Coaching for Character in Youth Sports (1/3)

Youth Football
Youth Football by bdc269

I recently had a conversation with a client whose teenaged daughter was getting involved in a very competitive sports league.  He was worried about becoming “That Dad“…  The guy who pushes his kids hard, and winds up sucking all the fun out of their activities, so that they do them because they are just afraid to say “no.”  Or worse, win-at-all-costs dad who sucks the fun out of the sports for everyone.

After a few months of coaching I often end up knowing my clients better than their best friends do.  It is a side effect of spending hours asking probing questions about uncomfortable topics.  In the case of this particular client I could confidently say that he was in absolutely no danger of becoming That Dad… it just wasn’t in his character.  However, I could also tell him that he was in danger of being too soft and letting his daughter just coast in the league, throwing his money away in the process.  More important, it would be a lost opportunity: getting involved in your kid’s sports is a golden opportunity to help them succeed not just in sports but elsewhere, too.

Sports are an amazing opportunity to teach your kids genuine Character.

Character and “character education” are terms thrown around a lot when talking about educating young people these days.  Unfortunately what schools and a great many youth programs mean by “Character” is anything but.  There seems to be a lot of mistaking Groupthink, Social Justice (if you have to pin “social” to the front of it it probably isn’t “justice”), Conformity, or Diversity for Character, when sometimes those are the opposite of what Character is.

In reality Character is a set of attitudes, beliefs, social skills, and habits that work together to make a person who treats others with respect, dignity, and who makes both good decisions and has a strong moral frame.  While there are many different aspects to having good character, the ones I will focus on in the next three artcles are:

  • Integrity
  • Leadership
  • Sportsmanship
  • Challenge-Seeking
  • Discipline
  • Personal Growth
  • Teamwork
  • Compassion
  • Perseverence


I make a big deal out of Integrity on my blog, because I do believe it is one of the most important – and often the most neglected virtues.  A person who is honest, tries to live by a code of conduct, and who doesn’t play mind games to get what they want reaps many benefits.

Knowing what you want, being clear on your values, and having relationships that are not confused with masks and false personae simplify your emotional and interpersonal life.  You argue less, worry less, spend less time trying to please other people, and at the same time, have direct and meaningful relationships with those people that you surround yourself with.

In youth sports, Integrity at its core can be summed up in this idea: “I am here to learn to play a game to the highest standard I can, to do my best to show up for my team, and to earn a place in our league based on how good my best really is.”

That means that you agree to follow the rules of the game, first and foremost.  A team that cheats, exploits the rules, or looks for ways to disqualify or use technicalities to “beat” another team hasn’t earned their place in the league, they have stolen it.

Likewise, a team or athlete that is willing to gain advantages based on anything other than fitness, skill, strategy, and team coordination – like using ringers, excluding some team members, bullying members of the other team, etc., have also acted without Integrity; they are trying to get a position in the league without earning it by playing the game.

It is worth noting that this is a big problem in youth sports – in recent studies, 40% of teen athletes thought it would be acceptable to use a stolen playbook to gain an advantage over another team, depending on the sport and gender 18-54% of teen athletes approved of trash talk, and 30% of teen baseball players thought it as okay to try and injure a batter by throwing directly at them to get them off of the field (Austin, 2010).

Oddly playing to “just have fun” it its own way shows a lack of Integrity, too.  If a player doesn’t play to win, then they are cheating the other team out of the chance to really earn their place in the league, and robs their own teammates of the same.  In order to be in integrity a team has to play to win – but they should aim to win by performing to their highest standars.  Having fun and keeping a good attitude is a big part of playing to your best.  Fun is a part of the winning strategy, not the opposite of it.

A Coach can teach Integrity by insisting that their coachees play a clean game, that they understand the rules, and focus on improving their performance, rather than “beating” the other team.  He should motivate his players to win not by saying that winning is everything, but reminding them that aiming to win is an important part of playing the game – that it is not fair to the other team to do anything less than their best.  He should discourage trash talk.

A Parent can help their child develop a sense of integrity by making sure that they learn not just the rules of a game, but what is considered good conduct.  They should encourage them to play without trash-talk, bullying, or showing off.  They can check in with their child about how motivated they are to try their best… to make sure they aren’t checking out or just going through the motions.

When a parent sees that their child is working hard to improve, following the rules, and bringing energy into the game, they can work miracles by saying something like: “I see how hard you are working to bring your best self into this game – and I admire that.  It makes me proud, and I hope it makes you proud, too.”


