The following is additional content from the interview with Phil Olson and the Catholic East Texas for the cover story in the Spring 2022 print edition. You can read the first part of this interview here.
Phil Olson is the director of track and field/cross country at Stephen F. Austin State University (SFA) in Nacogdoches. Phil and his wife, Donna, have two children and attend Mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Campus Ministry at SFA.
Elizabeth Slaten: Can you talk about how you bring your faith into what you do as a coach at SFA?
Phil Olson: Sure, that’s been a growth thing for me, growing into a Catholic man and a Catholic leader and a leader of young men and young women. The very basis for that is having the heart of a servant leader. I’d never been a head coach before I came here so it was definitely a learning process. Making mistakes. I wasn’t strong in my faith at that time. I was depending upon my value system and that sort of thing for becoming a leader and leading and coaching.
My faith in God, doing God’s will, loving others even if I don’t like them. Loving others and basically Jesus is my, well he’s the Lord of my life. I do everything based upon what he wants of me and what he wants for these young men and women. Everything I do is as a Catholic husband, father, and especially the servant leader part of it, because I can be really selfish. I could sit on my butt all day and not do anything and pretend to be a leader. But sometimes you gotta get down and dirty and do what needs to be done to get things accomplished.
Fortunately, I have good coaches that I work with. I have a really good administration that supports me and supports what we do. But I bring my Catholic faith everyday to work.
We had a conference in Birmingham, we used to have it every year, and so we went to the EWTN 7AM Mass and let them experience that. Then anywhere we would be on the road, I would say, “anybody that wants to go to Church, I’m going at this time and you’re welcome to come with me.” It just depends upon how many Catholics we have on the team at the time. Some years it’s a lot, some years it’s not as much.”
I try to be a very positive coach, a very positive leader, I try to have fun with them. Some kids don’t want to be led. Some kids don’t want to have a relationship.
But I pray, “Lord that today you keep my mind and my heart open,” Because I love them. I mean I just love these kids. And I tell them that.
All I can do is pray for them. You know I can fix things, and I’ve been a fixer. But at the end of the day, it’s prayer. And guiding them in the right way. I’ve had great conversations with Catholics wanting to know about the faith and wanting to know what I feel about certain things. It’s not very often, but sometimes it raises its head and the opportunity exists, so I take advantage of that.
Elizabeth: Do you have advice you’d give a young person struggling with their faith?
Phil: I think the first thing I would recommend is having a spiritual advisor. I think that’s really important especially for a young college age student. That’s the first thing because I think you really need. Someone to talk to you, not so much about personal issues, but about God and where he fits into your life. And how you can make corrections into your life. Because I think that’s part of it. Kids get to the point where they know they’re not living the right lifestyle, and that’s when they push themselves further away from their faith and so I think starting there is important.
Also praying more. Praying more, and not just praying more but praying all the time. That’s really special.
The third thing is taking part in the sacraments. The biggest one is confession. One thing I always say, and Donna and I always talk about, is that you’re given an opportunity each and every day to press the restart button. To start over again, to amend your life, to amend your attitude, to amend your character, and do things differently. To do things in a different way that is going to help right the ship and make things better as you move forward in life.
So if you’re struggling, if you’re suffering, if you know you’re not doing things right, you get up that morning and you say, “you know what? Today’s a new day. I’m going go to confession. I’m going to go to confession and adoration and I’m gonna try and live a better life.” I may be in the confessional two days later but again, you get to press the restart button and start over again.
So I think that’s the third thing. Remembering the sacraments and taking part in the sacraments. Knowing that each day you can change things if you choose to do so. And try different things to get yourself there whether it’s spiritual reading, or daily meditation, or knowing that Jesus is your friend, and wants to be your friend and you can talk to him about anything you want to talk about any time of the day.
Figuring out what’s really important in your life, what changes you need to make and knowing that it doesn’t happen overnight. You’re going to mess up and you’re going to go “no this is not right I’m not living my life should. I need to change this.”
That is what your life is about. It is getting to the end point, and the end point may start tomorrow, but getting to the end point and knowing that your faith is better at this point in your life than it was six months ago. Or two year ago. Or 10 years ago. If you can do that, if you can say that, even though we’re all sinners and we continue to sin, then I think we’re going to be ok. I think we’re going to be alright.
Elizabeth: Do you have anything else we haven’t talked about that you’d like to share?
Phil: One thing I wanted to say, I turned 60 in December. And when you reach certain decades in your life, where you’re facing decades and you’re looking back and thinking, “OK what am I going to do differently?”
So I woke up and I was thinking about what’s really gonna change for me. You know how you go to confession and you confess the same old sins, and you tell Father, “Father, I just confess the same sins that I did two weeks ago?” So I decided that then and there that I was going to really make a concerted effort to make Jesus Christ the light of my life.
I gave up some things in my life that were harmful to my relationship with him. And even at 60 years of age, because we all just do the same things over and over again that we know the Lord would not be happy about. I finally did that. And now, is the battle over? No, the battle is not over. Do I still sin? Yes, I still sin. But am I better off today than I was on December the 10th, the day before my birthday? Absolutely.
It’s about constantly gaining holiness. I think I took a really good positive step towards that. I find myself not having to go to confession as often as I did before. And when I have to go back I go back. But it’s a good thing. And I’m a better husband, a better father, a better servant leader because of it. I’m more patient with myself. I’m more patient with others. I have more of a kindly countenance on my face. So it’s been really good.
Cover Image provided by Phil Olson.