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.
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?
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!
Interview with Jody Redman and Joe Ehrmann. “Every Child is One Relationship Away from a Successful Life:” A Lesson on Transformational Coaching from Joe Ehrmann and Jody Redman of the InSideOut Initiative. Way of Champions Podcast, February 3, 2019.
Dr. Matt Davidson. Developing Performance Character and Moral Character in Youth. The Fourth and Fifth Rs: Respect and Responsibility, Volume 10, Issue 2, Winter 2004. https://ncyi.org/2017/09/14/developing-performance-character-and-moral-character-in-youth/