As a professional athletic trainer, I have worked with Olympic-caliber athletes and coaches all the way down to adolescents and kids. In my work, I have noticed one thing that consistently sets apart the best athletes and coaches from all the rest: discipline in preparation. Preparation is far and away the defining factor between a championship team and a team that “just didn’t have it.” Of all the different aspects of sports, preparation is the one that fascinates me the most. It’s also the one that has had the greatest impact on my own life - both spiritually and otherwise.
Biking for Babies
For the past seven years, I have participated in an organization called Biking for Babies. This pro-life organization develops young adult leaders in the pro-life movement through a 6-day, 600-mile national bike pilgrimage—all the while raising money for pregnancy resource centers around the country. The pilgrimage is grueling; it tests your physical, mental and (yes) spiritual strength. There is only one way to complete a 6-day trip averaging over 100 miles a day. You guessed it: disciplined preparation. There is not a day that goes by in the months leading up to the pilgrimage that our cyclists are not exercising, eating well, sleeping or quieting themselves in prayer. Our preparation directly correlates to the success of the ride and the people we get to serve through our efforts.
Organizations like Biking for Babies are proof that athletics can serve altruistic ends. In fact, most 5k races do just that. But focusing on fundraising or external ends misses the more intrinsic value of athletics. What do we say when our children ask to tryout for the school soccer team? How can this athletic endeavor bring him or her closer to Christ?
Preparing a way for the Lord
At the start of Mark’s Gospel, John the Baptist is “the voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” He is not just a messenger, a reed shaken by the wind; he is a preparer, both in word and in action. He prepares himself by a life of asceticism in the desert. He prepares God’s people by a watery baptism of repentance. If John the Baptist had to prepare himself and his neighbors for the coming of Christ, then I absolutely know I need to prepare my heart continually for when I meet Christ. My question then for athletics is, “How can sports help me prepare for life in Christ?”
You are true athletes when you prepare yourselves not only by training your bodies but also by constantly engaging the spiritual dimensions of your person for a harmonious development of all your talents. - St. Pope John Paul II
As Catholics, we are not strangers to the idea that the actions of our body can help train the soul. We fast. We kneel. We mark our bodies with the sign of the cross. All of this to prepare a way for the Lord in our own hearts, minds, bodies, lives and in our very selves. But this spiritual preparation somehow always seems so much less obvious than in sports. When an athlete commits themselves to winning, they do obvious things like: hire a coach, refine their diet, practice daily, train with peers.
If those things work for sports, then they can work for the spiritual life too. Plus, the more experience we have with these forms of growth through sports, the better we will be at applying them to the spiritual life.
- Get a coach - Anyone who has practiced sports seriously knows the value of a coach. And just as an athlete cannot critique his or her own technique, we also cannot coach ourselves in the spiritual life. The Church has a long tradition of spiritual direction. Our pastors, confessors and trusted friends acquainted with the spiritual life are all important aids in the Christian life. If you don’t have someone to coach you in the spiritual life, find someone.
- Refine your diet - Athletes know that the food they eat today is what nourishes their body tomorrow. As the saying goes, “You are what you eat.” That’s good news when we consume what is good for us (especially the gift of the Eucharist!). That’s bad news when we consume what is unhealthy: violence, anger, covetousness, etc. If you wish to improve what you consume, consider the following: What do I consume with my eyes? What do I consume with my heart? What consumes my own heart? What consumes my own imagination?
- Practice daily - Athletes in the off-season talk about getting better every day. It’s a trite refrain, but they really mean it. If we want to get better at something, we need to practice. If we want to improve our life of prayer or our relationship with God, we must be faithful each day to the practices that help us do just that.
- Train with peers - The best athletes (even those in solo sports like tennis or running) still train within the context of a team or a community dedicated to the same goals. We too need others to accompany us on our journey of faith. Do I have friends to support me? How do I support others? How am I a part of my faith community?