Leadership is not just the role of the coach and the captain of the team. Everyone on a sports team has a chance to show leadership. Real leaders are first and foremosts servants to their team – they serve by helping other people play to their strengths by appreciating, encouraging, and offering pointers for growth on them.  They also serve by making sure that everyone understands and focuses on their role within a team.  They serve by helping teammates partner up with others that can handle their weaknesses.  And they serve by making sure that each person feels like a valued and appreciated member of the team.

Any time one team mate volunteers to help another practice on a skill, they are being a leader.  Any time one team mate appreciates what another is good at, and encourages them to hone that skill, they are being a leader.  Any time a team member acts as a friend to a team mate, they are being a leader.  The same is true any time one member of a team makes sure that their team mate feels appreciated.

Few young athletes really understand just how much a word of appreciation, some time practising together, or a simple act of reaching out and including someone is and act of Leadership.  Nor do they understand that this is the same sort of Leadership that makes a difference in corporate boardroom or on a volunteer committee as it does on the sports team.

A Coach has to both provide Leadership and model it for his team.  He has to encourage is teammates not just by appreciating their skills and giving them feedback, but encouraging them to appreciate each others skills.  Tools like awarding MVP and Most Improved Player can be very useful tools, but they only go so far, because they are top-down: the coach providing a token of leadership to members of the team.  What is often more effective is to get the teammates to talk about their performance and voice their appreciation for the skills of their teammates in an after-game analysis.

Likewise a coach can encourage leadership by setting up partnerships during practice.  Instead of, for example, studying each child’s swing at bat, and then guiding them to improve, he can pair excellent batters up with batters who need help, and them to coach each other – with a little guidance on teaching style.  Eventually every team mate will have an opportunity to coach or at least demonstrate the skills they shine at this way.

In many ways a good coach is a networker as well.  When he sees chemistry between to players, fostering a friendship or a mentoring relationship between them that will likely extend beyond the team is one of the most valuable services he can offer his team.  If a coach wants to really go the extra mile, knowing which team members are excelling and struggling at what in school, and who has common interests can allow him to foster relationships between team members outside of the sports club.

A Parent should talk to their child not just about their experience of the game, but their experience of the team; ask them who is good at what skills, which team mates inspire them.  Encouraging them to pay other team members compliments can help their child naturlly fall into a leadership role.  Likewise, asking your child which team mates they thing that they could help with the skills your child excels at is a golden opportunity to inspire them to lead.

If you have time where you work with your child on fitness or sports outside of the team practices (an ideal situation), you might want to encourage your child to invite other teammates (and possibly their parents) along once in awhile for an informal training session.

Making time for your child to spend time with the teammates they have befriended is an amazing way to build up their leadership skills without needing to do much actually related to the sport.  Your child and their friend will probably talk about, think about, and practice their sport in unstructured time together.

Of course, as a parent you are already a model of leadership.  Team sports are often a place where you can see your leadership in the home reflected back at you.


The problem with the idea of Sportsmasnhip is that it is often framed as an issue of manners.  It is seen as refusing to gloat and avoiding expressing bitterness.  We focus on the trappings of Sportsmanship, like shaking hands, when we ought to be looking at the attitude that those handshakes is meant to express.

Sportsmanship is the art of treating your opponents and rivals with respect and dignity. It comes from recognizing that ultimately, the game you are playing is just that, a game.  It is a chance for everyone involved to show off their best, to test their limits, and to improve themselves.  You may have been pitting yourselves against each other, but you were after the same thing, and got the same joy out of it.  It also comes from realizing that if you didn’t have that opponent, then neither of you would have been able to enjoy the game – and showing them gratitude for that.

By framing it as gratitude for the chance to play and to shine, rather than being about being a magnanimous winner and a “good loser”, you see yourself in the other player.  You acknowledge that they are as worthy as you are.  While you may wear different uniforms, you have the love of the game in common and that is far more important.

Sportsmanship seen in this light helps build larger communities, as everyone in the league learns to appreciate what they have in common, rather than turning a team a small gang of kids from the same neighbourhood that see themselves as better than the kids five blocks down.  It turns the natural energy and competitiveness of teens into a means of building bridges rather than walls.

It also help youths learn to practice genuine gratitude, which is something that will help them build better relationships, and be emotionally healthier as adults.

A Coach very much sets the tone and attitude that their team has towards their rivals. A coach has a responsibility to watch for the natural tendency that young people have to form exclusive cliques as it appears in their teams.  Heading it off when members of his team talk negatively about rivals is the first part of this.

