Sports and Character

You’ve probably heard the quote that says that sports don’t build character, sports reveal character. Even though I understand what the person is trying to convey, I have to disagree. As a high school teacher for many years, I witnessed just the opposite – that involvement in sports, or band, or orchestra, or debate club, does build character and teaches young people the value of being diligent, attentive, courageous, alert, determined, and resilient. Sure there are those who already possess all of these qualities, and a lot of times this differentiates them from the rest of the pack and sets them apart in the eyes of the coach or director. But the stories I love to recount are of those students who, through involvement in a group or team, grow and develop into more than they were before; and learn that being a person of good character helps them not only in their sport or activity, but also in life.

But why is it important to learn about and develop character while still in school? Everyone has heard the story of the college or professional athlete who shows great promise in sport only to wash out before realizing his dream.  Competence and ability are only one part of the puzzle when building success in athletics.  Elite athletes are known for consistency – their ability to routinely perform at the peak of their abilities.  This consistency is what sets them apart, makes them great. 

Character plus Competence equals Consistency.  In order to achieve success, elite athletes not only are physically able to perform, they possess the character to power through when things get tough, wisdom to make good decisions, and commitment to treat others with respect.

How can coaches, teachers, and parents instill the character needed to be consistent in the young people they influence? Recognizing and encouraging behaviors and choices consistent with good character is central to motivating students to make choices and demonstrate behaviors congruent with their positive inner core values. Start with frank discussions about the value of good character and then help the young people you influence to identify their core values. When the students find themselves in situations that test their commitment to those values, talk them through how to identify and make decisions that honor those values rather than weaken them. Share stories of times when you were faced with difficult decisions and how you handled those situations. Don’t be afraid to share the times you failed along with the times when you succeeded. It is actually through sharing your challenges and failures that you build bridges of understanding. By doing so, you make yourself accessible and easier to identify with and talk to. 

When students or young athletes make good choices, recognize them using specific language that identifies what it is that they did well. By being specific, you help them learn which of their choices were good and help build character rather than tear it down. Be sure to praise effort rather than outcomes and students will respond by trying harder and putting in more effort. Achievement is great, but is a reward in and of itself. By recognizing the effort and character the student exhibits, you help them grow and develop stronger character that will sustain them when times get tough.

If you are searching for a good way to grow the character of a team of young athletes, I would suggest looking at the Academy of Sports and Character at http://www.sportsandcharacter.com/a/ .

Instilling character in athletes will help them move from good to great.  Elite athletes and elite programs share a commitment to achieving success in sport, school, and life.