Joël Thibault is a chaplain who helps athletes in their faith journey and their relationship with Christ. In our discussion, he explains to us how he came to choose this path, which led him to work with top athletes and soccer players like Aurélien Collin or Olivier Giroud. Joēl shares his passion for sports and his purpose in helping people spiritually.
Joël Thibault: I live close to Rennes, a city located in the east of Brittany in northwestern France. I work as a chaplain with athletes and intervene in international competitions, and I am also a spiritual guide for high-performance athletes, mostly with soccer players, as I have a background as an amateur player myself and I am also coaching a team of young players. My knowledge and experience in soccer helped me to have a better understanding of their needs. After studying sports in college, my goal was to become a sports and physical education teacher. On my way, I met Christ who changed my plans.
When I was in college, everything I was doing was related to soccer, it was my whole life. As a player, I reached the national league with my team. Even though I wasn’t aspiring to become a professional, I knew I could make a good living and a nice career as an amateur player and as a coach. That is why I was really committed, living a very healthy lifestyle, not drinking, not smoking, no drugs obviously. In a way, I thought my happiness would come from my career in football. However, I was frustrated and didn’t really feel happy.
A day of summer, I remember going to a party and “go wild” until I disgusted myself. At that time, I cried out to God and asked him to prove his existence to me and to show me his forgiveness. This prayer was the start and my mother offered me a booklet to meditate on a gospel verse each day. This answered all of my questions about life, how to be happy. From that moment, it took me about two years until I decided to redirect my life and put football on hold to be able to have a church life.
I was a bit of a pioneer in the field. At the time, I joined a Christian association that was working in the sports world. The year I obtained my diploma, we launched summer camps and in this first camp, there was David Alcibiade, a player who was 14 years old at the time. We have always kept in touch and when he turned pro, we met again and I accompanied him in his spiritual journey.
I noticed how these camps were a moment for those players to disconnect, recharge their batteries, do Bible studies, share their successes and disappointments. The rest of the year, soccer takes all their time and they don’t really have time for anything else. I told myself that there was something to do to help them with their faith. If they can’t go to church on Sundays for example, I will be the church that comes to them.
This is how I started to offer my services to these players. in 2011, I produced a series of documentaries that would delve into the lives of athletes and how they live their lives as Christians. It is something that existed in The US or in Brazil, but not in France. We first were supposed to produce one DVD and ended up doing three of them. This is how Aurélien Collin discovered our work and we decided to share his own story and his journey with Christ. Aurélien and I became very close friends.
Yes. I was asked to be a chaplain for international tournaments where I am accredited and offer my services to all athletes regardless of their belief. I’m here to be a support and a listener. I went to the 2016 Paralympic Olympic Games in Rio, and the 2017 World Athletics Championships. I was selected to be in the Olympic Games in Tokyo. For tournaments such as Euro Cup, I am more there to “mentor” athletes and help them during the competition.
My team is l’Olympique de Marseille and my eldest son supports Paris Saint Germain! [laughs]. It’s a generation thing. The best team of my generation was Marseille and I guess PSG is the best of his generation.
I do two weekly Bible studies for footballers, one for basketball players, and one for handballers. There are individual interviews, especially with a player who finds himself isolated abroad, it is not easy to manage for him. He needs support and advice.
The meetings are made by their sports category because athletes know each other and the goal is to exchange and share an experience. It is an opportunity for them to create networks among themselves. However, confinement allows me to organize virtual meetings where I bring everyone together and have 50 to 60 people praying together.
This is a very good question that I think about a lot. To me, success isn’t always what people see. Real success is what is behind the scenes. If we take the example in sports, a real champion is someone who excels in his sport and who also takes care of his loved ones at home. I would add that it is not only about the wins or trophies, giving your best, be honest and authentic are so important too.
The perfect day starts with me taking my children to school I have this privilege. After I have my reading and prayer time. Then, I am preparing my Bible studies. The afternoons are usually for interview times with athletes. In the evening, we do have meetings with my church and time for prayers. Besides, I regularly intervene in middle schools to speak about humanity and Christian reflection. In addition to this, I act as a chaplain to animate conferences in middle schools and high schools about sport and spirituality.
My favorite quote is: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” by C.S. Lewis
We almost did the last time I was in London. Aurélien (Collin) and I were playing in a soccer game organized by the French embassy and Olivier was supposed to join but he has a Champions League game that same night! We also were planning to do it in summer 2021 when it is quieter for him, but now the Euro Cup is postponed to next year, everything is uncertain. I started to play Futsal (indoor soccer), so I am waiting for him! Besides, this is a very technical game where he can show his talents! I don’t think people always realize how skilled Olivier is with the ball! I played with Aurélien (Collin) in January when we were in Tunisia, we had a great time.
Be polite, know how to say thank you, and be grateful for the people around us and who do us a service.
I currently work with a handball world champion. The lockdown due to Covid-19 really freed up her schedule because she plays the Champions League and usually has games every 3 days. Together, we have launched a web series [watch here] where athletes share their life during the confinement.
I would like to accompany Aurelie Muller, who is a swimmer. Her disappointment in the last Olympic Games in Rio made me sad for her and I feel her pain. I do pray a lot for her. Neymar is someone I would like to help as well, even if he seems inaccessible because he seems sad.
I would love to help athletes who suffer, meet and talk with them, and be able to tell them that love has a name and it’s Jesus.
It’s a good question. The importance is to return to the notion of pleasure and to ask yourself if you are where you are by choice or not. If you are, you must be grateful to have the opportunity to live a meaningful life and be where you want to be.
To answer about the confidence comes the question of identity. The problem with confidence is that people are looking for confidence or self-confidence in performance and results. Whereas confidence comes from the love of God. The base of confidence is love and the greatest motivation is also love. I made a lot of good friends who are Muslim. We have great conversations and I enjoy answering questions they may have about Christ.
My role is not to make them champions. On the other hand, I bring them a better understanding of the Bible and a deeper intimacy with God. How to better understand the will of God.
I dedicate myself to the human and the question of destiny. As we are talking about athletes, my job is to help a footballer when he doesn’t score for example, and to make sure that it does not affect his personal life with his wife and his children. This is the key. That’s why I was mentioning earlier that success is more about what is going on behind the scenes.
I’m going to recommend Francois Furtade from rap band Leader Vocal. He is also a pastor and a former professional boxer.
I would have never thought that there was a chaplain for football players, super interesting and fun read!