Cook: Chattanooga's athletic Steve Jobs

Cook: Chattanooga's athletic Steve Jobs

February 7th, 2016 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

FILE - In this Oct. 1, 1975, file photo, spray flies from the head of Joe Frazier as Muhammad Ali connects with a right in the ninth round of their title fight in Manila, Philippines, Ali won the fight on a decision to retain the title. The two fought three times, including two of the most famous matches ever. (AP Photo/Mitsunori Chigita, File)


David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

There is the dark, masochistic side of athletics. Look at the violence in Ooltewah.

There is a greedy, gluttonous side. Look at tonight's Super Bowl, which tastes like empire and cheese dip.

There is the thin, mean side of athletics, all and only about winning and ego.

Yet there is a deeper side of sports that rape, bling and trophies can't touch. Within the true nature of sport, there is compassion and goodness.


Commitment to the human family.

And joy.

Just the other night, my pony-tailed point guard and her neighbor stayed out well past dark in the driveway shooting layups. Nobody made them. Nobody bribed them.

They did it for the joy. For the fun.

All across the city, grown men and women still play together like kids — ultimate Frisbee, pickup basketball, afternoon tennis, church softball. Why?

The fun. The joy.

If we live to 100, we will still remember the time we sank the winning free throws, or what it felt like to finally — finally! — nail that backhand down the line, or run a sub 6:00 mile, or pin the crosstown rival. We will remember the coaches that were more like fathers and mothers, the teammates like brothers and sisters.

The way the long fingers of defeat shape and mold our character. The way victory turns our hearts into a one-man-band.

That is the true nature of athletics.

So if sports can be so powerful to us, what if we could double-down on ways of making sure they are used to transform, serve and love, not damage and harm?

With intention and strategy, what if we found ways to make sports less about winning and more about the human family?

Does that sound too dreamy? Too wishy-washy?

"It's not wishy-washy at all," said Sam Parfitt. "It can be done, with real strategies."

In the world of local athletics, Parfitt is our disruptive visionary, our Steve Jobs. The 25-year-old athletic director at St. Peter's School, Parfitt, who grew up in Britain and played some of the highest levels of international tennis before coming to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, has become known across the world — from the U.N. to British Parliament — for his work redefining sports as a method for social good.

"Performance and compassion, kindness, overall health and community spirit, all at once," Parfitt said.

He's part of a think tank at the Muhammad Ali Center that's crafting a Declaration of Human Rights in Sports. He worked with the U.N. to create the International Day of Sport for the Development of Peace.

His work incorporating mindfulness into athletics has gotten the attention of the personal trainer for British Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as Premier League footballers.

At St. Peter's, he turns PE classes into a place where everyone is an athlete. He teaches kids about nutrition, positive imagery and gratitude. Athletics becomes less about battle-ball and more about soul-craft.

And he writes curriculum for coaches and schools, helping them do the same thing.

He calls his work the True Athlete Project.

He's turning athletes into true athletes.

"So everything they do is linked to goodness and the mark they make on the world," he said.

True athletes live out of the body, mind and spirit. Athletics becomes a process — a mindful act — not just a performance.

But athletes can't get there alone.

They need coaches.

"Think about all the coaching that goes on right now as we're talking. There are thousands of coaches," he said. "Yet how many have actually had training in motivational technique or communicating with kids or developing a child holistically?"

Imagine if every coach had such training. Or if national federations required their coaches to gain certification in positive psychology, or nonviolent communication, or mindfulness.

"A holistic approach," Parfitt said.

Parfitt's not alone in Chattanooga. I think of Joe Smith and Y-Cap, and the wonderful work of Kelsey Watson's Chattanooga Elite Basketball, where coaches use basketball as a tool for service, mentor-ship and academic integrity.

Yet Parfitt? He's pioneering work on athletics and mindfulness I've not seen anywhere else. In March, Parfitt and meditation expert Yong Oh will lead a course on athletics and mindfulness at Center for Mindful Living. (Visit for more info).

This fall, Pope Francis will convene the Vatican's first-ever conference on sports, faith and humanity. From Vatican City to Chattanooga, there is a growing global movement to activate and promote the true nature of sports.

"Creating a compassionate world through the power of sport," Parfitt said.

Wouldn't you love to see a Super Bowl ad about that?

David Cook writes a Sunday column and teaches at McCallie School. Contact him at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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