Monday, July 25, 2011

Equal Access, Equal Opportunity: Soccer in Japan & on Our Streets

The vast majority of publicity that has surrounded the Japanese women’s World Cup victory has been centered on their inspirational, spirited and emotional victory. And it should; it was. All tournament long the teammates poignantly reminded the world they were playing for their battered country, still reeling from the devastation of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.What’s interesting to me however is what little attention was made about how exceptional their feat was. They entered the tournament as underdogs. They beat the host country in the quarterfinals. Most thought that Germany had every advantage, not to mention home field! But what is even more impressive to me is that soccer in Japan, particularly for women, is limited to the elite. Japanese Culture and Daily Life reports that “Approximately 25,000 girls and women play soccer in Japan. Though these numbers have been increasing steadily in recent years, it is far from the 8 million who play in the United States. Girls who play soccer in elementary school often have to give up once they go to junior high or high school because there are no girls’ teams at that level.” The only girls that remain competitive and active in the sport are those who either have access to a club team or attend schools that can afford to support and manage a team. The Japanese national team draws from an exceptionally small pool.

This is an unfortunate reality because if any sport is both accessible and universal, it’s soccer/football. Unlike some sports such as rowing, lacrosse and golf that require expensive equipment, technical instruction or specialized facilities, soccer simply requires a ball. In El Salvador, I watched people play without shoes, in Mexico we simply used logs to mark the goal and even in the inner-city of East LA, I saw young people use a basketball court as their field. Soccer is in no way defined by gender, race or class. I believe the only sport that might be more egalitarian is running. Thoughts?

To prove my point, consider an exciting and interesting opportunity that is taking place in San Francisco as well as many other cities in the US—street soccer. The players and the coach are homeless men and women. In his article, Soccer team helps homeless men move toward goals Kevin Fagan reports "Street Soccer is not just about sports. The idea is to enlist homeless people into soccer teams so they learn teamwork and feel the joy of doing sports with others in the same straits, all while being counseled to map out plans for improving their lives. Essentially, playing soccer is their path to overcoming homelessness."I learned about this program through the St. Vincent de Paul Society of San Francisco’s e-newsletter. “Sponsored by the St. Vincent de Paul Society of San Francisco, the Team practices regularly on a field near AT&T Park. The concept of street soccer is to enlist homeless people into soccer teams so they learn teamwork and feel the joy of doing something positive and fun with others in the same straits, all while being counseled to make plans for improving their lives.”

Whether is be bringing a little joy to a country that has endured so much sorrow and tragedy or healing the individual lives of men and women on our streets, soccer and many other sports has the power to transform lives, communities and the common good. Let’s keep sports accessible; the life lessons, physical activity and joy of the game(s) are too valuable.

Photo Credits
Street Soccer
Japanese Women Win
Equal Access, Equal Opportunity

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fog Happens: What Darren Clarke Knows

Fog sucks my soul. I suppose I shouldn’t live in San Francisco because “Fog Happens” as a bumper sticker on a truck parked in my neighborhood reminds me. Every time I see it—pending that I can if the fog isn’t too thick—I laugh. However, it’s a little more of a challenge to laugh about fog when it’s 53 degrees in July. San Francisco was the coldest city in the nation last week—even colder than Anchorage, Alaska. Regardless, I couldn’t help but think of the fog as I watched Saturday’s round at the British Open. The first reason is because as I viewed the 140th Open Championship in total solidarity with fans and players at Royal St. George’s. The rain was ferocious and relentless and accompanied by 30-mph winds. Players went through four and five and six gloves, four and five and six towels. Keeping grips dry became a two-person operation, player and caddie bracing futilely against the wind and rain.

Although we had two nights of rain last week, it would be a stretch to claim that weather conditions in San Francisco were as abysmal as they were in Sandwich, England. But the UK is known for rain—a lot of it—even in the summer months; I’m sure the English would welcome a break from it in the same this San Franciscan would welcome one from fog—at least in June, July, and August.The second reason is because of the metaphorical understanding of fog. Who hasn’t been “in a fog?” How often has the fog in our own lives prevented us from seeing our destination? And who or what in our lives has served as a foghorn? A foghorn doesn’t help with our vision, but it does send out different signals and tones, their message still transfers through the thick of it all. Did you know there are over 30 different pitches of foghorns in San Francisco alone? Have you ever noticed the difference?

