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How to Achieve Success in Sports and Life: An Interview with Dr. Bill Thierfelder

December 5–9, 2016   |   Vol. 129, Week 3

Have you ever thought about the fact that humans are so wired to play that we will pay to watch other people do it? This week on Homeschool Heartbeat, sports psychologist Dr. Bill Thierfelder explains why sports and competition are essential to who we are as human beings.

“Play is essential to who we are as human beings. It’s not a timeout, it’s not a distraction—it’s something that we need to embrace and properly direct.”—Dr. Bill Thierfelder

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Did you know that the secret to success is the same for a homeschool mom as it is for a world-class athlete? Find out what it is on today’s Homeschool Heartbeat with sports psychologist Dr. Bill Thierfelder.

Mike Farris: I’m joined today by Dr. Bill Thierfelder. Bill is a sports psychologist, coach, mentor, former athlete, and now the president of Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. Dr. Thierfelder, welcome to the program!

Dr. Bill Thierfelder: Oh, Mike, thanks so much! I greatly appreciate being on the show.

Wired to play [0:32]

Mike: You’ve spent a lot of time in the world of sports in many different roles. So, tell us: Why are sports worthwhile?

Dr. Thierfelder: Well, it’s a great question, and basically I’ll sum it up this way: every human being has been made to play. And as I thought about it, I began to ask the question: why was that?

I looked at people—some of the greatest minds that have ever been—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, I could go on and on. Plato in 386 B.C. said, “For whoever changes the sport is secretly changing the manners of the young, for the old to be dishonored, and for the young to be honored.” So, even Plato saw that, but I mean I could go on. John Henry Newman. Saint Paul, in 1 Corinthians—I won’t take up all our time here, but—“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit,” and he goes on to talk about that, “therefore glorify God in your body.” [In] 1 Corinthians 9:24, he talks about running the race, and ultimately winning the imperishable crown—and I love this at the end, he says, “I bribe my body, and I train it.” And the reason he used those analogies is because he was, as we all know, from Tarsus, and they had a palestra there—a place where people trained in sports. So he knew by speaking this way, people would come to understand better what he was trying to communicate to them about their eternal happiness and their eternal, in a sense, competition.

So from my standpoint, play is not just a thing little kids do—all of us do it. As a matter of fact, we’re so wired to play that we’ll pay just to watch other people do it. So, this thing about play is essential to who we are as human beings. It’s not a timeout, it’s not a distraction—it’s something that we need to embrace and properly direct. And that’s some of the problems and issues we’re facing today.

Achieving peak performance [2:08]

Mike: Dr. Thierfelder, back in 2013 you wrote a book called Less Than a Minute to Go: The Secret to World-Class Performance in Sport, Business, and Everyday Life. What inspired you to write this book?

Dr. Thierfelder: Well, one, I was tricked into writing it, but I actually wrote it for two reasons. One was that I was convinced that—and by the way, everything from that book goes to support Belmont Abbey College where I’m currently President—but the main concept behind writing it was that I wanted to show that sport and virtue—and when I say those two words people think, “Well, is there a choice to be made here? Either you have to be a world class athlete or you have to be a virtuous, good person?” as if somehow the two are mutually exclusive—they are not mutually exclusive. The two things go completely together, and we all know that virtues do not work in isolation. In other words, they work together, they’re integrated.

And so it’s essential to understand about sports that we’re not giving anything up. So when we say, “Hey, but you have to have the best performance.” Of course! We’re all called to that, but we’re also called to all the virtues that go with it, and that is what we should expect and demand.

Mike: So, what is the secret to world-class performance?

Dr. Thierfelder: Simply, you could say it’s excellence and virtue in mind, body, and soul—because we are all three of those things at the same nanosecond. And very often, as human beings, we break them into boxes to talk about them, but the reality is we are all three of those things.

One example I could give you is Saint Peter walking on the water. I say it’s one of the greatest peak performances of all time, and people say, “That’s not a peak performance, that’s a miracle.” I go, “Yeah, I agree, but let’s look at it.” Saint Peter was in the boat as Christ came walking across the sea, they were all scared, and he says, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you.” And [Jesus] says, “Come.” At that moment, his free will is fully intact—he can stay in the boat—but instead, he’s so focused on Christ that he literally gets out of the boat and literally starts walking on the water.

