James McClune, assistant superintendent of Catholic high schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, was pretty surprised when he was awarded the University of Notre Dame’s “Play Like a Champion Today” Tulchinsky Award during the recent High School Athletics Leadership Conference. Just before he heard his name called, he was standing next to the buffet reaching for a dessert.

But when you think about the tremendous effort that McClune — who has also served as a coach for both the CYO and high school levels for several years — has put into making youth sports in Los Angeles a vessel through which young athletes can grow in body, mind and spirit, his award is really no surprise at all.

Many sports fans will recognize the phrase “play like a champion today” as the motto on the famous poster above the tunnel leading out to the legendary Notre Dame Stadium that the members of the Fighting Irish football squad smack before they take the field. But the phrase also serves as the name of a Notre Dame program, founded in 2006, that “partners with sports organizations by training coaches to understand their role as ministers of [the] Church,” an understanding that, according to McClune, isn’t necessarily a given for Catholic school coaches.

“Coaching is a ministry,” explains McClune. “Just as we think of our Catholic school teachers as ministers of the Church, extensions of the Church, even when they’re teaching them non-religious subjects, they’re still ministers to the formation of a child. And a lot of times, our coaches don’t get that instruction from the athletic director or principal of the school.”

Thanks to the launching of the partnership between “Play Like a Champion Today” and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles (its largest partner) in 2010, more than 1,200 Los Angeles area high school coaches have received that instruction through a unique training program that incorporates the research of developmental and sports psychologists, as well as members of the Notre Dame coaching staff, and includes a “sport-specific safe environment component.”

“Through our program, we know that, at least once, they (the coaches undergoing the training) have been told that they are a minister first and a coach second,” states McClune. “They’ve been employed [at a given Catholic school] for the same reasons that the teachers and principal have been employed, and for the same reasons that the school was established in the first place. It’s not about winning at all costs; that would be a shallow interpretation of coaching as a minister of the Church, to focus on winning over teaching and the development of a child.”

McClune believes that the “Play Like a Champion Today” clinics have played a pivotal role over the last six years in the development of outstanding Los Angeles-based coaches, who are capable of being positive influences on the formation of the children they coach. And according to representatives from Notre Dame, no one does more to galvanize the program in the Los Angeles area than McClune.

“Athletics in Los Angeles Catholic high schools have a reputation for excellence, and that reputation is due in large part to the tireless efforts of James McClune,” says a University of Notre Dame press release. For those efforts, McClune was awarded the 2016 Nan Tulchinsky High School Athletics Leadership Award, named after Nan Tulchinsky, a coach and athletic director based out of South Bend (the Indiana city where Notre Dame is located), who served young athletes in the community for more than 50 years.

McClune admits that he didn’t know anything about Tulchinsky or the award bearing her name prior to the leadership conference. But as someone who fell in love with sports at a young age and was blessed to have several coaches with great character and integrity en route to becoming a standout on the Loyola Marymount Men’s Volleyball team, McClune knows as well as anyone how crucial the Tulchinskys of the world are to teaching young athletes valuable lessons that are pertinent not just to sports, but to life.

“They (children playing youth sports) learn the value of sacrifice for the sake of a common goal, and sometimes sacrificing your personal dislikes for the sake of the team,” says McClune. “When you learn that playing sports, you’ll be able to use that [understanding] at your job later in life.”

And according to McClune, the Church has a great deal to offer in helping youth and high school coaches impart such values onto their players.

“There isn’t a necessary link between coaching and Christianity; you’re capable of being a great coach whether you’re Jewish, Muslim, agnostic or what have you,” assesses McClune. “But, from our point of view, if you are coaching as Jesus would’ve coached, or maybe in a way as he did coach his disciples and apostles and help form them, I’d like to think that if you use what the Gospels tell us and follow those teachings, you’d be a better coach than if you didn’t.”