into the sea, but to cast them deeper. 
Though the Magis might be misunderstood, it might also be the most important those of us in Jesuit education have. Therefore examples and experiences of what it is and what it is not are necessary. The Magis isn't something a student or athlete figures out in an instant; they come to understand, to emulate, to realize over time, with guidance, trial, and error, teaching, and instruction. The Magis is "Our Way of Proceeding" and every pilgrim needs a path and a guide. I hope these examples help.
What it is not
In what was an unusually warm and muggy day for the Bay Area, I asked my returning golfers to play a set number of holes. I would not be with them on the course as I was still working toward finalizing a roster and setting a lineup; I needed to be with the other girls. After repeating how many holes I wanted them to play through, I said, "try to make your way to the van between 5:00 and 5:15, no sooner." 

I could see this group of girls in front of me *potentially* finishing a long hole, a Par-5 (I'm not they completed their putts). Instead of walking up hill, hustling and getting one final hole in (a Par-3) they turned around to bring it in. I looked at my watch, the time was 4:50. Their decision prompted the group in the back of them to walk back too...which they did...down the middle of the fairway...taking no notice of the final group who was teeing off. Not only was their decision an errant one, it was rude and potentially dangerous.

My blood was boiling. The word "underachievement" was on repeat in my mind. I asked the first group if they got through the holes number of holes I had suggested. To their credit, they admitted they had not and I calmly asked them to head back and finish the Par-3 hole. I instructed the other group to head to a different Par-3 hole and I would meet everyone back at the van when we were done.

By the time we huddled together, I had calmed down. I told my team, "One of the many things I love about St. Ignatius, our school, is the language we have. I love the notion of the Magis. The Magis is to strive for the go deeper....and this is something we have to help one another to achieve. Today is one such day that we did not work toward that. I asked you to play a number of holes within a given amount of time. At one point in this practice, you had a decision to make. You could have hustled and worked to get to that goal, or you could pack it up and bring it in. I'm not looking for a team that is seeking to do the bare minimum. I don't want a group of underachievers. I'm looking for golfers who are athletes...for girls who know it will be ok to be tired at the end of practice (I then added you should be tired at the end)." They understood.

We can always learn what something is by what it is not. Their actions worked against what the Magis seeks. As their coach, it is my responsibility to point out how things could have been different...where we want to go and who we want to be. 

I have goals for my athletes. They have goals as teammates and as competitors. Though golf is an individual sport, we can only achieve our best together. To me, this means encouraging one another...sharing our own gifts and talents, intelligence and abilities to help one another be our best. Jesus' nets were filled by going deep....but rowing into the deep and casting that net into those waters takes insight, patience, encouragement, and faith. Those nets yielded more. I hope and pray we get there.

What it is.
I'll let the story of Christ the King's football team speak for itself, excuse me, for the Magis. Seven students, one dream. Limited facilities, but one year to play tackle football. In a community rife with violence, several young men demonstrate how that energy can be channeled differently. Their teacher and the administrators are rowing with them in deep waters. Together, they dropped their nets...these students were patient, intelligent and worked hard. Look at their yield. Simply said, it's the Magis. 

Our head football coach, who I consider a good friend said without hesitation, I would love to coach those kids. Leading kids to the Magis is a gift. Coaching 

Photo Credits
CTK Football

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Back to School Made Easier: Thank God for the US Open

Thank God for the US Open. The final and my favorite of the four majors in professional tennis takes place in Queens, NY at the United States Tennis Center im late August, early September. I come home from work so tired that the only thing I can do is lie on my couch, ice my back and not move. I could easily complain but instead, I get to watch live tennis. And what a treat that is: the matches go so late in New York, that even after Back to School Night, an exhilarating match awaits. 
I once thought part of what I loved about watching the Open is seeing someone else work really hard and battle it out, especially because I can't. But, that's not even a half truth. Several times this year, as in years past, matches have gotten hot—really hot...and intense...and suddenly the game demands things of me I have too little energy to give, but I always do. I yell. I hit the table. I whistle and cat call. I text anyone who can and will listen and respond. I clap and tonight when Juan del Potro was invited to address the crowd in Spanish, his native tongue, I even teared up.  That's the Open (and Tom Rinaldi. So good).

