Decency in athletics
Thierfelder, a member of Legatus’ Charlotte Chapter, is hoping to lift up the examples of true sportsmanship and highlight the potential of sports to be a force for good and positive human development through the new Sports Virtue Institute at Belmont Abbey College.
The goal of the Sports Virtue Institute, which is in its fledgling stages, will be to attract, gather, and encourage athletes, coaches, and administrators who want to compete at the highest levels, but in a manner that upholds their integrity and that uses sport as a vehicle to hone personal virtue.
“Everybody wants world-class performance. Everybody enjoys watching it because ultimately, I believe, it raises us up and has us contemplate God,” said Thierfelder, the author of Less Than a Minute to Go: The Secret to World-Class Performance in Sport, Business and Everyday Life.
Thierfelder, who received his masters and doctoral degrees in sports psychology from Boston University, draws on his lifelong experience in sports. He was a medalist at the 1981 U.S. Track & Field Indoor National Championships who qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team but withdrew from competition because of injury.
Sports, mainly because of the billions of dollars they generate in revenue, tend today to be seen through a utilitarian lens of wins and losses. The cynic will argue that developing character sounds noble, but that it’s ultimately pointless if a Division I college athletic program or professional sports franchise fails to win championships.
Thierfelder argues that that view offers a false dichotomy between world-class performance on the field and competing in an ethical way that champions human dignity.
Training ground for life
“In sports, winning and losing matters,” Thierfelder said. “Here’s the issue — How do you win? In other words, is sport properly directed? And the big question someone can ask is — Can you win? Can you perform at a higher level as a world-class athlete, living a life of virtue, or living a life of vice? Which one will actually enable you to perform at the highest level?”
While noting that athletes who cheat and indulge in vices are often successful, Thierfelder believes they would compete at a higher level — and be happier while doing it — if they cultivated a life of virtue.
“On the whole, you would see a dramatic improvement not only in the performance, but in the lives, in the happiness of those competing, and those watching,” Thierfelder said.
Sport has long been seen as a training ground for life. U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur believed athletic competition taught competitors the importance of winning, and that those lessons would translate to the battlefield. MacArthur said, “On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.”
Writing in the first century, St. Paul made several references to running the good race, shadowboxing, athletic training, and the importance of Christians competing for an eternal crown instead of an athlete’s laurel crown.
The ancient philosophers Cicero, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle also had plenty to say about the links between sports and the virtuous life, said Thierfelder, who regularly asks people at Belmont Abbey College to memorize a lengthy quote from Pope Pius XII’s “Sport at the Service of the Spirit” statement in 1945.
“Sport, properly directed, develops character, makes a man courageous, a generous loser, and a gracious victor,” said Pius XII, who added that “sport, rightly understood, is an occupation of the whole man.”
Distinguishing sportsmanship and virtue
The Sports Virtue Institute will host lectures, events, and an annual conference. Thierfelder said the institute will also have a website with social media links, a blog, articles, and essays from coaches and athletes from around the country.
The values espoused in the Sports Virtue Institute have already helped to shape Belmont Abbey College’s athletic program and the Conference Carolinas that the college competes in. Thierfelder said that the conference’s tagline promotes “champions in body, mind, and spirit.”
Every year, the Conference Carolinas also gives an award for sportsmanship and virtue. When he arrived at Belmont Abbey College 15 years ago, Thierfelder said very few student-athletes wanted that award. Today, Thierfelders said it’s the most competitive award in the conference.
“Yes, we still want to be national champions if we can be national champions,” Thierfelder said. “But we also want all the other virtues that go with that.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.