Whitefield Academy Blog
Classical Athletics: Teaching Virtue Through Sport
Last year, my wife and I started a rowing team at Whitefield. One of the neat things about coaching rowing at a classical school is that I can point to a rowing race in one of the most important texts of classical literature: the Aeneid. In one of the oldest references to athletic competition, the funeral games of Anchises include rowing, boxing, archery, and horsemanship. Aeneas held these games to honor his father who had died in the Trojan War. Unlike Aeneas, I do not schedule our regattas using the obituary section of the newspaper, but I think there’s something instructive about the fact that when the Greeks wanted to honor their fallen heroes, they immediately turned to fiercely competing with one another in contests of strength and skill.
For the Greeks, athletic competitions were religious rites, presided over by priests and done in service to the gods. We may think that times have changed, but in reality it is common to recognize the similarities between the actions of sports fans and religious worshipers. Too often this similarity leads to a replacement of religious worship with sport, as when families opt for soccer games over Sunday worship. But I believe communities of Christians like Whitefield can use sport in training children how to glorify God with their whole person, body and soul.
At Whitefield, students learn to honor God through the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. These virtues are habits by which we order our lives to the good and live righteously before God. I believe sports are essential tools we as educators should use to train each of the virtues, but I’m going to focus on fortitude.
Fortitude is sometimes termed courage, but it doesn’t only involve a lack of fear. Fortitude is refusing to withdraw from the good in the face of hardship. This is an often neglected aspect of the way we think about morality. It isn’t enough to teach our children that they should love others. As adults, we know that love often involves sacrifice and causes us pain. If we intend to help our neighbor, but don’t do it because it’s hard, we haven’t actually done anything good.
A hallmark of sport is that it’s hard, and pushing through painful experiences like muscle soreness or shortness of breath is rewarded. Rowing especially has a reputation for requiring athletes to endure pain and physical exhaustion. At the beginning of a race or in training, athletes commit themselves to giving their hardest effort, knowing that their bodies will hurt and they will want to stop. Each completion of the effort, where the athlete’s will is challenged with the temptation to stop or lighten up, is training the habit of fortitude. In life, when these young people face difficult tasks or circumstances, I hope they will remember when they were tempted to give up on their commitment to pull hard on the oar and continue living lives of righteous fortitude.
Click below to learn more about a classical approach to athletics.
Do you have an older student who is interested in transferring to a classical Christian school? Click below to learn more about how to smooth the transition process.