We know what happens; he ends up sinking because he starts paying attention to other things. And that’s the secret to world-class performance: it’s attention to detail, to begin with. If he had stayed focused on Christ, he would’ve reached him, and he would’ve gone over there and hugged him.

So, it’s a lesson to us that whatever we’re doing in life, to give our hundred percent in the present moment, fully focused on the task at hand.

Mike: That’s an incredible insight.

Using your skills to the fullest [4:16]

Mike: Dr. Thierfelder, modern sports culture is dominated, many times at least, by two extremes: some focus on fame and fortune to the exclusion of everything else, while others adopt the “everybody’s a winner” approach. What’s your take on these ideas, and is there a third option?

Dr. Thierfelder: Yeah, there’s the true option, the right one, which is based on Matthew 25:14–30—which is: each was given according to their ability, but each was asked to do the same thing with whatever they were given. They were asked to double their talents. Now statistically, doubling is a hundred percent, that means giving back all.

So, we are stewards of what God has given us, and it’s like Luke 12:48: to those who have been given much, much will be demanded or required. That is what we should be doing. So, when we go out to perform, when we go out to play—and sport is just one form of play, it’s the competitive form, and basically, it’s about focusing—but the focusing on winning doesn’t help you win. It’s a distraction actually, believe it or not. Focusing on what it takes to win is how ultimately, if you’re capable of it, you will win.

So the point here is to use all your skills, talents, and abilities to their very fullest, and ultimately you’re doing it for the glory of God—I mean, that should be our ultimate motivation for anything that we’re doing.

Mike: How can parents train their children to think correctly about competition in sports?

Dr. Thierfelder: Well, one, we’ve got to realize what world we live in. The secular world is actively affecting families, I think in many cases, in a very negative way. You’re now seeing pro sport—and I’ll caveat saying great pro athletes I know, great friends, great Christians—but most of pro sports today is the poster child for vice. That’s what, media-wise, is being shown to us. It’s affected college, it’s affected high school, and it’s gone all the way down to the youth level.

And we’re now doing this insanity of having travel teams for 5- and 6-year-olds. This is completely harmful and destructive to the family. There is no reason—it’s harmful and it’s unnecessary. Most of the world class athletes do not start when they’re 5 years old, believe it or not. They play most of their life, they may do a couple organized things, but by the time they’re 14, 15, 16 years old—that’s when they start getting serious about whatever they’re doing as it may relate to sports. So it’s about understanding that this is about play, it’s about dedicating ourselves to virtue in whatever we’re doing, especially if we play for its own sake.

And then, to be honest with you, there’s a very pragmatic part: there’s genetics in this. If you’ve ever seen an NFL player—and I’ve worked with a lot of them—they are unique human beings. You can’t see me now, [but] I’m 6’8”. I could’ve started saying, “Hey, I want to be a jockey” when I’m 5 years old—there’s no way even if I’m on the jockey travel team, that today at 6’8” I’m ever going to be a jockey. It’s just not going to happen.

So, what’s more important is that we do things for the right reason and we make sure that the family comes first, not sport.

The secret to success [6:51]

Mike: Dr. Thierfelder, your book focuses on sports, but it also draws a connection to business and everyday life. How do the ideas we’ve been discussing in the context of sports apply to the rest of life?

Dr. Thierfelder: Well, it begins with the thing that hopefully drives all of us. I know it doesn’t—sometimes we’re not aware of it—but our motto is that in all things God may be glorified (1 Peter 4:11). So the same principle of attention to detail, focused on what we’re doing, using our hundred percent—remember there’s no hundred and ten percent, there’s no secret slice under a pie, it’s only a hundred—but using the whole hundred percent focused on the task at hand in the present moment—because that’s where God is, by the way. All of time is present to God. He’s got no past, He’s got no future, he’s in this present moment. To the degree I stay in the present moment is the degree I remain in union with God. And therefore, if I ruminate about the past, or I get anxious about the future, I’ve left Him, because He is here and now.

That principle applies whether you are a world-class professional football player, basketball player, baseball player, or you’re a CEO of a company, or you’re a manager of a department, or you’re a mom, or you’re a mother taking care of your 10 homeschooled children—I mean, the same principle applies to us in all these things. The details change, [but] the concepts stay the same.