Darren Clarke had gone for more than 15 starts in the British Open before winning. In fact, this was the Northern Irishman’s 20th try. He hardly seemed on top of his game, having dropped out of top 100 in the world and not even eligible for the last three majors. It is safe to say that his game and his life have been in a fog for many of those years.

According to Paul Newberry, “Five years ago, Clarke lost wife Heather to breast cancer, a disease she had seemingly beat until it came back with a vengeance. He buried his spouse and faced life as a single father with two young boys to raise, a guy who'd had it all but suddenly found himself asking why life was so unfair.”

For Clarke, the fog was thick, but it eventually broke….which inevitably it does…even in San Francisco. By the time Clarke and Glover teed off the skies lightened a bit. An hour later the rain stopped. And the lead Clarke secured on Saturday combined with his even-par 70 on Sunday secured the Claret Jug. He dedicated his win to his late wife and his two sons Tyrone and Conor. He is also engaged to the former Miss Northern Ireland, Alison Campbell. Those are good weather conditions.

I think it’s important to know what “sucks your soul.” Because fog does that, I try to get out of it both literally and metaphorically every summer. I visit my brother and nieces in Washington DC; spending time with them, being in the humidity and going to the beach feeds my soul. A healthy spirituality is contingent on knowing what feeds your soul and what sucks it. According to Ron Rolheiser “A healthy soul, therefore, must do two things for us. First, it must put some fire in our veins, keep us energized, vibrant, living with zest, and full of hope as we sense that life is, ultimately, beautiful and worth living. Whenever this breaks down in us, something is wrong with our souls. When cynicism, despair, bitterness, or depression paralyze our energy, part of the soul is hurting. Second, a healthy soul has to keep us fixed together.”

Let’s face it, fog happens. But when it does, stay the course and listen to the foghorns around you. Keep hope and feed your soul. Eventually it will break and when it does, lift a pint of Guinness and the in the same way that Darren Clarke did.

Photo Credits
Darren Clarke-Victor
Weather Conditions at Royal St. George
In honor of the late Heather Clarke

Saturday, July 16, 2011

US Women's Soccer Team & Spiritual Fitness: What You Can Control

On Sunday, July 17, the United States Women’s soccer team will play in their third championship game against Japan. Although they have captured the gold medal in the past two Olympics, the US women haven’t won the world’s largest female sporting event since 1999. Sunday’s final will be played in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin where the 2006 Men’s World Cup Final took place. It will be interesting to see if Coach Pia Sundhange’s plan of attack succeeds. According to Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl, “when Sundhage, a Swede, took over in late 2007, she wanted the Americans to play with more skill than in the past, when they have won mostly with athleticism. Team captain Amy Wambach said, “What [Sundhage] has created is a different thought process about the game. The US has always been good in physicality, strength and fitness. If you can add the [skill] component, that’s a difficult combination to play against.”

In reading about her strategy I started to think about the difference between athleticism and skill. Gold medalists and World Cup teammates Lauren Cheney and Heather Mitts weighed in. The 23-year old forward Cheney said “fitness is the one thing you can control. You can’t focus on the game if you’re worried about your breathing or whether you can make that run.” Her rule for staying in top form is “always do one extra when it comes to training. If I’m supposed to do 10 sprints, I do 11.” She’s right. The extra effort can pay dividends when you least expect it. 33-year old defender, Heather Mitts said “my fitness is the one thing that’s gotten me to this level. My ball skill may not be as good as some other players’ but when I step out on the field knowing I’m fit, that’s one less thing I have to worry about.”

I think these teammates are on to something. There is so little one can control in a game and in life that its wise to excel where you can.

According to “The Buddy System” by Natalie Gingerich MacKenzie “…it pays to be in great shape—research shows that the fittest soccer players cover as much as 20 percent more of the field in every game than their less-conditioned counterparts and get in on 23 percent more action with the ball….”Those statistics are significant! To be a part of nearly one quarter more of the game and to gain a dramatic increase of field coverage because of sheer fitness--a commitment to a largely controllable entity--spoke to me. A good athlete will make and take advantages where he or she can.