I have likened the beginning of the school year to getting a plane off the ground. A considerable amount of preparation is necessary to leave the gate on time. All precautionary safety measures must be taken so that the crew can close the doors as we are ready for departure. Once the wheels have been lifted, the plane must climb rapidly and the goal is to reach cruising altitude within a set amount of time. From there, the crew can settle in,. Those in charge are on auto-pilot and know what to overlook and control until it's time to descend the plane for landing.
Honestly, teaching is no different. My classes require similar preparation.Every day I feel as though I am reviewing some form of a plan to get the class up and running: syllabus, ground rules, homework policy, participation guide and more. With each passing day, my students grow more comfortable and familiar with the cabin pressure. This plane will begin its descent for landing in May. Layover in December!

When I learned how much energy it takes to get a plane off the ground, I almost felt relieved. I say this because it used to bother me how tired I was in late August, early September. Sure, my plane is a 747; I also coach a fall sport. I haven't had to make cuts in a few years and that task is always challenging. I only finalized my roster today. But I figured after these many years in teaching, the plane had to be lighter and the burden lessened. The flight path ought to be much more clear. Why the need for the same amount of fuel? Wrong question. Errant approach.  
My love for the US Open has helped me to realize how much I value the physical demands of teaching and coaching. I am heartened by the fact that standing, instructing, leading and guiding wears me out. No, I don't use a towel to dry off the sweat but I do have time to sit during a changeover. Yes, I marvel at the players who take the match into the fifth set or win the tie breaker. I look at them and hope I dig as deep and remain calm. I want to give my best when challenges arise and figure a way to excel.   

In sports we see what is required of the body; in education, we know what is expected of the mind. Neither is complete without the integration of it all. Thanks to organizers of the US Open, the USTA, for hosting a Rock n Roll Tourney. And all the gratitude in the world to the athletes themselves who make me love, not dread, Back to School. I can't wait to talk to kids tomorrow about the four US women in the final and the del Potro vs. Federer match. You are great teachers!

Photo Credits
Fed US Open 2017
Four US Women

del Potro

Monday, September 4, 2017

Personal Top Five Sports and Spirituality Moments of the Summer

Labor Day weekend marks the official close of summer. Many rituals and traditions help us wrap up the best season of the year. Your community pool will close its doors while every school across the country officially opens their own. Weekends down the Shore don't have the same (local) star power. There was a time when it was taboo to wear white outside of the Memorial to Labor Day confines. So, why not wrap up June, July, and August and honor summer with an official list: top five memories?! Or, for the purpose of this blog, top five Sports and Spirituality moments of the summer. Done and done. Here goes.

#5: Speaking to the 2017-2018 coaching staff at Carondelet High School, Concord, CA
For the past five years, I have been speaking to the coaching staffs at a number of Catholic secondary schools throughout the country. To be invited to address a school community is an honor and a privilege; it might be what I love most in the discipline of teaching, reading and writing about Sports and Spirituality. 

On Sunday, August 6 I returned to my alma mater where I was able to share ideas, ways and means that any coach of every sport can spiritually form their athletes...and why. To draw from my own experiences as a student athlete and share that among the people who know those that did, in the same places and spaces, with the same traditions was super special. I felt as though I were able to go deeper and challenge these coaches more because we had a shared understanding of what Carondelet is and aims to be.

I always look at athletes from Carondelet with a discerning eye...and a warm smile. I guess I am looking to see part of myself, my teammates and close friends reflected in the young women who represent CHS. Being with their coaches, I feel confident I can.

4. Co-hosting a crew of 12 for a round of Golf at the Olympic Club, San Francisco
Lou Holtz, ever the wonderful and popular speaker as said the following on happiness.
If you want to be happy for a day, go out and play golf. If you want to be happy for a week, go on a cruise. If you want to be happy for a month, get a new car. If you want to be happy for a year, win the lottery. But if you want to be happy for a lifetime, make sure you add value to everyone you come in contact with.  NB: I have also seen a version of this talk that includes the advice to follow Jesus Christ.
With all due respect to Coach Holtz, I politely disagree. A round of golf has kept me happy for a full week, plus. Case in point: this day; it could not have been scripted better. My friend Chris and I were able to host a great crew affiliated with our respective alma mater, the University of Notre Dame for 18 holes on the Ocean Course. 

