Why You Need Conviction to Put Character First in Sports

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You don’t need convincing that exercising 30 minutes every day is good for your health.

You don’t need convincing that reading 15 minutes every day is good for your mind.

You don’t need convincing that eating dinner every night with your family is good for those relationships.

When it comes to the many beliefs we hold in life, we don’t need more convincing, we need more conviction.

So, what is the difference between convincing and conviction?

Conviction is being so convinced and believing in something so wholeheartedly that we put it into action. When I am intentional, I turn my supposed values into action, I exercise daily, read daily, and I’m fully present with my family, I am convicted, not just convinced, that these will benefit my life.

Since my first day in coaching, I was convinced that character mattered! If you are like me, then you find yourself more often than not shaking your head at the lack of integrity in sports today when you turn on the TV or read the latest sports news.

But putting character first by being intentional about character development takes great courage and conviction in the face of a sporting culture whose central aim is making money and winning games. I lacked that courage and conviction for many years. The majority of coaches don’t need more convincing about how important character development is in sports, they need more conviction.

The Friday Night Lights Prophecy

The 1990 release of the critically acclaimed book by H.G. Bissinger, Friday Night Lights was an indictment on the negative influence of high school football in the town of Odessa, Texas. Originally, Bissinger had hoped to write an inspirational story, one like the story from the film Hoosiers, but instead, he wrote the following about Odessa: “The ugliest racism I have ever encountered, utterly misplaced educational priorities, a town that wasn’t bad or evil but had lost any ability to judge itself.”

People that read and continue to read the book are horrified by many of the things Bissinger reveals. I only read FNL this year, 30 years later, and I couldn’t help but think this book of the 1988 Permian High School Panthers football team season had prophesied our current sporting culture. I have observed up close and from a distance high school football and other sports teams prioritize money, athletic scholarships, and winning State Championships, all at the expense of young people’s educational and character development.

I have witnessed firsthand, read, and heard countless stories of athletes who have been afforded special financial privileges, while being held to a different standard academically and behaviorally. Why? Because of their athletic talents and their ability to help coaches, teams, schools, and communities win games.

The tragedy of the Friday Night Lights story is that sports used those young people for their entertainment and personal gain, only to spit them out when they had been used up.

The horror of the Friday Night Lights story is that its story is now the story of so many teams and athletic programs, it has become the story of the majority, not the few.

My Tipping Point

What moved me from being convinced to being convicted? In December 2015, as I prepared to take my high school basketball team to a tournament in Florida, news broke that three local high school basketball players were being charged with aggravated rape and assault of their freshmen teammate.

Outraged and disgusted, I sat and reflected on those events during my five nights with my team down in Florida. While I couldn’t believe something that horrific was possible on my team, I started to come to terms with my own failures to use my platform to love and serve players.

As news articles continued to circulate, the coaches were blamed and accused of complacency and mishandling the incident. But I realized the truth, we were all guilty of complacency and mishandling our platform in sports. I was convinced sports could build character and should build character, but I was not convicted, instead, character had taken a back seat and winning was at the forefront.

What Happens When We Aren’t Intentional

Jim Loehr in The Only Way to Win sites multiple studies revealing that “ethical character building is not a natural consequence of sports participation, sports participation can actually erode moral development.”

One Westpoint study revealed a decrease in the ethical decision-making of college athletes over their four years. A 1995 study of 1400 students showed that non-sport participants used a stronger moral reasoning approach to decision-making than sports participants. Another study in 2004 of 595 college students showed non-athletes scoring higher on tests of moral character than athletes. Even more disturbing, the study showed that as the achievement level of the athletes went up, their moral character went down.

But let’s be honest, we don’t need those studies to tell us what we already know. If character development were a natural consequence of sports participation and achievement, then the whole of the professional sports would be some of America’s finest citizens!

Still, those organizations do have some incredible people, many great mothers and fathers, leaders and stewards of their community. And they will tell you sports has had an incredible impact on their lives, and if you ask how it has had such an impact on their lives they will without a doubt point to some of the adults within sports.

These adults were convicted of using sports for good, to serve others. They modeled high character and were intentional in developing character in those people they were responsible of leading.

How to Coach Character with Conviction

1. Clarify Your Vision 

The day I published my article , I knew I was going to have to start using sports to build character after it got a lot of attention in the community. Over time, as I read, wrote, and engaged with people in sports, I gained more clarity of my vision for using sports for good.

2. Start with You

Find a mentor, examine and reflect on your beliefs and behaviors, retrain your default mode of operation, and model the personal growth you hope to see in others.

3. Build a Strong Foundation 

Surround yourself with the right people, select the right players, and then align everyone to a shared purpose, while making the necessary commitments to actualize them.

4. Coach with Intentionality 

Conviction is about action, character and culture development should be at the center of everything you do within your program. You should have evidence of character development everywhere your team goes, in the locker room, practice, film room, games, classroom, etc.

Take Action

Young people are counting on you to move from being convinced to being convicted.

If you are convinced character is important in sports, then start living with conviction! Make it the priority of your program and mission as a coach. Become intentional by investing your time, money, and resources into making it a reality.

-J.P. Nerbun

Works Referenced

The Only Way to Win by Jim Loeh