Doing Better at Doing Good

Doing Better: NC college president seeks to reshape amateur sports culture

CorrespondentsMarch 15, 2014 

William Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College, Belmont, NC

March Madness is upon us.

The ACC men’s basketball champion will be crowned Sunday in Greensboro. Then the thrill-a-minute NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments get underway this week, with some North Carolina schools in the hunt for national titles.

But sadly, the quest for the Final Four isn’t the only form of madness we’re witnessing. As sports networks and crazed fans pump billions of dollars into college athletics, scandal has increasingly become the norm at too many universities, none worse than the stunning sex abuse tragedy at Penn State. Closer to home, UNC-Chapel Hill’s athletics department is still coping with nagging questions about academic integrity. And, increasingly, an obsession with winning at all costs – and the fame, money and opportunity that come with it – is infecting high school and youth sports programs across the country.

“I think the vast majority of people would by all means say, ‘How do you make this better?’ ” says William K. Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College, just outside of Charlotte. “We’re all sitting there thinking the emperor has no clothes, but nobody’s saying anything.”

So Thierfelder has launched his own quiet crusade to reshape the character of amateur sports. His aim: framing athletics as a means to a higher end, rather than the end itself. He’s not the first North Carolinian to try, and he knows he has limited leverage as the leader of a small, private Catholic college far from the limelight. Longtime UNC system President William Friday, for example, tried mightily to reform college sports through the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which has succeeded in toughening academic standards but not in slowing down runaway spending.

Serious credentials

Still, as a college president, sports psychologist and former elite athlete himself, Thierfelder brings serious credentials to the task.

The son of a former vice president of the New York Yankees, Thierfelder was an All-American high jumper at the University of Maryland. He won a national championship in Ireland and earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. By the time injuries ended that career, he’d earned an Ed.D. and begun coaching athletes on achieving peak performance. He has since worked with a couple of hundred professional athletes, including many in the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.

Since coming to Belmont Abbey in 2004, he has initiated a program called Reclaim the Game, which positions the college’s athletics program as a forum for developing and exercising personal virtue. Thierfelder personally engages with all of Belmont Abbey’s athletes through a formal curriculum, challenging them to view their commitment to athletics as a training program for well-rounded, ethical performance throughout their lives.

His singular approach and sports psychology expertise have won influential fans. Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski wrote the foreword to Thierfelder’s new book, “Less Than a Minute to Go: The Secret to World-Class Performance in Sport, Business and Everyday Life.” Published by Saint Benedict Press in Charlotte, the book is also endorsed by Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson.

Start modestly

Thierfelder infuses the book with his strong faith, exploring the links between the mental, physical and spiritual dimensions of performance and sharing many anecdotes about prominent athletes he has coached. His companion website, www.LessThanaMinutetoGo.com, includes dozens of free podcasts about peak performance and videos on such topics as “how to focus in detail,” “mental speed,” and “perfect vision.”

He frequently takes his message on the road as a speaker for college, high school and youth sports groups, determined to spark a sustained conversation about the compatability of world-class performance and virtue. His work has been especially well-received by high school coaches around the country, a number of whom are using his book as a primer for making their programs about more than win-loss records. The changes we want, Thierfelder believes, will start modestly at the grass-roots and grow from there.

“Sport, like everything else we do, should be about the development of the whole person,” he writes in his book. “Sport, then, can be used to impact society and culture for the good, and it can be used to cultivate good and virtuous people, one athlete, coach, parent, or fan at a time.”

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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