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'Play Like a Champion,' CYO sports program encourages coaches and players

By R.W. Dellinger
February 1st, 2008
The Tidings (

LOS ANGELES, Calif. (The Tidings) - Catholic Youth Organization of Los Angeles, which provides athletic competition for more than 10,000 students in some 165 elementary parochial schools in the Southland, has always prided itself on fostering sportsmanship, respect, responsibility, self-discipline and team spirit versus winning at all costs.

Now the CYO has taken on a new program for coaches, parents, school administrators, parish leaders and, of course, the young athletes themselves called “Play Like A Champion Today,” which helps members of these varied groups appreciate the underlying spiritual dimension of sports.

PLC, as the program is commonly called, fosters a “sports as ministry” approach. It stresses that coaches aren’t only teachers but youth ministers, who have a special opportunity to help children and teenagers develop not only physically and socially, but also morally and spiritually.

“When you walk into a stadium such as Notre Dame’s in South Bend,” noted Sue Ella Monreal, who coordinates PLC locally for CYO, “you just get the feeling like in the movies ‘Field of Dreams’ or ‘The Natural.’ Something happens. You’re in a zone.

“We just want that to come across with the kids. It’s more than winning and beating the other team. So this is a super program.”

‘Nobility and grace … of sports experiences’

Play like a Champion Today was, in fact, designed by University of Notre Dame faculty and coaches. It’s academic-based, using social science research about the best practices in the character and spiritual development of kids.

Specifically, the program is based on the moral principles of justice, tolerance, cooperation, respect and solidarity. And it helps children discover for themselves, as the Catholic Catechism states, the “nobility and grace that shines through sports experiences.”

A survey by Notre Dame researchers found “a greater incidence” of “poor sportsmanship and worse” in Catholic rather than in public school programs.

“Play Like a Champion” creator Clark Power, associate director of the Center for Ethical Education at Notre Dame, said sports should be seen as a ministry. He said coaches should be teachers and ministers and be reminded they “are here to serve the children.”

Adults’ attitudes toward youth sports should be “I’m here to help the child to play” and to remember “it is just a game,” Power said.

Coaches are encouraged to realize that they are participating in children’s play, that they must be concerned with the whole personal growth of their charges, that they need to nourish values of fair play, equality and respect for all, and that they have to build a sense of moral community on their teams.

“Most of PLC is bringing ministry to coaching,” said Monreal, who coaches golf at Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance. “We’re training the coaches to be effective ministers. They actually start and end practices with prayer. And they promote moral and character development through the GROW approach - to set goals, take responsibility and take ownership. And that equals winning.”

Code of conduct required

Last year some 2,500 CYO coaches, their assistants and others attended three-hour workshops throughout Greater Los Angeles. This coming school year, another 1,000 will be trained. Participants share personal stories about how coaches influenced them growing up and how sports fostered their own spiritual development.

Part of the session also teaches coaches how to work with dads and moms, seeing them as assets instead of meddling parents. Also stressed is equal playing time for all members of the team, no matter what their athletic skill level is, a concept that may be more challenging for some to accept.

Moreover, the workshops train coaches in the boundaries they must maintain in working with youth. They’re fingerprinted and required to sign a “code of conduct,” fulfilling the archdiocese’s rigid requirements for protecting children.

“I went to the workshop at St. Francis de Sales School in July, and the coaches were really excited about the program and thought it was very helpful,” Monreal noted. “Most of our coaches are parents themselves, and they said it hit the nail on the head, something that coaches today really needed.”

(For more information on Play Like a Champion Today, including future workshop dates, call Sue Ella Monreal at (310) 895-8696.)

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