When faith and sports converge: Parochial Athletic League is forming good athletes and even better people

The benefits of school sports have long been known. Over and above health and fitness, advocates often cite a range of soft skill maturities like attitude, teamwork, communication, work ethic and time management. Imagine how much more fruitful sport programs become when they exist in a faith setting. The Parochial Athletic League (PAL) makes this its work according to Jill Bennett, PAL director for girl sports: to give Catholic school students an opportunity to compete athletically with an emphasis on faith formation, life lessons and personal growth.

“We want young people to learn the sport in a faith-filled environment,” Jill explains, describing the overarching atmosphere as nurturing. “We feel it is such a tremendous opportunity to nurture young people while they’re engaged in something that they’re passionate about,” she says. It creates a perfect setting to build upon Catholic values and convey “that sport isn’t just about wanting to win.”

PAL operates under the auspices of the diocese’s Catholic Schools Department and facilitates co-curricular team sports for Catholic elementary schools and a select few non-Catholic private schools that have been a part of the PAL for many years. It serves students in grades five through eight and offers a “Little Dribbler” basketball program for students in grades one through four.

Jill started her involvement in the PAL as a player in the late 1960s and early 70s and then returned as a coach with her daughters who attended St. Mary School in Sacramento. She accepted the director role for girls’ sports in 1996 and after 22 years, she remains enthusiastic and committed. During her tenure, she also balanced teaching full-time at Christian Brothers High School. She’ll retire after 29 years in May, but she’s holding on to PAL. She loves it and admits “I’m not ready to let that go yet.”

“We work closely with school athletic directors and coaches to ensure that all schools abide by PAL guidelines,” Jill explains, referring to her work and that of her counterpart, Gerry Lane, who oversees boys’ sports. Beyond the guidelines, they strive to facilitate a paramount understanding that PAL sport programs occur within a larger faith context.

“We want to enhance the faith experience of children through sport,” she says simply, listing volleyball, cross country, basketball, flag football, golf and track and field as PAL’s offerings. She reports that hundreds of volunteer coaches come forward every year to help with middle school grade-specific teams for boys and girls. Jill and Gerry own the task of imparting a “faith-focus-first” approach to coaches, but also school athletic directors, parents and leadership.

The ability to effectively join sport with faith relies on an investment in coaching excellence. “We do coach education,” Jill clarifies, alluding to something more -- coaching as ministry.

“We stress to coaches that they are ministers,” Jill notes, making a strong point of the critical role a coach plays in a child’s life. Most are parents without formal training, but a willing desire to coach their children. “They are the face of the church,” she says, highlighting their significant influence with regard to “everyday actions.” Equipping them with the tools they need to imbue faith on the field means everything and affirms PAL’s key objective in forming coaches too. 

“They have to recognize the importance of their role, and that is to help kids deepen their relationship with God through sport,” Jill delineates, clearly distinguishing the priority of God first over the game.  “It’s a very powerful responsibility.”

Coach education occurs in a mandatory three-hour workshop at the beginning of their commitment.  It results in a certification, good for four years, and renewable with a refresher program, the first of which will roll out in the coming year.

“Not too many coaches are very excited about a three-hour workshop,” Jill admits, but survey evaluations show they value it in retrospect. “The feedback has been very positive, and several say that the content definitely impacts how they coach,” she adds.

The program content comes from a Play Like a Champion Today®. Created by University of Notre Dame professor Clark Powers in 2006, the education series serves coaches and parents throughout the United States and Canada with research-based programs and trainings which focus on compassion, humanity and faith in sport programs. Their “train-the-trainer” model sends out leaders to return to their dioceses and schools ready to make an impact.

The program employs the “cardinal virtues” as a framework for coaches, giving them a language and the words to brilliantly associate sport to virtuous, spiritual living. Jill summarizes the connections.

“Sport is all about making decisions in a moment. With a focus on prudence, coaches help their athletes to use sound judgment and make good decisions. Justice helps them in their sportsmanship: how do they treat the officials and each other? Are they fair? Do they refrain from expressing anger if they don’t like a call? With courage, coaches can impress behaviors that encourage standing up to teammates or others who are not displaying their best selves. And temperance exercises faith-filled responses to highs and lows, winning and losing, without demeaning anyone.”   

Jill commends the program for the way in integrates the virtues into sport and coaching methods so that they play out on the field, or on the court and in life. She also conveys how the training translates into far less negative behavior that unfortunately emerges now and then at athletic competitions.

“We’re getting coaches on board and they’re getting the kids on board,” Jill reports, however with disappointment in the periodic challenges stemming from overzealous parents who forget about their own need for virtuous behavior. She says Play Like a Champion Today® sends monthly newsletters to parents to reinforce the program message, but any additional parent education is cost prohibitive.

“We tell coaches if children can navigate the playing field, they can navigate life,” she says, confident that even if a child never plays another sport again, helping kids develop a faith perspective through sport provides invaluable life lessons.

Rich Romo applauds the PAL’s work, having experienced it firsthand as a coach. Rich served as athletic director at St. Ignatius School in Sacramento from 1999 to 2004 and has taught its physical education program for 21 years, while intermittently volunteering to coach PAL teams also to provide consistency. He also coached St. Patrick School PAL teams in the 1970s and high school football for McClatchy and El Camino high schools.   

“It changed my point of view,” Rich says of the coaching programs, quipping about his longevity as a coach.  “I can’t believe how much I’ve changed. My approach, my attitude,” he pauses, and discloses “I was a yeller…now I am a teacher.”

Rich insists the PAL’s initiatives changed the culture for the better and created positive athletic competition due to its focus on mentoring coaches and encouraging sport that aligns with faith values. “It filters out to kids, referees and the site director,” he says, recalling the influence of a prior program, the Positive Coaching Alliance, and Play Like a Champion Today®.

In his physical education instruction, Rich ensures another connection for students as they relate their faith to sport. He expands on the message of virtuous living with the “Disciple of Christ -- Education in Virtue” program. St. Ignatius School is implementing it across its curriculum and Rich finds the materials ideal for physical education, as the virtues represent the “actions of God’s people who are trying to make a choice.”

“Sometimes kids don’t always know what they’re doing but when you point it out as a virtuous behavior, it gives them the word or definition they need to understand the positive behavior,” he explains.

In header photo, Jill Bennett is director of girls' sports for the Parochial Athletic League. In bottom photo, Rich Romo is physical education teacher at St. Ignatius School.


About athletics in the diocese’s elementary schools at https://www.scd.org/schools/athletics.

About Play Like a Champion Today at https://www.playlikeachampion.org

Catholic Herald Issue