The second is to foster appreciation of rival teams.  Talking about their strengths and what they do well first, and then talking about how your team must be aware of those on the field helps the team appreciate their opponents as players.  Likewise, talking to your team about how their opponents are going to challenge them and strategies to rise to that challenge, rather than how to “beat” them will change the perspective of the team members.  Emphasizing every match as a learning opportunity is an excellent way to help your coachees develop a sportsmanlike mental frame.

It can also help to make sure that your teammates have perspective on the whole league.  If they keep track of the scores, hear about the other teams regularly, and understand the larger organization that supports their league and its philosophy,

As a Parent you can make sure to let your child know why you want them involved.  Tell them why you admire the sport, the league an he supporting organization, etc.  If they see you taking an interest in the sport and everyone involved, they will do the same.

Two strategies you can take to make sure your child develops a sportsmanlike frame of mind is to make sure you are volunteering your time in some way, and to get involved with other parents.  If you are going to be at the games anyway, why not help the kids with their gear, share rides, or chaperone parties?  If your child sees you getting involved with parents of their teammates or other youths in the league, they will see that the sport creates a community that is bigger than the team, winning, or losing.

One of the biggest obstacles in place of developing a sportsmanlike frame for kids is overscheduling.  If your child is involved in too many activities, it can be very difficult to see any one of them as particularly important or meaningful; the overcheduled child sees all of their activities as busywork, send tends neither to take lessons from them or to become emotionally invested in them.  At the same time, if your child is overscheduled, then you wont have time to spend with your child for training, practice, time spent with the friends they make in their activities, or in learning about their activities.

Ideally, your child should have no more than two activities that they can spend a lot of time on, rather than several activities that they must spread their focus across.  If you and your child can spend 20-30 minutes doing a related activity, like playing catch – or just watching a game on TV together on days when they don’t have activities in lieu of chauffeuring them around, you can build a better relationship with your child, teach them to focus on building an mastering skills, and help them value their activities and learn from the more effectively.


One of the critical differences between a person who has a strong character and one who does not is that the person of strong character seeks to challenge themselves.  They are not content to cruise when they can be testing their on limits.

Teaching a young person how to appreciate being challenged can be difficult these days.  There is a culture among many young people of expecting instant mastery.  If they are not immediately good at something, they are not interested in trying further.  Fighting the desire for instant mastery can be very difficult, especially in pre-teens.

The key to helping kids develop an attitude of enjoying the challenge and learning required to become good at a skill starts by first ensuring them that they can be better, and that there are people who believe in their potential.

This has to be followed by a few early successes that are celebrated.  This doesn’t have to include winning a game, or even excelling at practice.  Learning to point out just one or two things they do well and letting them know that they do them well is a start.  If a young athlete can take pride in one skill, running, throwing, skating, etc., early on, and share their pride in that accomplishment, it helps mitigate the frustration they feel from not instantly mastering the whole sport.

Third, the young athlete needs to have clear ways of seeing their progress.  Timing their running, scoring their performance of kata, keeping track of a batting ratio, timing dribbling… the more points of data you can collect on a kid’s performance, the more they have the opportunity to see their abilities improving with real numbers.

Once a young athlete is used to seeing numbers, helping them set realistic, attainable, but ambitious goals can help them keep training and practising.  Likewise, if there are rewards for most improved, most valuable player, etc., for the team, knowing how they can achieve them and setting a goal to acquiring them can help a young athlete keep engaged in seeking challenges.

This works best if the goals come with clear steps and milestones to reach them.  Goals only remain engaging so long as one can both see themselves moving forward, and if the goal feels rewarding.  I find that celebrating hitting the milestones towards a goal are as critical as celebrating reaching the goal, even if it is a matter of just taking a minute to bask in the glory of another step reached, sharing it with friends, or posting it in a journal (online or otherwise.)

A young athlete has a built-in cheering squad of fellow teammates:  if they make a point of sharing their forward movement with friends on the team, they can savour every step towards reaching a goal.

When sports are taught in a spirit of genuine sportsmanshp with both a good coach and parental support, learning to enjoy being challenged and to seek it out is a natural result of participating. However there are definitely things both a coach and parent can do to encourage challenge-seeking.

As a Coach the first stage of motivating your team to enjoy challenges is to get to know their strengths, acknowledge those strengths in front of the whole team, and then to tell them that you believe that they can be even better.  Helping them set goals for personal improvement in the fields where they are strongest can make a huge difference.  Taking time to acknowledge when a member of your team has hit one of their milestones towards a challenge – perhaps in a pre-practice pep-talk – with a round of applause from the whole team can help your coachees learn to enjoy being challenged.