One never knows how thick the marine layer will be out at the O Club. It may sound almost shallow, but when it's in the mid-50s, foggy and cold in the summer, I'm not the happiest camper, er golfer. But on this day, my foursome included three friends—who are great athletes and worthy golfers. On the back nine, one of them was cheering for me as though we were in the final four of Bookstore Basketball. C'mon got this.....
We started the day by eating one of the best sandwiches in all of golf. The leader of this 12-pack took my advice and went back to make sure they red relish completed the famous Bill's Burger Dog and he made quite the impression on the staff. They wanted to know where he was from. I wish I could tell you it was somewhere exotic or far, far away. Try Holmdel, NJ. That's John. He told me "we always make an impression." I believe it. We concluded the day with a group dinner, which was awesome, but even better was the group dynamic, the stories, shenanigans, personalities, and people. I hope we can do it again next year. 

3. Bank of the West Tennis Classic, Stanford University. Palo Alto, CA
I went to Stanford to watch Maria Sharpova play for the first time in person. I arrived at the ticket booth only to see she had withdrawn from the tourney, due to an injury (forearm). What was initially a bummer, turned out to be a great opportunity to see a fun doubles' match featuring Coco Vandeweghe and even more importantly spend the afternoon with a tennis fan to rival all others.

John McEnroe who played a great deal of Doubles' tennis in his historic career has said that "Doubles' is on life support." For example, the Bryan Brothers are the most successful men's doubles' duo in the history of the game and they get little to no sports coverage. I have always thought this to be an unfortunate reality as I enjoy watching Doubles' tennis in person—immensely. For whatever reason, the luster of the sport does get lost of television, but in person, the viewer follows not only the tennis but the team dynamics. 

I loved the day because this tourney has a great history. I couldn't ask for a better location or weather. My former student truly was my teacher. I always enjoy watching athletic contests with someone who knows a lot about a sport; I have a feeling I could have watched the entire tourney with him and still there would be more to learn. Impressive, inspiring and fun.

One of the reasons I wanted to see Coco play is because her coach happens to be one of my favorite players from when I started playing tennis. As we exited the Taube Family Pavilion I saw him. No checkered headband, no Prince tennis wear, sans mullet and earring...but Pat Cash still looks great. 

2. Baseball Greatest Hits Exhibit at the Library of Congress, Washington DC
My brother lives in Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. I love this historic, charming neighborhood for many reasons. Chief among them is the access to the Capitol, the National Mall, and Library of Congress free of charge. Thanks, America. 

As someone who loves music, baseball, American Studies and time with my nieces, how could attending the exhibit "Baseball's Greatest Hits: The Music of Our National Game" not rank #2?! 
I learned that "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" is the third most popular song in the US today—after "Happy Birthday" and the national anthem. I discovered that Jackie Robinson's achievement of breaking the color barrier and his remarkable rookie season (1947) inspired numerous singers and songwriters to compose in his honor. Who knew that in 1920 Babe Ruth and the Yankees were accompanied by a 50-piece band; one that played both before and after each home game? 

I was out of the country (see #1) for this 4th of July but spending time in our nation's capital and learning about the music of America's pastime made it one of the most memorable yet.

1. Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center, Jerusalem, Israel
This is my favorite photo from the summer for it captures the spirit and the faces of the 30 educators I was lucky enough to spend three weeks with in Israel—a place, an opportunity and an experience of a lifetime. 
A day didn't go by that I wasn't given the chance to talk Sports and Spirituality with someone in this talented, intelligent, dynamic and warm group of teachers from Canada, Serbia, Italy, Isreal and the US. They love much more than the Blue Jays, hockey, the Raptors and Novak Djokovic. I befriended Giants and Warrior fans, golf enthusiasts and people who wanted to know what was happening at Wimbledon as much as I did. One of my only regrets is that I didn't attend any of the events of the Maccabiah Games 2017 (think Jewish Olympics) together. We have already discussed the idea of a reunion. I'm pulling for Washington DC in 2018, host city of the 2018 MLB All Star Game (at Nationals Park).

