The typical training that coaches receive covers topics such as league rules and emergency procedures, but for
the 51 coaches at Convent of the Visitation School in Mendota Heights, there is more: an overview of Salesian Spirituality, the theology of Visitation founders St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal.
Athletic Director Mike Brill invited Anne Eilers Williams, director of Salesian studies at Visitation, to chat with coaches recently about modeling Salesian values.
“We don’t compartmentalize,” Williams said. “We aren’t teaching virtues that just apply to the chapel or the classroom. They’re for the court, too. And the Salesian values of kindness, humility and joyful optimism have a very relevant application to athletics.”
As a member of Visitation’s class of 1982, Williams learned to recognize the spirituality of sports at a young age.
“The sisters would enthusiastically ask about the results of our competitions, but they also wanted to know how we conducted ourselves and what lessons we learned,” she said.
Williams gave Visitation coaches holy cards with a reflection on the Salesian values, which this school year will be dedicated to courage. Coaches also received a pocket-sized booklet of Salesian reflections called “The Golden Counsels,” which is used by Visitation nuns across the country.
Seeing God in everyone
“Salesian spirituality teaches us that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, so students should strive to do the best they can with their own gifts and have deep respect for the God-image of everyone, their teammates and even those they are competing against,” said Sister Mary Paula McCarthy, a member of the Mendota Heights community who graduated from Visitation in 1947.
That message seems to have stuck with Visitation athletes.
“I’m in sports that are traditionally considered individual pursuits, but before every practice and meet, we pray for each other to be the best we can be,” said senior Erin Scallen, a captain of the Nordic ski team and a member of the cross country team.
Scallen’s cross country teammate, senior Shannon Deasey, added: “We don’t have anybody out there showboating. We’re focused on doing the best we can do and on empowering and inspiring our teammates to be the best they can be.”
Brill said he is amazed that an institution which began as a small finishing school for girls in 1873 has grown to the size and caliber it is today.
“Vis is a unique school,” he said. “New coaches are introduced to Salesian Spirituality so they understand what makes us different. We want them to feel part of the community and get off on the right foot.”
Brill tucked a prayer into the packet of material he gave each coach last week. “Help me to learn something that matters once the game is over,” it says. “If I know victory, allow me to be happy; if I am denied, keep me from envy.”
Values more than trophies
The cases filled with trophies make Brill beam, but he places emphasis on the Salesian victories unfolding before him.
“One of the things I’m proudest of is not the fact that the swimming and diving team has won four state championships,” he said, “but that the seventh- and eighth-graders will tell you how much they have been mentored and encouraged by older teammates — that’s one of the great gifts of the Salesian education.”
That’s exactly what stands out to sophomore Nikki Janssen, a four-year varsity swimmer who joined the team as a seventh-grader.
“The older students on our team are supportive and often provide tips,” she said. “They have had a big impact on my attitude toward swimming and my commitment to become better.”
Rene Gavic, who coaches cross country and track and field, has witnessed beautiful bonds among teammates.
“Our varsity teams often include seventh- through 12th-grade students, and I’m impressed at the mentoring between the different age groups and the confidence and character that is built in collaboration and competition,” she said. “I believe that the way we incorporate Salesian Spirituality into our athletic program helps the students value their personal fitness and increases their sense of self-respect and teamwork.”
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