We’ve probably all heard about the benefits of participating on sports teams – values such as teamwork, loyalty, self-sacrifice, perseverance, and work ethic. Playing on a team gave me many opportunities to develop in these areas. Team athletics also taught me a lot about myself, and helped me prepare for life in and outside the competitive arena.
In a significant way, sports and competition shaped my faith and character. The famous UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said, “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” I couldn’t agree more.
My boyhood dream was to play in the NHL. My parents always gave me their full support despite the inconveniences it created and money it cost.
I grew up on a farm and my parents had to drive me everywhere. I’ll never forget those winter rides in our 1979 Ford pickup truck to practices, games, and weekend tournaments. The time away from the farm was difficult because there was always work to be done upon our return. And the amount of money needed for equipment, hockey camps, and travel costs was significant – not to mention the expense of windows and garage doors that were broken along the way (I didn’t always have the most accurate shot). Such challenges were always met with support from my parents.
Along the way, my character and faith grew – and were revealed to those around me.
The influence of coaches
I credit a lot of this “revealing” to my coaches. They recognized my passion and dreams, and provided daily lessons in faith and character. Ultimately, their influence inspired me to be a coach.
Now, many years later – and well beyond any chance of ever playing in the NHL – a passion for sports still burns within me. I’m blessed with the opportunity to lead a team as a coach. What kind of impact will I have on the character of those I lead?
Not all coaches or parents teach character lessons. I’m just as guilty as other coaches who sometimes believe their primary responsibility is to develop physical skills – to focus on athletic talent and the outcome of games.
Bruce Brown, in Teaching Character Through Sport, notes that for far too many young people in our society the path to becoming an athlete involves the following four stages:
1) Early in their lives, we identify and begin to develop their abilities (doesn’t sound wrong).
2) We focus on and allow them to focus on personal achievements (still acceptable).
3) They gain attention and applause – and, in the worst cases, a sense of entitlement; i.e., “Normal rules don’t apply to me” (red flags go up).
4) They begin to measure their success by the amount of abundance in their lives, such as money, attention, possessions (not exactly the lesson we want to teach our children).
Reversing a cultural trend
As society places a growing emphasis on personal gains and achievements, coaches can reverse this cultural trend by concentrating more on the character of their athletes.
“Developing and demonstrating character as an athlete means deciding to live by a series of difficult choices, based on principles and values that give your life deeper meaning,” says Brown. “What begins with the effort to make a tough choice and then follow through with that choice, can eventually become habit in the life of a young person.”
The best way coaches can influence character development, while still balancing their responsibility to develop physical skills, is through leadership. When you lead, look at the opportunities you have to model ways in which you expect an athlete to behave. Find ways to instill a variety of values, such as discipline, sportsmanship, determination, confidence, pride, integrity, healthy competition and work habits, and selflessness.
As leaders, we have the opportunity to serve and shape individuals. We must continue to ask ourselves, “Whose interests are we serving?”
Brown summarizes my own desire in coaching when he says, “Making coaching a ministry gives more urgency to every minute we spend with young people and gives purpose to the strategies we employ. Viewing coaching as an opportunity and responsibility to instill values, while holding athletes to the highest possible behavioral standards, gives the profession of coaching something that is priceless – eternal value.”
I still have a lot to learn as a coach, but my prayer is that God will enable me to pass on a positive legacy – similar to the one modelled for me.