There are many more than five great moments from the summer, but the wide world of sports asks fans to rank them. While the experiences have all been remarkable, it's the people who made them the memories that they all. Thanks for sharing the time, showing up, playing ball and making the summer of 2017 one to remember. Now go out and make your own list and your own memories...I'd love to see the list.

Photo Credits
Hot Dog Bill's

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Jake Olson: Way to "Fight On"

With the first week of school coming to a close before a three-day weekend amidst uncharacteristically warm temperatures, my Sophomores were characteristically restless. When this happens they are that much more likely to say...well, Sophomoric comments. I asked them how they were planning on staying cool. I said I would miss the heat wave because I was heading to Denver, CO. "Have you noticed? Seems to me that Denver is an American city everyone loves, right?" This is not a question begging for an answer. Didn't matter. One of the boys felt the need to reply. "I don't," he said. Several students laughed (par for the course). I calmly asked him "Why?" to which he said "I don't know. I just don't."
I looked at him and replied, "Ok, well, in this class I'm going to ask you to support your claims. To say you like or dislike something—just because—will not suffice. For example, I don't like USC and I can tell you precisely why." Suddenly, I regained everyone's attention. "Why!?! Why!?" I said "this is not the time or place to get into that, but I can start with an easy answer. They've cost Notre Dame a number of national championships. Good for them, I know, and that's what goes with having a rival. You're not supposed to like them. Of course, there's more...." 

The purpose of this blog posting is not to disclose why I loathe the Trojans....why I delighted in the entire episode of ESPN's "30 for 30: Trojan War." Talk about kindle for the fire. No.  I write this post because what happened during USC's first game of the season a 49-31 win over Western Michigan makes my antipathy for the red and gold, including that Trojan horse less acute. The monotony of their fight song isn't as grating. Even the words, "Fight On" which has made my skin crawl, have validity. How can this be true? And why am I admitting it? One person: Jake Olson.
I first met Jake in 2013 when a student introduced me to him through a College Game Day profile. At 10 months, Jake lost his left eye to cancer. For the next 10 years, he fought to keep his sight, but cancer kept coming back. At the age of 11, he was blind. I hope you have heard his story in one form or another. Perhaps it was through this blog. How Does One Get in the Running to be a Saint? Look to Jake Olson is one of my favorites. Or maybe you heard his name for the first time on Saturday, September 2, 2017. Why? Olson, who earned a spot on the USC football team in 2015, came on the field late in the fourth quarter and snapped for a successful extra point. Yes, this event was a dream come true for Olson and his family, but it's more than that. Please watch the video in my former posting and maybe you can put words to what this is...maybe not. 

At the conclusion of the third quarter, the University of Notre Dame runs an ad that asks the question: What would you fight for? I love that every story—every profile of a professor or student—concludes with the claim "We are the Fighting Irish." We are. And as much as I don't want to admit it, I have a feeling the words "Fight On" have a similar power to USC students, professors and alums. Jake Olson did so at a young age....and today. Nice work Trojans.

Photo Credits
Fight On
Fight On Flag

Thursday, August 31, 2017

To Be Spiritual is to Be...

A friend sent a photo from last night's baseball game at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, CA. The LA Angels beat the Oakland A's 10-8 in a game that was...well...meaningless. The Angels are 11 games out of first place in the AL West and the A's, a depressing 21.5. I won't waste anyone's time by calculating Wild Card potential here. There were a lot of empty seats, it's the middle of the week. school is back in session, and both teams are lack luster in star power and performance. A question can and should emerge: Why go to the yard? 