I started to think about how this information translates to the spiritual life. To what degree can I control my spiritual fitness? Or rather, what does spiritual fitness require? How does a spiritually fit person act? What do they look like? Is there a difference? Are they different?

I think there is. My friend Michael who teaches Religions Studies at Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose is deeply committed to his faith. An important adage that we theology teachers strive to emulate is: the message is as important as the messenger. This messenger is a man of prayer. He makes time for silence—significantly so—every day. He reads Scripture and other spiritual readings daily; truly, he lives The Word. In short, he is spiritually fit.

I have seen with my own eyes how people are quite literally drawn to Michael. In conversation, he is totally and completely present. I am certain the reason he is an excellent teacher is because he is authentic. The messenger and the message are one in the same. But it doesn’t stop there. Mother Teresa says, “The fruit of Silence is prayer. The fruit of Prayer is faith. The fruit of Faith is love. The fruit of Love is service. The fruit of Service is peace.” For Michael that silence, prayer, faith, and love are characteristics of how he lives his life, and all of it transmits to service in his classroom.

This service is best understood in his ability to teach his students how to pray—and when I say that, I mean he teaches them how to really pray. He begins by bringing students to one minute of silence. In our noise polluted world, even one minute is no small task. But believe it or not, eventually, Michael begins every class with—no joke—10 minutes of silence. He says “my students are hungry for it. You give them a taste of the silence and slowly but surely, one minute leads to two and two to four and four to eight.” Since he has a curriculum to cover ten minutes is the max, but students come to appreciate the silence. More importantly, they come to know God and themselves through the silence, in a way they had not known before.

Is Michael more involved in life because of his spiritual fitness? Does he cover more ground or reach more students because of his commitment to it? It’s tough to quantify but worth considering. Every one of us has our own journey; we play different sports. The road we each travel is varied and I have no doubt that some people walk a much more challenging course than others. It’s not unsettling for me to think that some may be more skilled when it comes to faith. Some of us grew up in homes where a faith tradition was lovingly and generously inculcated. For some, there may have been a dearth or prior injury ended a commitment to it for a family or an individual. Others had distinct advantages to develop that skill—education, formation, life experiences. But in terms of developing fitness--be it physical or spiritual--the choice is ours.

I hope that past commitment to fitness combined with the increased emphasis on developing skill will pay off in a third star—a victory for our United States women.

Photo Credits

Lauren Cheney
World Cup Logo

US Women
Finals Bound
Mother Teresa

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hey Now, You’re An All-Star

To anyone who says “the All-Star game” doesn’t matter, I want to know: Have you ever been an all-star? And have you had five players and one manager from your hometown team play in the game?I feel a little bit like Rick Reilly as I raise these questions, but I do so as an athlete who never came close to all-star status. "Most Improved" in three sports—swimming, track and rowing and "Most Dedicated" at 6 years of age don’t exactly mean excellence. I have held dreams of earning “MVP” or being named “All-American.” "All-Star?" I’d take that too. Triple accolades for improvement however meant I had a lot to do to get there. Is it too late?

I can only imagine how exciting it must be for those players to don a National or American league jersey, to meet some of the legends of the game and play beside others. Some are fellow countrymen and others once played together in the minor leagues. To catch up and talk shop in a star-studded pressure free environment is a gift. I dare you to tell them it doesn’t matter.

And for fans, it’s exciting to see so much talent in one venue. I enjoy watching players’ interactions at batting practice, the home run derby, and the opening ceremony. Because I recently purchased tickets to see the World Series Champion SF Giants take on the Philadelphia Phillies in the City of Brotherly Love, I am now on their mailing list. I took great delight in deleting every request to vote for Shane Victorino to make the team. He made the team but didn’t play. Typical Phillie.Perhaps my views are colored by the anticipation of one-fifth of the 2011 Giants squad participating on the NL team. The front page of the San Francisco Giants web page featured this fan favorite five for weeks ahead of time. Their nomination to the team reminded me of their magical, historic accomplishment last fall. Their election to the 2011 squad edified what they are hoping to do once again.