Performance and self-worth [8:05]

Mike: Dr. Thierfelder, how do you incorporate these great ideas we’ve been talking about, relative to sports, into the homeschooling of your kids, and how other people can do it for their own children?

Dr. Thierfelder: As you know, Mike, my wife and I homeschool our 10 children. Some of them are out—they’ve graduated, believe it or not, for college already—but we’ve homeschooled our 10 children. I think some of the most important things for a mother and father to know about that, how this applies to their homeschooling children, is that one, you’re hopefully developing and forming your children in a way that they don’t need that clap on the back. They don’t need the world to clap them on the back in order for them to feel good about themselves.

And two, often what I see, especially in professional circles with athletes, Olympic athletes, is that they get caught up in this connection between being good enough and being loved, and the two have absolutely nothing to do with each other.

So, it’s important for you to have this conversation, talk to your children about that, that they understand that anything they’re doing, you’re just supporting it because you want them to use all their skills, talents, and abilities and if it happens to be in a particular area, and it happens to be in sports, fantastic, that’s great. But it has nothing to do with your love for them or anybody else’s. Because I can tell you, anybody who stops loving you because you don’t perform well never loved you to begin with.

So it’s about being free to be the Matthew 25:14–30, the parable of the talents, doubling those talents—it’s being freed up to go do those things.

Mike: If you could give homeschooling parents just one piece of advice in this sector of life, what would that be?

Dr. Thierfelder: Well, I’m going to give you a quote, and I’d say that if you could follow the advice in this quote, this would be the mission, I think, of every sports team or sports organization or family as it looks at sport. It goes like this, “Sport properly directed develops character, makes a man courageous, a generous loser, and a gracious victor. It refines the senses, gives intellectual penetration, and steels the will to endurance. It is not merely a physical development, then. Sport rightly understood is an occupation of the whole man. And while perfecting the body as an instrument of the mind, it also makes the mind itself a more refined instrument for the search and communication of truth, and helps man to achieve that end to which all others must be subservient: the service and praise of his creator.”

To me, that sums up for men and women what sport is supposed to be. It needs to be properly directed, and if it is, it will raise us up and have us do something that we’re all called to, which is the service and praise of our creator. And I know that’s not normally what we think of sports, but that’s my advice to any homeschool parent, or anybody for that matter, in terms of how they live their lives, and how they incorporate sport and play into their family.

Mike: This has been a great set of programs this week—we really appreciate you being with us, and I know it’s going to be very much appreciated by the vast majority of our listeners. I’m Mike Farris.

Dr. Bill ThierfelderPhoto of Dr. Bill Thierfelder

Dr. Bill Thierfelder is President of Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic Liberal Arts College located 10 miles west of Charlotte, N.C. Founded by Benedictine monks over 138 years ago, the college embodies the Benedictine tradition of prayer and learning by educating students to lead lives of integrity, to succeed professionally, to become responsible citizens and to be a blessing to themselves and to others.

Dr. Thierfelder received his master’s and doctoral degrees in Sports Psychology and Human Movement from Boston University. He is a licensed psychologist and a Diplomat of the American board of Psychological Specialties. He is also a member of the American College of Sports Medicine and the United States Olympic Committee Sport Psychology Registry. He is a former NCAA Division I coach, Olympian (did not compete due to injury), national champion (IRE) and a two-time All-American from the University of Maryland. He is a member of the Sports Faith International Hall of Fame, which includes world-class athletes, coaches, and team owners, such as George “Papa Bear” Halas, Wellington Mara, Brian Piccolo, and others.

Prior to his appointment as President of Belmont Abbey College, Dr. Thierfelder was president of fitness legend York Barbell Company. Other career posts include National Director of Sports Science for NovaCare; principal and cofounder of Joyner Sports Medicine Institute; and Executive Director of The Player Management Group. He has helped over 100 Olympic and professional athletes achieve dramatic improvements in performance.

Dr. Thierfelder has delivered hundreds of presentations regarding topics related to faith, sport, education, medicine and business, as well as testifying before the United States Congress in matters related to religious liberty. He is a Knight of Malta and lives just outside of Charlotte, NC with his wife, Mary, and their 10 children.

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