Safety, Justice & Healing

The Catholic Athletic League: Ministering to the whole person, not just the athlete

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The number one reason kids play sports today is because it is fun, according to a study published in the “Journal of Physical Activity & Health.” The Catholic Athletic League (CAL) embodies that principle for every player.

Sue Vargas has found her definition of fun: playing and coaching volleyball. Vargas is the head volleyball coach at St. Paul’s School in Cranston, where she is also a 4th and 5th grade teacher.

Vargas grew to love volleyball in the same way her players do, through the CAL program, known as the Catholic Youth Organization in those years. She grew up in Cranston and attended St. Matthew’s Church, playing in the parish volleyball program beginning in eighth grade. Vargas went on to play volleyball at La Salle Academy in Providence before immersing herself in coaching at St. Paul’s after graduating from Rhode Island College. Vargas has been teaching at St. Paul’s for 21 years and coaching for 20 of those years.

“I am proud that we have sustained a volleyball team from our school for this long and that we have so many students who show a love for this sport,” Vargas said. “I have enjoyed interacting with kids and building relationships in a setting other than the classroom.”

The CAL’s mantra is to provide a safe, entertaining sports league where winning at all costs is not on the agenda for coaches and players.

“The main philosophy that I have learned is that a CAL coach is really a youth minister,” Vargas noted. “It is much more than skill and drill. We are looking to show players a glimpse of God in what they say and do in everyday life.”

Vargas says volleyball is the perfect sport for a coach to pass on the lessons of God to their players. It is an inclusive, team building sport but without interference from the opposing team, and a sport where mistakes are consistently made, which provides Vargas with many opportunities to teach important lessons.

“I constantly emphasize learning to pass the ball to other players,” Vargas said. “But more importantly, I want my players to get comfortable making mistakes. No one in this league is embarrassed, even at a big mistake. We’re able to laugh at ourselves.”

One of her favorite stories in her two decades as volleyball coach shows the inclusivity of the sport. An incoming middle schooler had an interest in joining the volleyball team. She happened to be born with a hand deformity, missing the bone in one of her fingers, and was prone to hiding the disability. During her first season as a volleyball player, the support and positivity of Vargas and the team helped her become more comfortable with her disability and boosted her self-confidence.

Vargas has had such a rewarding experience with the CAL that she also leads new coach training. She is a trainer for the Diocese of Providence’s Safe Environment Training, which teaches all coaches about their essential role as mandatory reporters, signs of abuse in children and how to maintain proper boundaries.

“We know how important it is to look out for the well-being and safety of kids, and this training helps reach that goal.

“We are our children’s advocates,” she continued. “Our job and duty is to make sure that kids are safe in whatever activities they participate in, especially if I’m their coach.”

Vargas is also a “Play Like A Champion Today” coach instructor. Play Like A Champion Today focuses on fostering moral and spiritual development through sports. This training is where she developed her coaching doctrine of “ministering to the whole person, not just the athlete,” and that kids should strive to win, but fun trumps everything.

Volleyball isn’t the first sport that comes to mind when people think of organized athletics, but the CAL volleyball program is thriving thanks to Vargas and the other coaches in the league. This season, her co-ed squad will play an eight game season against numerous other Catholic schools around Rhode Island.