On June 17, 2018, 35 high school student-athletes from across Central Texas arrived at Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Some were teammates. Others lined up on opposite sides of the field on Friday nights. Their skill levels varied, as did their sports of choice. But despite these differences, they had all arrived at Truett Seminary on a Sunday afternoon for the same reason — to spend a week engaging their minds, bodies, and spirits at the inaugural Faith & Sport Institute retreat.
“Sport is one of the largest industries in the world. Forty-five million plus youth participate. Sport is a transformative experience, so with that number of people, we need to push to make it a positive transformative experience,” said Cindy White, director of the Faith & Sport Institute. “Over the last several years, we have gotten to a place in sport where winning often trumps development and human flourishing. I played and coached Division I volleyball, and I know what it takes to win. But we have to pursue it the right way. It is becoming more about the bottom line, the scoreboard, the pocketbook. Because of that, it has hurt sports and those who play.”
The Faith & Sport Institute (FSI), which is initially funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc., seeks to counter this movement by teaching high school student-athletes that they are valued and loved and that their faith, character, and leadership are just as important on the playing field as they are in everyday life. The program is designed for upcoming juniors and seniors and is committed to including students from a range of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
“We want to bring young people together to learn how God intersects with competitive sport and to launch them on a trajectory for a positive future,” White said. “The theme for the week is ‘Made for Greatness.’ We want them to be not only great on the playing field but magnanimous people — great-souled people who care about making a difference in the world.”
During the week-long retreat, student-athletes examined five theological themes and virtues: faith, love, discipline, hope, and courage. One day was devoted to each theme and each day included a morning classroom session to learn about the theme, an afternoon competition lab to test how each virtue applies in sport and life beyond sport, and an evening small group session to delve deeper into the personal implications of each aspect of greatness. “We teach them spiritual disciplines and then ask, ‘What does that look like in the midst of competition when you just messed up on a play? You’re not going to stop the game, hang your head, and go pray. How can you keep your mind and emotions from beating yourself up? What truth is there to grab? You are loved, you belong to a team, so learn from your mistake and move on to the next play,’” White said. “Failure is not final, and we cannot reach our potential unless we risk. If you can do that in sport, then maybe you can do it in other aspects of your life. We want athletes to translate the virtues we teach into real life.”
On Thursday, the day devoted to hope, the student-athletes spent their morning discussing the pain and suffering that life often brings, in particular through the lens of the book of Job. Then, during the competition lab portion of the afternoon — unbeknownst to the student-athletes — the retreat leaders stacked their teams and intentionally made inconsistent calls as referees, prompting further discussion on how athletes can respond to unfair circumstances. From the playing field, the student-athletes participated in the Poverty-Privilege Walk around Waco and then joined Mission Waco to witness the suffering taking place in their own community with the vision to be a positive change-agent. And this was just one day.
The Faith & Sport Institute retreat is intense, but the student-athletes are not navigating the experience alone. Eleven young adult mentors walked alongside the students throughout the week and for the following year as they continued to process what they had learned over the summer and apply it to their lives. The mentors create a network of support for the young athletes, reminding them that — through the highs and the lows — their lives matter.
“The interpersonal connection with the students is very important. There’s a relational aspect that I believe was heightened for them by having more leaders than less. We were available to help them go deeper in their conversations,” said Troy Dicks, a Truett Seminary student who served as a mentor for the 2018 FSI retreat.
The mentors — undergraduate and graduate students who have experience with competitive sport and a passion for the theological formation of young people — led small groups during the retreat and participated alongside the student-athletes during the competition labs. “If we didn’t have mentors, then it could have easily become a ‘mountain-top’ experience for the students. The mentors are vital in helping them process,” Dicks said. “If we think about it theologically, the mentors were incarnational in a sense. We were able to actually be present with them in a personal way, as opposed to one leader up front.”
White emphasizes the training that the mentors underwent prior to the retreat and how committed her team was to creating a safe space for the student-athletes to reflect deeply and explore their vulnerability.
“We trained the mentors well on how to listen empathetically without providing all of the answers, how to explore thoughts and emotions, how to lead small group dynamics well so that there’s mutual respect for each other to observe and listen,” she said. “Several of our student-athletes said that they felt free to share things at FSI that they had always felt reluctant to share before. It was very important for us to create space for them to do that.”
At the end of the retreat, FSI held a special seminar for parents and coaches to discuss the principles that the student athletes had learned over the past week and how they — the parents and coaches — can support them going forward. The best practices presented by White and her team aimed to provide practical tools and resources to encourage the growth and positive identity formed during the retreat. The response to this seminar was so enthusiastic that FSI expanded the 2019 seminar, opening it up to Greater Waco and lengthening the event. Topics for this year’s two-day seminar included motivation and identity, character formation with the Baylor Built program, and best practices for parents and coaches led by the Positive Coaching Alliance.
“We realize that if parents and coaches are the gatekeepers, then we need to encourage and equip them as well,” White said. “It is hard to wear so many hats, and we want to offer help. Research shows that young people can go to a ‘mountain-high’ experience and then within six to eight weeks, they’ve forgotten almost everything if someone is not supporting them with a similar vision and vocabulary.”
As White and the FSI team look toward the future, they point excitedly toward opportunities for expansion. The team also hopes to invite a larger number of guests — college coaches, sports leaders, chaplains, and others — to attend the retreat and learn about the proven theory and practices being used by the Faith & Sport Institute so that they can then bring that back to their own fields of sport or ministry. In addition, Truett Seminary will launch an online certificate program in the fall of 2019 to make these educational opportunities more affordable and accessible.
“We want to pay it forward and help encourage and educate those in sports as we seek to raise up leaders of competence, character, and compassion in a world that desperately needs it,” White said. “We want to offer this experience as an incubator for new ideas and insights on leadership and pedagogy. The world is scrambling to find what might work [to engage young people with their faith], and through our experience and research, I believe that what we’re doing has some solid, proven answers.”
“If you can learn it in the sport experience then you can learn it in real life,” White continued. “Sport is really a microcosm of life — hard work, discipline, leadership, pain and struggles, identity issues, calling, and vocation. We talk about all of these, and we practice it in sport, literally on the field, challenging who they are and why they are here. Those are questions we’re asking in our 20’s, and 30’s, and 40’s. If we can start early and ask those questions, provide some answers, and then wrestle through them in a safe place, then perhaps they can translate it into their college career, their families, and future calling. We want to reframe how they view God, how they view themselves, how they view sport, and then the world.”
To learn more about the Faith & Sport Institute, including how to become involved, visit baylor.edu/truett/FSI.
The Photos in the Slide Show below were taken by Quinn Bezenah.