Pavel Cancura boldly shares his faith
Pavel Cancura came to know God personally while he was playing soccer professionally in the Czech Republic. Now he’s pouring his faith into his current role as technical director of the Cumberland United soccer club in Ottawa.
Prior to playing in his native Czech Republic, Pavel played for the Liberty University Flames in the NCAA, but he didn’t originally intend to go to a Christian university.
“I went to Liberty purely by accident,” he says. “You want to talk about God’s hand—I sent probably 150 resumes and videos and I ended up at Liberty. At the time I wasn’t a Christian.”
Liberty University is well known for its strict code of conduct known as “The Liberty Way” and Pavel became well-versed in these rules and theology, though he never quite reached faith.
“I guess I became a mental Christian, for lack of a better word,” he recalls. “When I was in Virginia [at Liberty], it was very fire and brimstone, you need to repent—it never really inspired me that much. I could follow the logic of it, follow the verses, but I can’t say I was 100% Christian.”
“I signed a contract [in the Czech league] and it was over there in preseason that I for sure for the first time knew God,” he says. “I had the gospel presented in a different way through a book I was reading and it was the trigger that made it connect to my heart.”
That book was “Waking the Dead” by John Eldredge, which finally helped him understand God’s goodness and love.
“It was built more on John 10:10,” he says, “where the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but I have come that you may have life. Like, right now.”
“That just brought it home,” he adds, “along with the concept that even though we’re broken and we’re sinners, the broken pieces within us are still from God. That element is what flipped it for me: the pieces you have within you, they are there for a reason, even if they might be broken and disconnected.”
After two years of playing in the Czech league, Pavel came back to North America, where he coached at Palm Beach Atlantic University before moving up to Ottawa, Ontario to coach with the University of Ottawa women’s team. He then got the opportunity to run Cumberland United, which comes with a lot of responsibility.
“I’m the technical director,” he says, “so I’m in charge of the club, I hire the coaches, design the programs. I coach on the field with just about everyone. Lately, now that we have more staff, I’ve focused more with the younger kids, because there’s a really big need there and I enjoy it.”
Along the way, he developed a friendship with Kevin Cuz, who is now the National Campus Director for Athletes in Action. Through this friendship and a small group of coaches that he started, Pavel felt challenged to do more.
“We started a small group of all coaches, only four of us,” he says. “We started meeting for breakfast, then we got to this point where we were saying, ‘We’re supposed to lay down our best for Christ and use our strengths for Christ, how can we do that?’ The great big elephant in the room was me being the leader of a huge club with three and a half thousand players: I had a huge sphere of influence.”
Out of those discussions came the Proto-Athlete Program, a soccer clinic that would teach on-field skills and tactics, but also address issues of character and the heart in off-field sessions.
“We made it non-club focused, we didn’t want it to be just one team, one club,” says Pavel. “We also didn’t want it to be paid for: everything in soccer in North America is paid. Well, this one’s going to be free. If you can come, then come, you don’t owe us a cent.”
“I think the fact that it was free, that was a critical piece,” he adds. “It emboldened the coaches. The coaches could say, ‘We’re here volunteering our time, you’re free to come and go, so we’re just going to be us.’”
The response was immediate. They planned for a small program, expecting 20 kids. 60 signed up.
“The cool part was these were all leaders in the sport,” he says. “Every single captain of our teams was there.”
“There was very clearly a thirst for it,” he says. “People don’t even know what it is that they’re thirsting for, it’s not like they’re saying, ‘Yeah, we want you to preach from the Bible,’ but there’s this gap between connecting sport to life. What’s been surprising to me is that the more bold we are, the better it is.”
When the program became bigger than expected, Pavel felt the pressure of bringing it all together. He recognized the need to empower others to help.
“To be honest,” he says, “I was little overwhelmed by it. I’m a pretty busy person and this ended up being a lot of work. I reached out to my small group and said, ‘You guys need to help me, if you’re willing, to take a bit more ownership.’ So we broke up the tasks and it’s just way better now.”
Pavel has seen the immediate results of the program in the lives of his athletes.
“I remember one week we did it on community and I had a group of 15-year-old boys,” he says. “And I said, ‘Well, who are the kids you don’t like?’ It was just being concrete. Later that week I’m at training with them and we have a little tournament at the end. I’m looking at our captain, I look at his team, and he’s got these two guys that we were talking about. He’s there trying to lift them up, bring them into the team and influence them.”
“It was cool to see,” he adds. “We’re talking about a 15-20 minute little devotional and that week you see him rolling up his sleeves and saying, ‘I’m going to do this.’”
The experience has allowed Pavel to be more open about his faith with his club without having to force it.
“With that team,” he says, “I’ve started to pray with them after practice or after games. I just said, ‘I’m going to pray at the end, if you’re uncomfortable, you can go, practice is over, thank you, but if not, I’m just going to pray.’ Everybody came in and everyone prayed.”
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