And why is it important that we name all-stars? That they play the game? Politics and favoritism aside an all-star game reminds us that as much as a team wins a game or a World Series, while all individuals contribute, certain individuals truly do make a difference. People exercise their God-given gifts and talents in a way that make a significant impact. Without them, a community, a family or a team would be much different. In his book “Catholic Ethics,” Andrew Peach makes an analogy between sports and virtue. He says “Sports writers did not create rules for becoming a great quarterback out of thin air; they observed quarterbacks in action and, then, described the traits these athletes had in common.” Virtue is no different. Look to three or five of your teammates who exemplify integrity. How do these people respond when they are in a sticky situation. Look in the pews at church at the individuals who are pious. How are the present during Mass? Yes, we are human and prone to error, misjudgment and mistakes—but the virtuous person, like the all-star, maybe less so.

To me, the all star break is the child hood equivalent of “rest period” at the pool. I hated the hourly 15-minute break when only adults were allowed to swim. I think I understood its importance at the time and I certainly do now; if the pool never called for that hiatus, I wouldn’t have taken one. In some small way, rest period set a framework for time in my day and length of play. In a similar way, the all-star break is probably good for all of Major League baseball. It serves as true divide for the regular season and allows clubs to take inventory. With the National League victory, we know the World Series will kick off in an NL city. Here’s to the fans that got them there and the accomplishments of those men so far this season and for all that’s to come. Play Ball!

Photo Credits
SF Giants
Our Giants
All-Star Roster

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Franchise: A Season with the SF Giants & Some Basics in Spirituality

Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to watch soap operas. I suppose my mom thought the content was too mature and well, pointless. In 2011, reality TV seems to have taken the place of soap operas; only one remains (Days of Our Lives). I wonder if my parents would have put a restriction on reality TV as well. If they did, I would make a case for one that will air on Showtime Wednesday, July 13 The Franchise: A Season with the San Francisco Giants. What’s my argument? Believe it or not, the spiritual dimensions of the show are worth considering.The preview that aired on April 13 included Sergio Romo getting locked in Brian Wilson's car; a fishing expedition with Bruce Bochy; and a firsthand view of Andres Torres' barefoot, bare-chested workout routine. A fair bit of the show is what you would expect from a team labeled a “band of misfit toys.” Toys are fun and so are these guys.

But, there's an up-close look at the story of Marc Kroon, a 38-year-old African American pitcher who holds the record for the fastest pitch ever thrown in Japan. His story grows surprisingly more compelling as he eloquently and articulately shares the struggle of his relationship with his own father and the joy of becoming one. I found myself hoping he would make the club because of his gentle and warm spirit. I saw how hard he worked, I knew of his desire to return to MLB in the US but more specifically, I was drawn to the connections he made with his teammates. The camera does not lie. For a person so new to this "tribe of torture," he made a laudable impact.Kroon’s story is juxtaposed against the highly touted “future Will Clark” first baseman/outfielder Brandon Belt. While Kroon’s career enters its “twilight” phase, “The Franchise” chronicles the 23-year old Brandon Belt's effort to make the big-league club out of spring training (which he did). Lucky for him, a reality TV provided the perfect platform to personalize the team's future.

And how are those two stories remotely spiritual? Dan Groody, CSC states that “Spirituality is defined in many different ways and here I describe it primarily in terms of how people live out what they most value. Christian spirituality, more specifically, involves living out what Jesus most valued.” “The Franchise” even in its season preview reveals what these two players value. It gets an inside look at their deepest desires. And according to Ron Rolheiser, OMI “Spirituality is, ultimately, about what we do with that desire. What we do with our longings, both in terms of handling the pain and the hope they bring us, that is our spirituality . . .”

But the story doesn’t stop there. The Kroon and Belt testimonies are sandwiched between another man’s struggle; skipper Bruce Bochy only has a spots for 25 men on his roster. He must inform both men of their fate. Bochy meets individually with each athlete and despite different outcomes—their reaction is the same. Despite the fact the camera is rolling Marc Kroon and Brandon Belt cry. Neither one can hold back their tears. The viewer is privy to a very spiritual moment. How? Why?
In his book The Holy Longing Rolheiser states Desire can show itself as aching pain or delicious hope. Spirituality is ultimately about what we do with that desire. What we do with our longings, both in terms of handling the pain and the hope they bring us that is our spirituality.

