Do Sports Actually Teach Character?

BY JOHN O'SULLIVAN, PUBLISHED IN COACHING, FAMILY VALUES, SPORTS PARENTING

Head to any sports field this afternoon, and you will hear whistles blaring and coaches urging on their players to work harder and compete more. You will see exhausted athletes with their hands on their knees being implored to do one more set, or a coach shout “do it again” when a rep is not good enough. The harder we work, we are told in sports, the more we develop character. But do they?

The actual definition of character is “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.” I find this interesting because the definition ascribes neither a positive or negative connotation to the word. Character is simply the mental and moral qualities unique to every person. Those characteristics could be positive or negative. So to revisit the question, “does sports teach character?” the answer seems to be the famous coaching euphemism “It depends.” Why? Because there are actually two types of character. Let me explain.

We often hear people exclaim that sport develops character, but that is only partially true. Sport naturally develops what we might call performance character traits. These are traits such as grit, resilience, and self-discipline. These are what researchers call “willing values,” the mental, emotional and behavioral attributes that drive performance in an achievement activity. In most cases, participation in a sport will to some degree or other draw out these attributes and present opportunities to develop them. Running an extra sprint, or doing an extra rep of a drill can develop performance character traits.

There is another type of character though, which we refer to as moral character. These are the traits needed for ethical behavior and functioning within a society, such as integrity, respect and caring. Doing a handstand or throwing a fastball do not develop these traits. Only coaches and parents who intentionally focus on them will develop moral character in their athletes. And sadly, this intentional character development has gone missing in many youth sporting environments.

As part of their InSideOut Initiative, former NFL star Joe Ehrmann and former coach and athletic director Jody Redman are engaging with schools and encouraging coaches to put the development of moral character on equal footing with performance character. Research has shown that elite level athletes often score higher in qualities such as ruthlessness and callousness. Yet in school and youth sports, this is a problem. “Studies show that the longer you play and the higher levels you attain, the more morally and ethically callous players become. There is something leukemic in American sports, and it is damaging the healthy development of our girls and boys,” said Ehrmann when he joined us on the Way of Champions Podcast.

Ehrmann and Redman, with the financial support of the NFL, are on a crusade around the country to shift this paradigm. They are convinced that education-based athletics is about connecting kids to caring adults and that coaches are supposed to build relationships that focus on social-emotional development, with winning as a byproduct. “Why do we even have high school sports if they are not education-based?” asks Ehrmann. “I think there needs to be a realignment in America. We have social contracts in this country. I think for a long time there was one for sports where sports was going to be a tool to help guide and nurture boys and girls into adulthood. I think that contract is broken.” 

Redman agrees. “If we’re going to evaluate coaches solely on their win-loss record then it’s our responsibility to tell them that, and really not function under this guise of, ‘Well, we’re education-based.’ Well, if that’s true, if we are education-based then what are those other factors that we want coaches to focus on besides just the physical aspects of the game? A coach can want to perform in a way that develops a student’s capacity to be a better person, but unless there’s support for that, and unless the community that they’re functioning in values something more than just the outcome on the scoreboard, then really coaches are forced to focus on winning.”

Today’s coaches work in a performance-driven society, and for many of us, our community and our leadership will pay lip service to moral character, when all they really want is performance character and more wins than losses. Some of us may be lucky enough to coach in a truly athlete-centered, education-based organization. Even then, we will face parents and community members who are willing to compromise a lot of moral development in order to win. And that is why both parents and coaches need a higher purpose than winning. So how do we overcome this, and introduce both performance and moral character into our youth and high school sports programs?

Advice for Coaches:

  1. Establish a set of team core values that reflect both performance (competitiveness, grit, effort, etc) and moral character (integrity, respect, compassion, etc.)
  2. Recognize that your moral character values will not naturally be learned and that you must INTENTIONALLY incorporate these lessons into your practices and team sessions. Attach them to a why and a higher purpose that simply winning on the weekend.
  3. Reward your athletes through praise and a simple token or symbol (see Jon Gordon’s book The Hard Hat for an example of this) of their demonstration of character. Perhaps allow them to then give that token to the next athlete who demonstrates that value. Reward what you value!
  4. Remember that which you do not condemn you condone. In other words, you can never allow a lack of respect or integrity in a single athlete, for if you see it and ignore it (especially if it is one of your top athletes) you just told everyone else this is OK.

Advice for Parents:

  1. Support programs and coaches who challenge and push your athlete appropriately, and who have a higher purpose than simply winning.
  2. Think about your performance goals for your child this season. Now think about what you want your experience to be like if he/she does not achieve them, does not become the starting point guard, or the leading scorer. What do you want the experience to be like, and how do you want him/her to be treated by the coach and team? Support programs that deliver that experience (check out this article for more).
  3. Put your money where your mouth is and sign up for programs that do not force your child to specialize too young, and focus on developing the person, then the athlete, and then the sport-specific player. Sports will deliver what people are asking for, and right now it is delivering far too much that does not serve the needs of the child in sport.
  4. Engage with your coach in a healthy and respectful manner. Let him/her know how your child is feeling and what is going on in her life. Work together with your coach to develop the whole person and not simply the sports part. Don’t talk negatively about other people’s children. And give the appropriate amount of time after a competition (minimum 24 hours) to discuss a performance issue with the coach.

Sports does not develop character in a vacuum. Sure, it may bring forth some traits such as perseverance and competitiveness, but moral character, the type of characteristics that drive many of us to sign our kids up for sports in the first place, does not happen by accident. The teaching of moral character only happens when intentional adults make it the foundational element of the sporting experience. We need to support these parents and coaches today more than ever, because these values are not immediately evident in professional sports or society in general.

“I think coaches burnout not because of the hours or the excessive time away from families or sacrifice,” says Ehrmann. “I think they burnout because they’re not coaching toward a purpose high enough to justify the sacrifices that they make.” I agree with that 100%. Try making the development of character one of your higher purposes, and develop great human beings who also happen to excel on the field and the court. Not only can it be done. It must be done.

Let’s have sport serve a higher purpose once again!