Any number of responses might suffice: free tickets, great give away, beautiful night, time with my cousin, fan loyalty and more. But when a colleague shared a quote by Abraham Joshua Heschel, I found my answer. Live sporting events are spiritual. Games and contests, even when the stakes are low, can offer feats that are amazing. To witness a web gem in person, a player hit for the cycle, throw a no hitter, or even a manager get tossed from a game. Wow! 
Earlier this summer, I caught word of incredible catch by Austin Jackson, one that was so remarkable, two great things happened. One, when the batter, Handley Ramierez saw it, his eyes nearly popped out of his head—which he swung in disbelief—as he said "Wow." Even the fans in Boston, of the opposing team, gave him a standing ovation. When I see a catch like this live...or over and over again on Sports Center, I can't help but get fired up. I feel a spark of joy. I can't help but smile.
Kevin Pillar's feat is no less impressive. Michael Wilbon must have talked about this web gem for about three minutes on Pardon the Interruption. He said, "Pillar is often running like Carl Lewis out there, but x, y and z." If I had been on the air with him, I would have told him how disappointed I am that more young people are unfamiliar with the term "web gem." What's that? They've asked. A great catch....a gem....the glove looks like a web. I think they got it. Regardless, the Pillar's team, the Blue Jays is 14 games out of first. Didn't stop him from doing something phenomenal. I'm amazed (and so are many others, there is a video clip of his Top 10 catches).
At work just yesterday, a friend recalled the first time he had really great seats at a major sporting event. Sitting just three rows behind home plate, he commented on how big and athletic the Yankees were, an attribute that may get lost on television. But he also said he noticed how bored a number of the players were. The baseball season is looooonnnng, and when the games are (also) meaningless, September can be a tough month. Still, I wonder if the players, and the fans, shifted their attitudes toward what Heschel has offered, September baseball might be different. 

Here's to more web gems and other amazing feats. Play Ball!

Photo Credits

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

My Latest Obsession: The Players' Tribune

My latest obsession is "The Players' Tribune." I think I could write a blog about this blog. I am fairly surprised I leave my desk in the morning as my daily e-mail from this website offers me no fewer than three stories I am hungry to read. I'm not joking—salivating might be more like it. Believe you me, I have looked at their website re: careers. If I see you walking down the hallway, you might want to walk the other way. Why? Odds are, I want to talk about what I've read in TPT.
For those unfamiliar with The Players' Tribune, their website states the following: 
Welcome to The Players’ Tribune, a new media company that provides athletes with a platform to connect directly with their fans, in their own words. Founded by Derek Jeter, The Players’ Tribune publishes first-person stories from athletes, providing unique insight into the daily sports conversation. Through impactful and powerful long- and short-form stories, video series and podcasts, The Players’ Tribune brings fans closer than ever to the games they love.
TPT: Mission accomplished. You achieve your goal. If I had to find a criticism, it would only be in the form of disclosing the names of the ghostwriters for each article. I won't complain; I'm too obsessed right now to have a more objective point of view; I may get some point...but what happened as I read today's posting leads me to believe it will be quite some time before that happens.

I have been reading here and there about Frances Tiafoe for the past year or so. His post "Something Bigger" was so moving to me, I had to tell my students in Sports and Spirituality about him. As I started to share his story, I realized they too were taken by it. They looked at me incredulously; they wanted to know more. I linked the article to our website and said: Read this and after you do, you can watch him play at the US Open tonight. This young America tennis player, the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, fought the King, Roger Federer in the first round of the US Open. Under the lights and the roof due to rain, he played the match of his life and one for all fans to savor. I think I enjoyed it that much more because I have read the words, know the dreams, and understand the struggles of the 20-year-old from College Park, MD. He went down in five. Federer is not unlike Steve Kerr; he has no enemies...but it wouldn't be a stretch to say that tonight, hearts were broken when Tiafoe lost (4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4).

The Players' Tribune brings me closer to much more than the games I love, it connects me to people I care about. For example, how could I not read "I Have to Tell You a Story About the Big Nude Cactus" when I saw the author was Leonardo Barbosa. A friend and former coworker loves this basketball player; it's posted on his Facebook page for all to read. And today, two days into Sports and Spirituality, I couldn't wait to share "A Letter to My Younger Self" with my student who told me she hopes we discuss the Brazilian forward in our class this semester. Done. And, I already know I will be reading My Way by Coco. She's my friend Haley's cousin.

Plato has said, "Those who tell stories, rule the world." TPT: right now, you rule mine. Thank you.

