At most schools the sole priority is getting to college and doing what it takes to get there.

For many sports academies, the only goal is a scholarship or world fame.

Here’s a novel idea: why don’t we teach students values and virtues that will carry them through life whatever they do and will also help them simultaneously grow toward God?

I’m not suggesting it’s a bad thing to have the opportunity to get to college or reach a very high level in sports. I am saying that’s not what every student or athlete realistically can accomplish or even wants to aspire to. We need to identify all our students’ different gifts and goals. Meanwhile, learning to live a virtuous life will carry an individual through every career and every situation.

I mentioned Matt Birk in a previous column. He is a devout Catholic who had a Super Bowl-winning career with the Baltimore Ravens and has started Unity School in Minnesota that emphasizes teaching virtues. “Not everybody is a candidate for college,” says Birk. “Some people will choose the work force, the military, religious orders; and we believe there is equal dignity in any of these paths.”

Everyone, however, “should be prepared for leadership, service and virtuous lives,” he says.

Birk believes character is usually overlooked in schools as they emphasize exams. He believes getting into a big school does not guarantee happiness. For that, students need a solid foundation in their Catholic faith and strength in character so they excel in fortitude, courage, and persistence.

The sports programs in our Catholic schools should be fostering just such a philosophy at all times. Looking for wins on the field of play is great, but students should always be reminded there is a far bigger prize at stake, namely heaven.

Birk shares the same beliefs as SportsLeader, an American organization that teaches virtues through sports programs in and out of school.

SportsLeader is a Catholic formation program for coaches, athletes, and directors of sports ministry at all ages and levels. While originally designed for school curricula, it is now used by teams outside of schools and by individual sport coaches. It is intended for coaches, parishes, and parents who want a structured, intentional and specific curriculum to help form leaders and teach virtue, according to SportsLeader.

 The program is spreading throughout North America and some programs will be offered locally in the next year. If you’re interested, email me at [email protected] for more details.

Where these virtue-based programs have been initiated, the feedback from parents has been amazing. They see how coaches don’t have to sacrifice values in order to train their children to do well in the sport. In fact, the programs enhance the experience for the child.

In sport, we don’t just train for the regular season. We’re aiming for the post-season in an effort to win the championship. Similarly, in living a genuinely Catholic faith we are not just planning for this life but for eternal life. 

Other groups that teach virtue in sport include the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry (Youth Sports Division) and Catholic Athletes for Christ.

Over the last quarter-century Popes have spoken frequently on the larger purposes for sports in our lives. Pope Francis has encouraged all young athletes to be models of loyalty, humility, and harmony.

His predecessor Pope Benedict spoke to athletes before the 20th Winter Olympics, reminding them of the need for respect, solidarity, and altruism. He stated that “There is a moral and spiritual capacity that must be enriched. We must not emphasize only materialistic rewards.”

Before the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Pope John Paul II made the same point. “The virtues of fortitude, sacrifice, and justice must be into place in sport in face of possible interests that might darken the nobility of sport.”

We forget that one of the “original and main purposes (of sport) is to provide arenas where the young could gain life experiences,” according to the How to Coach Virtue First Handbook, which describes life lessons not as a side benefit but indeed as the main purpose of sport.

In the manual there is an emphasis on:

- developing solidarity and uniting wills for a common purpose

- developing brotherly vision through friendly competition, which fosters discussion of different ideas with our fellow man 

- sacrificing personal interest for other

- competing despite exhaustion, which helps athletes learn persistence and how to overcome discouragement.

Parents, please look for and even demand from coaches and schools that your children’s sports organization teaches virtues.