Dr. Bill Thierfelder was an All-American and national champion in the high jump at the University of Maryland. He earned his doctorate in sports psychology and trained some of the world’s top athletes. A husband and father of 10 children, Dr. Thierfelder is now the president of Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, North Carolina – a college recommended in The Newman Guide for its strong Catholic identity. This month, Thierfelder releases his new book, Less Than A Minute To Go: The Secret to World-Class Performance in Sport, Business, and Everyday Life, with proceeds benefiting the College. We thank Dr. Thierfelder for taking the time to speak to us at Catholic Education Daily before his presentation at the Catholic Athletes for Christ “Sports Conference” in Northern Virginia on Sept. 21, which is co-hosted by Seton School in Manassas, Virginia, and co-sponsored by The Cardinal Newman Society.
Are sports deserving of a Catholic high school or college student’s attention?
Dr. Bill Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College, told The Cardinal Newman Society that there are two common responses to sports today: One is to follow the culture’s lead in the practice of sports. And the other is to ignore sports completely.
The culture often depicts cheating and illicit actions as behaviors that are to be expected in sports, and Catholic students can be tempted go along with the trend. And students know that sports require a lot of work – Sports might not seem worth the effort.
However, Thierfelder suggests that there is a middle path – that Catholics can and should “reclaim the game.” He said that while sport is neither good nor bad, it is a means for developing virtue.
He explained, “A common misconception is that world-class performance and living a life of virtue are at odds with each other.”
Thierfelder related an anecdote to illustrate the idea that athletics can assist in the formation of the whole person – mind, body and soul – during actual play time, not just in a prayer said before or after practice.
He described a practice session with a NFL wide receiver in which the receiver cursed aloud when he dropped the ball. Thierfelder told him instead to say, “Thank you, Jesus,” when he dropped the pass. Saying these words instead of cursing helped the wide receiver both in his faith and in his sport. By saying, “Thank you, Jesus,” the wide receiver practiced the virtue of gratitude by always being thankful for the opportunity to play sport. Secondly, the wide receiver was not focused on his pride (thinking he had to impress those watching him) when he dropped the ball in practice – and so he could instead focus on why he dropped the ball, and learn how to fix his technique.
Sport is a “real part” of life, a natural part of life – it’s not some sort of distraction from living, Thierfelder explained, and when an athlete tries to perform at 100 percent of his ability, it can be a very beautiful thing. Similar to how magnificent cathedrals raise minds and hearts to heaven, Thierfelder argued that an athlete performing at his highest potential can be led to reflect on God’s handiwork.
“Every human being plays. When play becomes a selfish work, it is no longer play,” Thierfelder said. “Play is for its own sake and not some end. Like wisdom, also done for its own sake, play contemplates the highest things.”
“If you can put 100% of your skills, talents, and abilities into the task at hand at the present moment,” he continued, “that’s as good as you can hope for… All of time is present to God – he has no past and he has no future – so to the degree to which we remain in the present moment is the degree to which we remain in perfect union with God.”
Building up athletes who are striving to put 100 percent into everything they do is part of Thierfelder’s mission at Belmont Abbey College. The College is home to male and female athletes on 19 Division II teams which compete in the Carolinas Conference.
“Many athletes who come to Belmont Abbey or any other college,” noted Thierfelder, “are the product of the secularization of sport — where the end justifies the means, and any means is used to win.”
Thierfelder emphasized the importance of coaches who act as mentors and teachers to the athletes, even before acting as coaches, to combat the secularization of sport.
At Belmont Abbey, Thierfelder explained, coaches impose virtues like discipline on the athletes. The hope is that the virtues will remain with the student-athletes long after they finish competing on a college sports team and inundate every aspect of their lives.
As another possible cure for the secularization of sport, Thierfelder suggested increasing participation in parish sports teams. This would keep families together and form close-knit communities. The parish teams would also be integral in the use of sports as schools of virtue.
Remembering the proper view of sports and bringing that onto the court is essential for Catholic athletes, he said.
Thierfelder has memorized a quote from Pope Pius XII, which summarizes the connection between sports and faith and encourages others to take it to heart as well:
“Sport, properly directed, develops character, makes a man courageous, a generous loser, and a gracious victor; it refines the senses, gives intellectual penetration, and steels the will to endurance. It is not merely a physical development then. Sport, rightly understood, is an occupation of the whole man, and while perfecting the body as an instrument of the mind, it also makes the mind itself a more refined instrument for the search and communication of truth and helps man achieve that end to which all others must be subservient, the service and praise of his Creator.” (Sport at the Service of the Spirit, July 29, 1945)
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