Photo Credits
US Open

Sunday, August 27, 2017

A Different Kind of Back to School Photo for Coaches and Teachers

At this time of year, Facebook is littered with the obligatory Back to School photos. I do love this tradition. These snapshots serve as a benchmark for much more than one year to the next. In some cases, it's one era to another—preschool to grade school and elementary school to high school. I have my own as this will be my 15th year at St. Ignatius. I had to swallow hard when I realized the kids in my classroom were BORN the year I came to the Prep. Gulp. But I had an even more poignant realization as I shared a photo in my recent talks on Sports and Spirituality. As the teacher, not the student, the subject of this photo—me—reminds me of who I am working with and hoping to inform and inform. THAT is why I am headed Back to School. Here's more.
This photo was taken during my sophomore year at Carondelet High School. One of my closest and dearest friends, Mary Frances (visor on my right) and I were the two sophomores who made the varsity tennis team. Our squad practiced at Willow Pass Park every day after school, during the Fall sports season. Because we were 15 years old, neither of us had our driver's license so we got a ride from the beautiful Jackie, who was a senior. She was kind and generous, taking us under her wing. She stands to my left.

I don't remember the particular match or reason why this photo was taken. And, to be honest, it's not a good photo. Honestly, what's up with my bangs? I haven't had those since...well, maybe this era. Furthermore, I am drinking a Sprite, not exactly a reputable pre-game beverage. So much for hydration, electrolytes, etc. Sure this was a pre-Sports drink era, but my attitude isn't convincing anyone that I'm about to play in a competitive league match. But what is most emblematic and problematic is the t-shirt I am wearing: it's the shirt of Notre Dame Crew. On one hand, I suppose it is telling. I rowed for four years in college, but on the other, it is totally unacceptable. Why it is ok that I am wearing a shirt of another school and another sport, while my teammates are donning our uniform. It's not. 

I see this photo and I am (somewhat) disgusted with myself. I see a girl who has determined that her own interests are more important than representing the team or her school. I want to stand out; I want to be different. This is not the place. I hope my coach said something to me; I can't recall if she did.

But I also think it's important for me to remember that I made choices similar to the ones my athletes have made today and in seasons past. I can be fairly strict with the dress code, following the rules and making the right decisions so that individual girls learn how to put the team before themselves. This is not a given; it is a process. I have a role in leading and guiding them there, and it's important to remember I once traveled the same trail. 
What I did in this photo actually became a problem when I coached girls' cross country. Before and after races, a number of girls would put on an SI lacrosse or soccer t-shirt or sweatshirt, in spite of the SI XC gear they owned. We had to make a team announcement in response to this decision, one that too many girls overtly and inadvertently made. We reminded them that they are a member of  SI Cross Country and you represent the team before, during and after your race. There is a time and place to wear other SI gear. Yes, it's a good thing to be proud of your school, your team, etc. but when you are with your teammates, especially on race day, you are part of something that needs to be made whole. SI XC is not just the top seven varsity runners; we don't train, practice, run or travel that way. We never will.

For many kids and for teachers, going Back to School isn't easy. Many students have anxiety about their new classes, social environments, fitting in and the challenges that await. However, you won't see that photo posted up on Facebook. And as a teacher and a coach, I have a lot of students and athletes to get to know, oversee, lead and guide. I believe it takes a lot of effort to get that plane off the ground. I also think it's important that we educators remember that we aren't all that different than those entrusted to our care. This crazy, not so attractive and funny photo reminds me of that truth. Perhaps I'll be a little gentler with those who break the rules but, that doesn't mean I won't hold my students and athletes to them. To be honest, it's a lot easier not to, but that's not who I want to be or who I want my students and athletes to be. We're in this together....all year/all season long.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Remembering,,,and Walking with Sister Eleanor Eagan, CSJ

On Saturday, August 19, 2017, the school community of Carondelet High School held a Mass and Celebration of life for Sister Eleanor Eagan, CSJ. Nearly 300 people gathered to honor this peppery, shrewd, warm and visionary woman who served at my alma mater for 34 years.

Sister Eleanor lived a full and rich life. She died of cancer at the young age of 88 on June 22 with the former principal Sister Kathy Lang, CSJ telling her that it was her time to go—the Lord was waiting. 

