It is entirely contrary to decorum to grow overexcited when you play. Still, you should not play in a careless manner nor lose deliberately as a way of flattering your opponent. This would make the person with whom you are playing think that you care little about contributing to his enjoyment in a well-played match.

  St. John Baptist de La Salle – Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility: Amusements (Pg. 91)

And so we come to Super Bowl Sunday, the closest thing that we have to a national ritual expression of our deep devotion to sports. Whether football fans or not, there are over 100,000,000 of us who tune in to cheer on our favorite teams, consume our favorite snacks, sit and argue the merits of players and plays with our favorite people, and generally settle into a comfortable afternoon as relaxing as that of the players is intensely active and professionally anxious. (Winners earn over $100K and a $35K ring.)

De La Salle understood the dynamics and positive aspects of sports and games. He wrote about the sorts of games that inner-city boys in 17th century France knew and loved outside of school . . . and sometimes during school. Here are some examples taken from the book he wrote on politeness, a book that was used as a reading textbook in his schools, so that these 10-to-13-year-old boys would learn something useful along with their reading skill.

  • You can play many different kinds of games. Some exercise the mind more; others afford more exercise to the body.
  • Games of chance “are not only forbidden by God’s law, but they are not even permitted by the rules of decorum. Consider them unworthy of an educated person.
  • It is very impolite for you to make fun of a player who has shown a lack of skill.
  • There are two passions that you must particularly guard against, so that you do not yield to them when playing games. The first is avarice, and this is ordinarily the source of the second, impatience and fits of anger.

As teachers and coaches, we can also learn from De La Salle that who we are and what we do influences others as much as, or even more than, what we say. “Example makes a much greater impression on the mind and heart than words, especially for children, since they do not yet have minds sufficiently able to reflect, and they ordinarily model themselves on the example of their teachers (coaches). . . . They are led more readily to do what they see done for them than what they hear told to them, above all when the teachers’ (coaches’) words are not in harmony with their actions.” (Med. 202.3)

A section of the Conduct of Schools (1720) lists, with real insight, six ways that a teacher can be unbearable to students.[1] Notice that it talks about teachers being unbearable, not students. With a few slight changes, here is how that section might be applied to coaches and sports.

  • First, the coach’s corrections are too rigorous and the yoke which the coach imposes upon the athletes is too heavy. This state of affairs is frequently due to lack of discretion and judgment on the part of the coach. It often happens that athletes do not have enough strength of body or of mind to bear the burdens which many times overwhelm them.
  • Second, when the coach enjoins, commands, or demands something of the athletes with words too harsh and in a manner too domineering. Above all, the coach’s conduct is unbearable when it arises from unrestrained impatience or anger.
  • Third, when the coach is too insistent in urging upon an athlete some performance which the athlete is not disposed to do, and the coach does not permit the athlete the leisure or the time to reflect.
  • Fourth, when the coach demands little things and big things alike with the same passion.
  • Fifth, when the coach immediately rejects the reasons and excuses of athletes and is not willing to listen to them at all.
  • Sixth, when the coach is not mindful enough of personal faults that he [or she] does not know how to sympathize with the weaknesses of athletes and so exaggerates their faults too much. This is the situation when the coach reprimands them or punishes them and acts as though dealing with an insensible instrument rather than with a creature capable of reason.

So when you watch the Super Bowl, think on these things, and see whether it might be helpful to text De La Salle’s advice to the players and coaches in order to ensure “a well-played match.”

[1] There is also a section that lists six ways that a teacher’s (coach’s) weakness leads to laxity, but there is not enough space in this reflection to list them. Worth looking up, however, in The Conduct of the Christian Schools (2007) – Pages 135-137.