Coaching for Character in Youth Sports (2/3)

im_a_kid[1]Throughout this series of articles, I am discussing what both a parent and a coach can do to help a young athlete develop not just excellence in athletics, but excellence in character; one thing to keep in mind is that neither role is strictly defined and segregated.  As a parent, you will have opportunities to play the role of coach for your child;  in many ways a parent will always be the most important coach a child has, and being a good coach in life, decision making, and character development is one of the central roles of a parent.

And there will be times when a team coach will have opportunities to mentor a child that is not their own in a capacity reminiscent of that of the “parent” roles I have described.  Sometimes it will be easy to step up and provide the kind of guidance I here assign to a parent, and sometimes it will be scary.  These days we hesitate to mentor children who are not our own – in the age of “values adjustment” we no longer feel safe trying to contribute to the character and welfare of other people’s children.  We are afraid we’ll end up in conflict, overstep, or wind up being dragged in beyond the place where our boundaries allow.  And sometimes trying to teach a child to push themselves, to play to win, to express gratitude, and to define success in a very particular way will cause friction with a child’s parents.  The fact of the matter is, however, that when people shy away from conflict and allow a child’s growth to be solely their parents’ concern, it is the child who loses out.  If you can be mindful of your own boundaries, and get a read on the parents so that first, you do not commit to a relationship that will become toxic, and you do not tread on deeply-help beliefs of the parents, then stepping up and offering mentoring to a child is one of the most worthy and most rewarding parts of coaching youth sports.


Learning to turn goals into clear plans with steps that can be followed, and metrics to measure success – what I call “challenge seeking”  – is one half of the habits that make a person successful in almost any field.  The other is making sure that you follow those steps every day, no matter how tired or grouchy you feel, no matter what excuses you can come up with, and no matter how much random happenstance like the weather, a rough night of sleep, etc. might deter you.

The majority of people are truly spectacular at making excuses about why they don;t have to stick with a plan, or why they can take a break “this one time.”  It is incredible just how gifted the average human being is at mental gymnastics.  We can spend incredible amounts of energy excusing ourselves from or avoiding something that we know we ought to do; sometimes we are willing to spend more energy avoiding a task we don’t feel like doing than it would take to do it. (Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground is a perfect story about how far this can go.)  It takes hard work to put aside Caprice and Lethargy in favor of actually seeing a plan through.

Some people talk about the ability to do something when you don’t feel up to it as “Willpower“, but I believe that this is a red herring.  Willpower is not a single character trait, but an amalgam of many that may or may not apply in a given situation.  It is far more valuable to instead look at the individual habits, skills, planning strategies, and mental attitudes that let a person succeed in follow a plan to its completion.  If we see that so-called “Willpower” is a mix of a bunch of behaviors, then we can figure out where we are lacking, and change ourselves to make sure we do a better job.

The lion’s share of what we often think of as willpower is simply building good habits.  It doesn’t take any particular inborn grit to exercise every day, it just takes having the accountability, moral support, and making a choice to exercise every day in the same general way and at the same time until it becomes automatic.  Almost any habit takes between 21 and 40 days of consistent effort to either build or break.  With a little coaching and a little encouragement, you can use sports as a pretext for helping a youth develop excellent habits when it comes to practicing, setting and checking goals, writing in journals, and training their bodies.

In many cases all that is needed to become more focused and more effective is to build routines, habits, and a few healthy tools until they become part of how a young athlete functions.  In some cases, one of the best things to do is to make sure that a young athlete makes it a point to do something to help them train for their sport every day. A training routine, some exercises, or spending some time with teammates can all be good defaults, but if they are not possible, encouraging the youth to fill in that time with some other similar activity when they aren’t capable of doing those things, like reading about their sport, watching a game, washing equipment, or journaling can keep them focused.  This habit of doing something to improve every day (rather than having “zero days“) will help reinforce those good habits by teaching Discipline and dedication as well.


A Coach can do this best by making sure that the team has positive rituals.  By making certain things like a warm up, a discussion of goals and accomplishments, and team-building exercises part of every meeting in a reliable way, he can help his team get used to building goals.  Helping kids plan ways of practicing, exercising, being part of the team, or find other ways to enjoy the sport can make a huge difference to how engaged your team members are.