Countless alumnae have shared their own stories and treasured memories of Sister Ellie. It was a blessing and a gift to hear them and share our own. Mine is simple, and one I think offers an important page to Sports and Spirituality.

Those who live their lives in service know the importance of the ministry of presence....showing up....tending to those you encounter in your daily life. Everyone's time and attention is a precious thing; a ministry of presence offers both. But for my family and me, Sister Eleanor's presence was found in an activity many people, including myself, do regularly: walking.

In the late afternoon/early evenings, at the conclusion of another school day and its many activities, Sister E and Sister Kathy head out and off campus to take a walk. They would walk from Carondelet through the neighborhoods adjacent to the school, along the Contra Costa Canal and occasionally into my neighborhood. My dad, once an active walker, himself, often crossed paths for a chat and conversation with both Sisters. 

Sister Eleanor called my dad "Stan the man." Yes, my dad is named Stan, but the nickname was first popularized for the baseball great: Stan the Man Musial. My dad loved any association with the St. Louis Cardinal legend and anyone who would call him by the same name. I think Sister Eleanor knew this; she always had a twinkle in her eye. Her ability to be present with people was a true gift. Through her presence, she made others feel welcome, included and even special; walking allowed her to bring these gifts to many others.
The prophet Micah answers what the Lord requires of us. In Chapter 6:8, he says "to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God." I have always loved his message, both the verbs and the adjectives. In Sister Eleanor, I have a role model for all three. In the 
 "Blueprint for Social Justice" Bill Quigley states.
Micah then counsels people to walk humbly with God. Not in front of, not behind, but with. That means we walk with God, but it also clearly says that God walks with us. The perspective that sees this world as evil and God as totally apart from the world would never have people walking with God. Walking with God rightly implies that we have an important and essential part to play in the transformation of this world, in partnership with God.
I'd like to think Sister Eleanor and Sister Kathy walked with God—and God with them. 

For those who can walk, enjoy. I hope some part of this exercise is spiritual. As a former runner, the transition to walking hasn't always been easy. But, I do appreciate how prayerful it can be. I like that I need not feel rushed. I love that it brings me outside, into my neighborhood and on the same path that Sister E once tread.

Sister Eleanor wrote her own funeral. She amended the first reading from the Book of Proverbs to reflect the message her vocation as a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet offered to the world. I don't think anyone who knew her would be surprised. And so I found it even more fitting that she chose one final song to be played: Frank Sinatra's "My Way." This ballad happens to be my father's favorite song. Truly, we are more connected to others than we ever really know....or than I know. I have a sneaky suspicion that's what the twinkle in her eye was trying to teach me all along.

Lastly, Sister Eleanor's legacy lives on in many ways, but the book "Valiant Women" does so through her words, her writing. 

In honor of its 50th anniversary, Carondelet High School has published a book celebrating its history and the many religious and lay women and men who founded the school and have kept it thriving since 1965.

Written by Sister Eleanor Eagan, CSJ, and featuring nearly 300 photos, Valiant Women shares the history of Carondelet's founding and captures stories of sisterhood, faith, and community. The book also highlights the teachers, administrators, and students who have made Carondelet the vibrant learning environment that it is.

"This book has been a labor of love for our dear Sister Eleanor, who has been part of the Carondelet community for 34 years," said Carondelet President Bonnie Cotter. "We are so proud to share our rich history with the greater community and relive some of the poignant moments that shaped the school's identity."

I purchased "Valient Women" at the Celebration of Life for Sister Eleanor. The only cost for the book was a donation for student scholarships. I suppose when you spend your life walking with God, and God walking with you, you meet many valiant women and want to make it possible so others can walk, too. 

