Sunday, May 15, 2011

Overrated: Sports as a School of Virtue...?

Sports are a real school of true human virtue. –John Paul II

Who am I to disagree with (now) Blessed John Paul II, but have your ever thought we put too much power and pressure on sports as a moral training ground? We hope that our favorite athletes will serve as role models; we want our coaches to teach us skills, devise game plans and assemble a group of athletes that really believes that there is no “I” in team. We want to know that under pressure we will show integrity, exhibit courage and be selfless; we know sports will reveal this. When it comes to athletics, have we become overly concerned with both the inner and outer scorecard? Does it carry more weight than it should?
To a large extent, I hope it does. Pope Benedict the XVI stated Sport possesses considerable educational potential particularly for young people. So, for this reason, sport is of great importance not only when applied to free time but also in the formation of each individual. And yet, I wonder, does everything, including our leisure as sport need to be viewed as a means to an end? I think Patrick Kelly provides an interesting answer.

In his article Experiencing Life’s Flow, Kelly says The word autotelic is derived from the Greek words auto, self, and telos, goal, and suggests that the goal is within the activity itself. In terms of sports, the games would be played for their own sake. This emphasis differs from what is usually set forth as a rationale for the value of sports for young people: that participation in sports will build character or help prepare them for life or for competition in the business world. Some parents and young people also view sports as a way of gaining upward mobility. Usually the emphasis is on some goal outside the activity of sport; little attention, however, is given to the enjoyment of the activity itself.

I know parents who have given their children fencing lessons because the elite sport is popular at many Ivy League colleges. Experience in fencing was a means to an end—a distinctive edge on a college application. Upward mobility in a nutshell. Yet, let's be honest. Most people learn and participate in a sport for the enjoyment of it. I think the movie “Soul Surfer” is an accurate description of autotelos. This movie, still in some theaters is about the life of surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost her left arm in a shark attack when she was 13 years old. The title is a word play on the term soul surfer, coined in the 1960s to denote someone who surfs purely for pleasure. As Bethany learns to live with one arm, she learns a whole lot about herself as she struggles to determine what is more important—winning or the sport itself. Surfing and surfers are like no other. It’s innately spiritual; they are too.

I believe autotelos could apply to the spiritual life as well. We hope that our commitment to prayer will lead to inner peace, that our prayers will be answered, that we will grow more patient and loving in the process of learning to trust God. And we should. Yet, can we come to recognize that time with God in prayer is gift itself. To simply avail ourselves to God’ presence is to be with the source and center of life. Can we enjoy and appreciate just that? Ultimately, our commitment to deepening one’s relationship to God will bear great fruit. But can we be content with the grace of God in and of itself?

I wish our society shifted its mindset. It’s not easy to do. We love sports because of the clear answers they provide—win or lose, in or out, fair or foul, game on or time out. And we know the spiritual life doesn’t always give us the answers; all too often, the math doesn’t add up. But I do think the grace of a spiritual life is that it helps us live with the questions. And the grace of athletics is we really do have experiences that prove when tested, we can do that. When the questions are too difficult, we don’t face them alone. A team or coach and lift us up, above the hardwood or moral training ground. Take your pick.

Photo Credits
John Paul II hosts a mass for athletes

No "I" in "Team" shirt
Soul Surfer Movie Poster
The real Soul Sufer!

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed this one, Anne. How do we live with the questions, enjoy the journey, and not become overly attached to the goals/outcomes in a culture that often defines us by the outcomes. The gift is this very life we are living. Thank you!