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The Spirit of Sports

Volleyball coach Jeanne Hess on finding the spiritual side of athletics
Jeanne Hess, Kalamazoo College volleyball coach and author of Sportuality.

Sportuality (spor-choo-AL-i-tee) noun: the spiritual aspect of sport, a way of finding joy in the games. — Jeanne Hess

“I want parents to give their children messages of joy, of hope, of true competition. Of peace and of true religion. Not the idea of ‘us versus them’ or ‘us at the exclusion of them’ but ‘us and them.’”

Those are the words of Jeanne Hess, volleyball coach at Kalamazoo College for the past 30 years, as she describes the concept of “sportuality,” a word she coined and uses for the title of her book Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games, published in 2012 by Balboa Press.

Just as John Lennon asked us to “imagine all the people living life in peace,” Hess has asked her student athletes over the years to look upon the players on the other side of the net as an integral and necessary part of the game, to find joy in their presence on the court. Her book asks all athletes, coaches, fans, referees and parents of athletes to view opponents, whether in youth programs or the big leagues, in the same light.

The story of how Hess managed to bring together sports and spirituality began when she was just a tomboy on the cusp of Title IX, a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972 that gave female athletes rights equal to those of their male counterparts. While growing up in suburban Detroit, Hess fell in love with volleyball and baseball, especially the Detroit Tigers. She graduated from the University of Michigan, where she played varsity volleyball and was about to begin graduate courses in athletic training when she suffered a debilitating knee injury playing a pickup volleyball game with a group of male athletes. With that, “life as I planned it was over,” she says.

After the cast came off, Hess became a junior varsity coach at Father Gabriel Richard High School, in Ann Arbor. In that school’s gymnasium, she met Jim Hess, who would become her husband in June 1982. The couple came to Kalamazoo when he became the women’s basketball coach at Western Michigan University. Hess’ employment at Kalamazoo College came soon thereafter.

Hess was raised as a Catholic and Episcopalian and defines all people as God’s children united in spirit. Religion plays an important role in all she does. Not only is she a coach, but she is also a physical education professor, chair of the Physical Education Department and associate chaplain at Kalamazoo College as well as a Eucharistic minister at St. Thomas More Catholic Church. For Hess, the marriage of sport and spirituality is the natural outcome of a long-term engagement, and in her various roles she finds joy in fostering the talent and “sportual” awareness of student athletes.

“The concept was always on my mind. I would repeat ‘sportual’ concepts to my team over and over,” Hess says. But she also experienced — and wanted — more. “I would journal my ‘sportual’ thoughts and tell myself, ‘This is a book.’”

That book started to take shape in January 2009. The next three years were filled with early-morning writing sessions, aid from a writing coach, rigorous volleyball and teaching responsibilities at K-College, caring for her aging parents, and watching her and Jim’s two sons, Andrew and Kevan, play professional baseball in the Detroit Tigers farm system, including for the West Michigan Whitecaps, based in Grand Rapids. “I don’t regret a moment of it,” Hess says.

In her book, Hess asks society to examine the modern definition of words commonly associated with sport such as competition, spirit, enthusiasm, sacrifice; words related to sport such as communication (signs and signals), community (fans), education (student athletes) and sanctuary (the fields, courts and diamonds on which games are played); and words that, by modern definition, might not seem linked with athletic games but that, at their etymological roots, are also bound to sport, words such as humor (to perform with fluidity and flexibility), religion (to link back and connect to the source of our strength) and holy (to become one whole, as a team).

In spite of common beliefs, the words compete, competition and competitor do not really refer to a contentious rivalry in which the participants vie to defeat or even humiliate the other team or player but originate from the Latin competere, which means “to come together, to seek together, to agree.” Sportuality asks that we imagine athletes and everyone associated with sports agreeing that teams and players come together on the field or on the court to seek joy in the game and imagine opponents honoring each other for the skill they bring to the contest. It asks that we cherish an outstanding performance by one team or player as an impetus to elevate the performance of and bring joy to all.