Carondelet has lost a valiant woman, but her spirit lives...and walks on. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Speaking Languages Like Sports....and Yiddish

Walking up the street from the Old City to my hotel in Jerusalem, I saw a man break into a mad sprint. His focus could not be diverted, his intent was fierce though his brief case slowed him down. I thought to myself—no matter where you go in the world, someone, somewhere is RUSHING to catch the bus (or the train). Culture, country, and city: each is irrelevant. I then realized Yiddish probably has a singular word for "that person." I would love to know what it is.
My interest in Yiddish, a Germanic language that uses the Hebrew alphabet was piqued this summer when I studied at Yad Vashem, the Israeli museum for Holocaust studies. Before World War II, I learned that nearly eleven million people, primarily Jews, spoke Yiddish. The language is not dead. No, according to a Rutgers University, "it is estimated that there are about a quarter million Yiddish speakers in the United States, about the same number in Israel and another 100,000 in the rest of the world." Most Americans, however, would be both familiar and unfamiliar with this language that was once the traditional vernacular of Ashkenazic Jews. 

Why might this be true? The Atlantic reports that in the US "the language is mostly spoken by Orthodox Jews who want to set themselves apart from the modern world." And yet, in popular culture thanks to comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and the late Joan Rivers, the English language was and remains peppered by Yiddish
vocabulary. This has been my entry point.

Language is a window into a culture, a people. To learn, study and speak another language is a true gift—something much more than an exercise for the mind, it awakens the soul.

Though I speak several languages—and I'm serious—I speak sports and I speak rock 'n' roll, in the literal sense, I know one: English. While many Americans criticize themselves for our limited world vocabularies, I don't. I wish I spoke Spanish with proficiency. I have tried and I've come close, but my ability is deficient. Nor do I disdain the family I lived with for six weeks in Guatemala for speaking one language but Spanish. My grandmother had maybe an 8th-grade education. She understood a few words in Irish,  taught me how to pray the "Our Father" in what too many Americans refer to as Gaelic, but she too only spoke English. To know and speak another language is important; I would never say that it is not. But to shun people for not knowing another is unfair. Education, opportunity, desire and skill all play a part in this gift.  Do you have an interest in another language? Have you made some efforts to study and learn another one? Engage in a conversation with a native speaker of another tongue? Invite him or her into your language? I hope so. This is what I deem valuable and worthwhile. Perhaps you disagree.
"Menashe" is a wonderful film worth seeing for much more than the fact they speak in Yiddish
I can, however, say with a strong degree of certainty that I will not be speaking Yiddish in my lifetime. No matter, I have delighted in the sound of it, the learning about the people who speak it (see the movie "Menashe" for more insight) and its ability to capture an idea in a single word. And there's no place like sports to recognize or name these ideas. Here are but two examples.

I attend a lot of high school basketball games, in particular, those at St. Ignatius College Prep, where I teach. In the past 15 years, I have seen remarkable athletes play been touched by the way a number of them come together to form a memorable team. Honestly, there are some groups you just never forget. But on every team—year after year—there is always this one particular type of athlete. Call him or her and archetype. This is a ballplayer I would describe as "inordinately confident." This athlete is not, however, in the starting line-up. No—he or she literally springs off the bench as if they were born to do so. They go after every loose ball with a near reckless abandon. They take a number of shots they have no business taking, but that's ok. You are grateful to have this player, for their heart and their hustle...and in their own unique way, they really do advance the cause. I don't know what to call this athlete....he or she is not a mensch, a Schmiel or a shlimazel ...but I wouldn't be surprised if my Yiddish speaking friends could tell me.

Or what is the word for man or woman who attends a rock 'n' roll concert, purchases the tour t-shirt and wears it immediately upon purchase. I usually wear this shirt different remember the talk to others who might be fans. Not this patron. He or she is enthusiastic to the core. The time is now—celebrate! I have a sneaky suspicion they also wear the race day shirt DURING the race. Many runners will understand what I am talking about. Certain races hand out shirts with the packet pick-up, a day or two before the event. Never mind that this runner has yet to complete the 5, 10 or 30K; they are ready to advertise and promote. God bless them. Yiddish would too by naming them.

At the first department meeting of the year, we have a wonderful tradition in the Religious Studies department of sharing a "moment of grace" from the summer. Some teachers share their challenges, others their joys, the gift of time away, travel and much more. The chair of my department asked me if I would be sharing mine in Yiddish. I wish I could...or maybe I'll look it up in their dictionary, searching for a singular term to describe a person who develops an interest and affection for another culture much different than his or her own. That's me.

Photo Credits
Joys of Yiddish