Young athletes fight to balance sports and faith

By  Vincent Pham, Youth Speak News
  • May 30, 2018

Sixteen-year-old Justin Alvarado has practice every day after school during the cross-country and track-and-field seasons. He is also a member of the FC Emery soccer club, with practices two to three times a week. 

Between classes and sports, it is easy for his faith to take a back seat. 

“I do practice my faith, however, not as regularly as I could,” said Alvarado, a Grade 11 student at Chaminade College School. “My sports very often are scheduled during Sunday Mass. …When I am in the off-season, I attend Mass regularly and participate in my parish community much more than I do during the sport seasons.”

Alvarado said his faith is very important to him and he wants to be committed to church just as he is committed to school and sports. But for him and many other young Catholic athletes, it can feel like a game of tug-of-war to find balance between school, sports and church. 

John MacMullen, the associate director for parish youth ministry with the Office of Catholic Youth in the Archdiocese of Toronto, says the conflict of sports and faith is a common issue among Catholic youth in Toronto. 

“I don’t think many well-intentioned, practising Catholics do prioritize sports over faith. I think many end up caught up in circumstances,” he said. “Being challenged to make sacrifices, balance schedules and live a moral life come part and parcel with being a Catholic involved in sports in the 21st century.” 

MacMullen explained that competitive sports has become “an industry of mega proportions.” Many families invest thousands of dollars for children to play competitive sports at elite levels. 

“Being put in a situation where they have to choose between their faith and a sports commitment in which they have spent so much money on makes them feel stuck,” said MacMullen.

Grade 11 student Domenic Sestito knows this challenge first-hand. He is a competitive soccer player and has two younger siblings also involved in sports. 

“My brother does hockey and my sister has dance and they usually have time interference as well,” said Sestito. “However, we try to make 8 a.m. Mass if possible.” 

Seventeen-year-old Helen Tran, who plays for Marshall McLuhan Secondary Catholic School’s senior volleyball team, said she is fortunate to play in a Catholic sports environment where prayer is integrated into the team’s life. 

“My team said a short prayer before our very first game in the season,” said Tran. “We hoped for a good season together and that we would get through it all together as a team.”

Outside of her sports and academic life, she is actively involved in her parish’s life. She tries to be dedicated to both sports games and practices, parish band practices and Eucharistic Youth Movement meetings. 

“Even though I am part of a sports team, my dedication to being part of the Catholic community is still there because it’s a part of me,” said Tran.

MacMullen said youth ministers can play a role in accompanying the young athletes with their struggle.

“I think the most important thing youth ministers can do is to stay engaged and in touch with youth and families trying to find a balance in the sports culture,” he said. “Demonstrating empathy for the challenging decisions, but also reminding them of the opportunities playing sports can offer as a means of evangelization and witness of their faith that numerous pro athletes have done through their careers.”

(Pham, 17, is a Grade 11 student at Chaminade College School in Toronto, Ont.)

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