“Sports don’t build character; they reveal it.”

—John Wooden

One of the biggest misconceptions in sports today is that they build character. However, if they inherently built character, professional and collegiate athletes in America would be some our most model citizens. We know this isn’t the case. Instead, we get a pretty bleak picture of athletics in this country when we turn on ESPN.

Many coaches join the profession because they believe in the transformative power of sports. Parents sign up their children in the hopes that they will receive many of the same life lessons that they themselves received growing up. Schools dedicate an astronomical amount of money and resources to their athletic programs under the belief that they are critical to developing happy and healthy adults.

Sports provide a platform—an incredibly powerful platform but still only a platform—to develop character. Leaders can use this platform for good or bad, but if we are not intentional, it will most likely lead to unintended results. So often, we expect sports to nurture and teach the values that we hold dear; yet we are not intentional about using our platform to nurture and teach.

For years I talked to my teams about the importance of rebounding. We did not choose to spend a lot of time practicing rebounding and thus we were not very good at rebounding.

For years, I talked about ignoring the referees and focusing on what you can control. However, I chose to not ignore the referees and to focus on what I couldn’t control.

For years, I talked about my athletes being people of character. However, I did not choose to spend any time building character, and thus their growth was severely limited.

Eventually, in our most challenging moments, we will fall or rise to the level of our training. We cannot escape this when it comes to skills, conditioning, and, most especially, character.

Three Ways to Build Character through Coaching

Throughout my coaching experience, I have learned to use my platform to build character in three ways:

  1. Be a good role model. If you want to lose weight, I do not imagine that you would be quick to trust an obese fitness trainer! So, why do we expect our athletes to trust us as leaders if we fail to model the behaviors that we expect from them?
  2. Hold your team to the highest standards. Transformational coaches and leaders are not soft but instead uphold high standards and do so with love and encouragement.
  3. Intentionally train character. Qualities like kindness, work ethic, self-control, enthusiasm, and poise must be trained—just like any muscle within the body—through repetition and resistance. Our sport offers many opportunities for repetitions on the field and off the field. If you truly value character development, this should be an everyday thing!

I have witnessed firsthand how sports play a foundational role in our society and culture. Thus, as leaders, we have a responsibility to use sports to help build character and instill the values that we hold dear. If we continue to shirk this responsibility, and we fail to be intentional in our training, then we will only continue to see a decline—not just in the sporting world, but also in society as a whole.