Marc Kroon’s dream is on hold. The aching pain in his heart, the desire that he had to make the team, to contribute his gift, to demonstrate his talent to his own children an the world will not be lived out in the way he had hoped. “The Franchise” documented what he did with his desire until that point. Will we see him later in the season? I hope so.

Brandon Belt’s future in April was ripe with delicious hope. He hit a single in his first major league at bat and concluded the series against the archrival Los Angeles Dodgers with a 3-run home run. Although he was optioned to Triple-A Fresno to make room on the roster for Cody Ross, I have no doubt he hopes to return to AT&T soon.

I will show this episode of “The Franchise” in my Sports and Spirituality class this fall. I hope the rest of the season provides a lens into the spiritual life in the same unexpected but wonderful way the preview did.

Watch the Preview here!

Photo Credits

The Franchise
Marc Kroon
Brandon Belt

Saturday, July 2, 2011

What's in Your Tennis Bag? What's in Your Heart?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the heart this past year—what it does as our most vital organ—literally and metaphorically. In late June 2010, I was diagnosed with a rare heart condition and implanted with a pacemaker/defibrillator. Essentially it aids my defective heart; potentially it can save my life. Pacemakers are fairly common; defibrillators and ARVD (my condition) are not. In a similar vein, I would like to think my beliefs are heart health are widely understood and accepted, but today I would like to offer one that is not.

In his autobiography “Open,” Andre Agassi says “The tennis bag is a lot like your heart—you have to know what’s in it at all times. “ I am sure every cardiologist in America could read this and agree—hopefully there is an absence of cholesterol or plaque and instead it is a muscle that transmits oxygenated blood efficiently and effectively. But Agassi is speaking of something different.

What’s in your heart? Peace? Gratitude? Envy? Solace? Bitterness? Joy? Love? All of the above?

I hope my heart pumps virtue, but from time to time I find that some of the aforementioned vices creep in. For example, bitterness is both unattractive and insidious. Unless I am sincerely grateful, seeking to forgive others and myself, it slowly builds. No one will need a triple bypass to remove bitterness, but it’s a noteworthy image to remind us what can occur.

July 1 was the feast to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In his posting “Why Pray to the Sacred Heart? Fr Pat McCloskey, O.F.M states “This devotion, promoted especially by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (d. 1690), was and is a way of softening the image of God as primarily lawgiver, judge and punisher. Devotion to the Sacred Heart says two things at the same time: Jesus is indeed fully human (people regard the heart as the seat of human emotions) and God forgives those who repent.” The Catechism (P:1439) reminds us that....Only the Heart of Christ who knows the depths of his Father's love could reveal to us the abyss of his mercy in so simple and beautiful a way. The devotion especially emphasizes the unmitigated love, compassion, and long-suffering of the heart of Christ towards humanity.

We are called to live like Christ and the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart reminds me that I am to love like Christ as well. That’s not an easy thing to do; the Gospel is testimony of Jesus’ love for those who society shuns. His example and the image of the Sacred Heart however, can serve as spiritual tools. With both in mind, perhaps I can live and love more like Him.

During the French Open, the Tennis Channel ran a series of ads entitled “Bag Check.” It was fun to see the many personalities on the tour run through their “briefcase.” And it’s been fun for me to think of it as symbolic of their heart.

Wimbledon finalist Novak Djokovic carries quite a bit in his bag. It’s entertaining to watch him pull out a gift from his brothers, a Serbian flag that he won via Davis Cup, a hat from his beloved homeland, a bracelet featuring the saints and a tripic of his patron saint. The metaphor comes to life; what’s in his heart is without a doubt in his bag.

Playing singles tennis for me can seriously compromise my heart health but golf is my new love. I now use my golf bag as my metaphor. What’s in my golf bag? What’s in my heart? Whatever your sport, take inventory!

Photo Credits

Agassi with his bag
Sacred Heart Icon
Djokovic's Heart is in Serbia