This is also a place where your role as networker comes into play.  Not only can you encourage a culture in which each member of your team shares their forward movement, but you can also help by encouraging those who are practising together to hold each other accountable for their goals.  Having accountability partners among your team members can help them not only achieve their goals, but celebrate their progress together, and let them understand the role of coach, themselves.

One of the greatest perils of modern youth sports culture is the ‘everyone is a winner’ philosophy.  Many teams find something to award every athlete for, regardless of the effort, energy, or participation they put into the team.  This cheapens awards that mark genuine achievements, like dedicated self-improvement, showing leadership with other teammates, and exceptional performance.  When everyone wins, no one does;  kids do not feel like their awards are earned or important, nor do they feel like it is a challenge to earn them.

Make sure that you offer rewards for the team members who work the hardest – and that every kid knows exactly how to earn those awards.  If they know what they need to do to achieve an award, they can make it a goal – and compete within the team for it.

The worry that this will make some team members feel excluded is a gross underestimation of the young athletes who do not win those awards.  Giving awards for the cleanest uniform because you are afraid of disappointing a kid sends them the message that they should be disappointed;  it gives them a reason to believe that challenges are something to be avoided or sidestepped – that they are entitled to a reward even when they didn’t work for one.  On the other hand, if you have worked hard to foster an environment of Sportsmanship, the team members who have not managed to achieve the awards they set out to achieve can still appreciate the hard work of their peers.

As a Parent being involved in helping your kids set goals and work towards them, even when they are not at practice can be a very rewarding for both of you.

One of the most valuable things you can do is to help your child set and track their goals. Making sure that your child’s goal is broken into stages (“milestones”), that they have a way to specifically track their progress, that they keep a written track of their goals and their progress, and encouraging them to share their progress with you can help them learn how to appreciate challenges and set them for themselves.

When you see your child working hard at goals that challenge them acknowledging it can be extremely powerful in keeping them motivated. However, there are kinds of praise that work and kinds that don’t. Acknowledging too many milestones with treats or rewards makes your child focus more on the extrinsic rewards – the things you will give them for working hard, than the intrinsic rewards of seeing themselves grow and improve. And when you tell a child that you are proud and impressed, it is important to tell them what accomplishment of theirs your respect, rather than a blanket compliment. “I am really proud of how hard you have worked to be a better batter, it showed out there today” is going to keep your child focused on challenging themselves in a way that “you did great out there” cannot.

When I work with clients I often encourage them to think of ways they can reward themselves as hey achieve goals. Lists of kind things they can do for themselves as a reward for reaching a goal can help them learn to celebrate their accomplishments. These rewards should be something they can give themselves – rather than something you can give them. Time spent on hobbies or relaxing, making a favourite dish, etc. all can help them develop a love for meeting challenges.

2 thoughts on “Coaching for Character in Youth Sports (1/3)

  1. A lot of this is why I have found team sports so uncomfortable. Teams often attract a combination of people who want to win at all costs and others who just want a knock-about. Nobody’s happy.

    The unfortunate thing is that so much team sport is entirely about winning and losing. There’s a quote from a football manager over here “Football isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that”. This permeates at all levels, because nobody cares if you lost nobly or with good character or effort. You lost, and that’s the end of it.

    Question: since a team plays to win, is there less intrinsic motivation in team sorts since the drive is to win?

    1. Great question, Mitch.

      I do believe that intrinsic motivation really is down to the athlete. The finest class of athlete is first and foremost out there to challenge themselves; to push their own personal limits and grow as a human being. Winning is just a milestone to something bigger and more personally rewarding. And the best class of athlete does not see losing as a defeat or a humiliation – just a sign that they have to try harder. “Feedback is the breakfast of champions” as they say.

      For these athletes playing to win is incidental to playing to beat their own personal best.

      Unfortunately, we are losing the best class of athletes. The narratives around athletics are changing, and definitely not for the better. On the one hand, we have this “everybody is special” mentality that makes a person who loses feel victimized, or worse they are rewarded for having “also ran” and come to be unable to learn or grow because they don’t seek to get feedback or to improve. We also have a culture of professional spectacle injected into sports via television that values performance over character; the Jack Dempseys and Mohammed Ali’s who sought to be great men have been replaced with the Dennis Rodmans that want to be multimedia stars. The more you inject huge amounts of money and fame into a sport, the more it becomes about spectacle rather than athletics.

Comments are closed.