Since its publication, Hess’ book “has taken on a life of its own,” she says. On a local level, Hess has spoken about her book in local bookstores and to Kalamazoo College’s volleyball team and physical education students. She’s reaching national audiences through Internet radio broadcasts, speaking and book-signing engagements throughout the Midwest and in Denver, her website (sportualitybook.com) and blog (sportuality.authorsxpress.com) and promotional campaigns by Balboa Press and its parent company, Hay House Publishing.

Sportuality has garnered a 4.5-star status on Amazon.com and has been reviewed by NCAA Champions magazine. Reception by audiences has been positive.

“People come away with a new respect for and understanding of sport and what it really means,” Hess says.

The principles of “sportuality” are also shaping Hess’ thoughts about her upcoming encore career. Proud of having served as a mentor to women collegiate athletes for three decades, she believes the time is nigh for her to perform in a larger arena. Through her vision and conversations with Kalamazoo College, she is honing her skills as a public and alumni liaison for the college, marrying her love of the college with her zeal to promote “sportual” concepts.

She’s fast realizing that having written Sportuality is just the beginning of several writing endeavors that lie before her. One is the in-process creation of a children’s book titled Sportuality Goes to Birdville, a collaborative effort with Floridian Richard Lamson, an illustrator whose Birdville Art website proclaims: “We’re serious about smiling.” Hess says Lamson’s art features “truth in simplicity, and, like me, he finds joy in what he’s doing.”

The Birdville book will be targeted to children ages 4 to 8 as well as their parents. Emphasizing the importance of reaching the young with her message, Hess cites a recent incident in Utah. “At a youth soccer game, a referee died after being punched in the face by a teenage player who had been given a yellow (warning) card,” she says. “The referee lost consciousness, went into a coma and died a week later. The youth is 17. He’s been charged with murder by assault and his life is changed forever, and there is a dead referee and his family in mourning.

“You’ve heard it said that we can’t have peace on the planet until we have peace in our hearts. That’s what ‘sportuality’ is about. I want people associated with sport to ‘go with peace’ into the game, and I want people in government and society and business to ‘go in peace’ to honor and serve others on the planet. “Teamwork is really the process of human beings working together — being competitive with each other — to create an outcome. That outcome can be peace or it can be war.”

Hess’ recent conversations with the leader of the Fetzer Institute’s global council about “Sport and Embodied Spiritual Practice” have been particularly gratifying for her because, one, she’s seeing the concept of “sportuality” embraced and presented by this internationally renowned organization, and, two, the Fetzer Institute’s founder, John Fetzer, owned her beloved Detroit Tigers from 1961 through 1983, during her formative athletic years.

As a coach and professor, Hess has promoted the cross-cultural and multi- purpose message of “sportuality” to her teams. Now she’s stepping beyond the volleyball court and aiming to be a conduit for other people to present their “sportual” stories. “My K-College business card says ‘Professor of Physical Education and Volleyball Coach.’ My personal business card says ‘Author of Sportuality.’ The next card will say ‘Author of Sportuality Goes to Birdville’ as well as ‘Speaker, Teacher, Officiant, Connector.’”

Yet even as she moves beyond the work she has done for three decades at Kalamazoo College, she acknowledges the important place the college will always have in her life and notes the common ground between the college’s philosophy and her own.

“The college will always be my home,” she says. “It’s the place where these ideas were born, nurtured and now practiced. It’s a very ‘sportual’ place.

“At Kalamazoo College, we send young people out on study-abroad programs so they can become enlightened leaders in a global society. Through Sportuality, I’m looking for the same result — enlightened minds, whether athletes or not, joining together for the greater good of all in a peaceful society.”

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Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games is available on the Internet and at local retail stores, including the Kalamazoo College Bookstore, Gazelle Sports, Michigan News Agency, Kazoo Books, The Spirit of Kalamazoo and Sol Spring: Massage, Spa and More.

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