Modelling the idea of doing something when you can’t do the default practice can be a great way to help your team members develop a sense of dedication and discipline.  If the practice is rained out, offering to play a few trivia games with the team who want to come by to a nearby coffee shop, or watching a game with your team instead, for example, can make a massive difference to your team members,

For Parents the biggest challenge here is encouraging discipline without killing the fun. If this becomes another dull and enforced task, it will deplete the young athlete’s passion for the sport rather than helping them develop the discipline they need.  When you are an adult and this kind of discipline is necessary to do well in your job or for your health, you can’t afford not to be disciplined.  For a kid, as a part of extracurricular activities on the other hand, discipline – and the sport for that matter are not necessary. A kid who feels bullied or pressured into daily activity may choose to disengage entirely.

To make sure this does not happen, your young athlete first must have chosen the activity for themselves.  A parent who chooses an activity for a kid and then turns up the pressure to make that kid perform will be disappointed with the results.  Second, the activity has to be a nexus of positive emotional feedback – you need to make sure that you are showing that you enjoy time spent on the sport, to make going to, coming from, and participating in the activity enjoyable; if you treat it like a chore, so will they.  This means that thirdly, you need to make time and make yourself available and present.  Even not on game night you have to be willing to take time with your kid, and be totally present during that time (not daydreaming, planning your next move, etc.) to talk to them about it, help them train or do some enjoyable activity, etc.. This isn’t as hard as it might initially sound; watching a game on TV with your kid, making a gift of some posters or sports cards, being there to supervise while they spend time with friends from the team or club, or just shooting a few photos – totaling up to an hour a week can make a huge difference.

Again, this is where overscheduling can be your – and your child’s – greatest enemy.  If you want your child to get the most out of their activities you have to allow for those activities to consume a lot more time than just the hours of the games and practice.  You have to be willing to devote a few hours of your life to letting your child explore, enjoy, and build up the value they are getting from their sport, and you have to devote time to their activity just one-on-one.  A child with more than a couple of activities cannot spend the time necessary to really discipline themselves to just one of them.

Personal Growth

At their heart, youth sports, team or otherwise are about growing as a human being.  They are there to help young people develop not just character, but physical fitness, mental focus, and a social network,  For young men, they are also a way of helping them learn the intricacies of the role of Manhood, while for young women it can help them learn the drive and agency that they need to compete in a modern workforce that is not taught in the general culture of girls.

Competition teaches us to strive and to achieve in a way that prepares us for adult life in a free society.  Sportsmanship teaches us how to be respectful of the people we compete against; it lets us learn to temper the raw and primal emotions that come up when someone else is between us and our goals, helping us be ready to be ready to work well in a culture of moral equals.The physical demands of sports teach us how to love and care for our bodies.   Teamwork and Sportsmanship help us learn to appreciate others, to be both leaders, followers, and to negotiate among equals with integrity.

The funny thing is, we don’t tell youths that this is what their sports are all about.  We tend to tell them it is “for fun” (which it definitely should be) or we just send them to an activity to give them something to do without really giving any kind of rationale for why we want them to do it. At the end of the day if we don’t help youths see just how much happier and healthier a person their sport can make them, then they can easily miss that.,

In many ways this is hard to separate from challenge-seeking.  S long as kids are seeking to push their limits and improve, they are likely going to see themselves grow and see the value in their sport.  However, this goes beyond learning to push your own limits; because many of the benefits of sports come from friends made, habits formed, attitudes improved, time spent in happy engagement rather than in boredom or depression.  Some of the benefits of being involved in sports cannot be quantified in lap times or points earned.  However, acknowledging how sports has made a young athlete a better person, and helping them see that this is part of the purpose is critical to getting the most out of sports.

By seeing their personal growth as a human being in sports, a young athlete can learn to value and appreciate the potential other things have to do the same; it can encourage a young athlete to volunteer more elsewhere, to look at jobs not just for their pay, but their long-term sustainability and their potential for growth.

One has to be light-handed in this – the easiest way to turn some of the kids who benefit the most from sports is by drowning them with sanctimony. Rather than directly approaching the issue of personal growth as a value of sports and a habit you are encouraging, it helps to focus on object lessons.  Choosing role-models to encourage young athletes to learn about, thanking students for their shows of growth and citizenship, etc., can work far better than setting character goals, especially with teens.  Personal growth is best something discussed at the end of a year of dedication rather than promised at the start; it is when a season is ending and you are taking time to reflect that you have the greatest potential to help them see and value their growth.

A Coach should be aware that the most powerful weapon in your arsenal to teach kids to value personal growth comes at the end of the season, when you hand out not just awards, but also take the time personally to talk to individuals on your team about their growth. A heartfelt letter or words of appreciation spoken in the context of a relationship that has been built up over a year can have a profound impact on a young athlete.  “Goodbye” and “See you next year” will never be as valuable as “I am amazed at how much of a leader you have become in the last year,” or “your dedication and discipline have stunned me; I can tell that you are going to be very successful in anything you choose to pursue.”

A Parent‘s best tool for encouraging kids to grow comes in the form of constant small acknowledgements.  Learning to show appreciation and thanks for the specific things and accomplishments of your child specifically, rather than blank praise can work wonders.  “I really appreciate the way you helped Daniel when he was going through a hard time, that showed real compassion.  I am amazed at how much you have grown as a person this year. I am grateful for that, thank you.” is going to teach your child how to value compassion and see their growth as a positive thing in a way “You are such a good boy for helping Daniel” does not.

At some point in the beginning of getting your child involved in sports it is going to be very important to tell them that you think sports are going to help them become happier and to be the person that you know they can be.  It doesn’t need to be a big talk, and it probably should not be a part of your pitch to them, but it should come early on.  It is often these simple statements that stay with kids the most. From there on in, however it is these simple observations more than any great pep talk that will do the lion’s share of the work in teaching your child to love growing.

"Sports" by Unsplash
“Sports” by Unsplash


Every successful adult has a great team backing them.  Even “army of one” entrepreneurs that want to be successful surround themselves with accountability partners, helpful contacts, and friends who give them honest feedback in order to be able to succeed.  Learning how to build solid relationships with a team, how to listen to them, learn from them, and trust them enough to ask for help is critical to succeeding in any but the most menial of jobs or hobbies.  Likewise, even an individual competitive sport like fencing (my sport of choice) requires a club, with trainers, coaches,  and fellow athletes to practice with; you may not be on a team out on the field, but there is definitely a team helping you build up your skills during practice sessions.  It is working with that team that will ensure that you can really achieve excellence.

As with Sportsmanship, the key to being a good member of a team is Gratitude; learning to appreciate that you are not making it on your own steam alone, but that it is through your team mates, friends, volunteers, and sponsors that you have the opportunity to grow and shine as a team member.  Once you appreciate and are grateful for what your team mates do for you, then it becomes very easy to want to help those team mates be the best that they can be in return.

And that is the heart of Teamwork: you understand that by working with and accepting the help of your team, that you will become better, you will grow and reap all the joy, growth, and other benefits that sports provide. In understanding that you are grateful for it, and choose to show that gratitude.  In choosing to show that gratitude you work hard to offer Leadership to your teammates, and do your best to help them shine by bringing your best to the game.

It also helps to know not just how to lead, but how to follow when other people lead, and to have the humility to know when you need leadership.  While there is a lot to the art of knowing when to look for and accept Leadership, it can be embodied in two simple questions:

“Where could I be doing better?” and “Who could I ask for help in that?”

Teaching kids to ask those questions as a part of developing a training regime, practicing, and setting goals for themselves will help them go a long way as a member of team.  The rest of the art of being a good team mate will tend to follow very naturally once they can ask those questions and answer them honestly.

A Coach can ask those questions directly, give a team member some guidance in answering them for themselves, and then help them make it happen.  Asking “What are you working on right now?” and “Where do you think that you can improve” and letting them answer that, rather than telling them, is a great first start.  Then suggesting someone that they can ask for help as a part of your process for partnering up teammates.

As a Parent making sure that your child has time with their teammates both on and off the field is important. Allowing them to enjoy time together both for training and practice and socially so that they can build bonds can have a massive impact on how well you child does on a team.

Also important is swallowing any need you have for your child to be the star of the show. Remember that you got them involved because you want them to benefit from the experience, not to show off how amazing they are; they can do that on their own, and I guarantee, being a good team player so that the whole team succeeds, especially if they genuinely push themselves to improve, will be far more impressive than accolades and ribbons.  Counting how often your child gets to be up at bat, or whether they get a reward or not at the end of the season does nobody any favours.