Coaching For Character in Youth Sports (3/3)

male athlete
“male athlete” by 907527

Apologies for the late article: I have been seriously ill for the last two weeks.

Many of the concepts that I have been exploring in these articles flow into one another. Learning sportsmanship, for example requires one to be compassionate, to persevere, and to display integrity. Discipline and Perseverance are very closely tied ideas. None of these ideas exist in a vacuum but each is valuable to understanding the others.  These last two ideas are not the least important of the ones presented here; they are merely ones that seemed to fit logically at the end of the order, because they are two virtues that evolve as young athletes learn the other character traits that I have discussed earlier.  They are harder to teach explicitly than the others.

In the case of Compassion, it is also often taught poorly, and so deserves a little special attention here to discuss how not to teach a child to be compassionate.


People often confuse “compassion”, “empathy” and “sympathy”, and in doing so, cause themselves a lot of trouble. Empathy is the ability to read the emotions that other people are feeling by reading their body language, using intuition, and imagining oneself in the same situation.  Sympathy is the choice to feel bad because another human being is feeling badly. Empathy is a useful social skill, why Sympathy is rarely useful, and is often toxic in certain circumstances.  Compassion is another capacity altogether.  Compassion is the ability to understand that we are all human beings, capable of pain, loss, disappointment, and suffering, and choosing to take actions that lessen the suffering of others out of a desire to make the world a better place.

Compassion is easier when you have Empathy, because while it is one thing to know others can hurt as you do, actually seeing pain in others puts you in a position where you have to make moral and aesthetic choices about what you will do about it.  Sympathy can actually inhibit Empathy, on the other hand.  The Sympathetic person does not have to care one iota about the feelings of another person in pain.  They only have to worry about how they feel uncomfortable being around a person who is responding to pain.  A Sympathetic person might not care about a homeless person, but they might feel bad looking at them, and thus choose to chase them off, close the blinds, or start virtue signalling about how bad homelessness is in order to get other people to offer them sympathy in return.

Thus when we see a child crying in the street, Empathy lets us know that they are frightened, Sympathy will make us feel bad for seeing a crying child (and maybe want to stop the child from crying because it makes us feel bad.)  Compassion is the faculty that will make us want to find out why the child is afraid, and do something useful to make them feel safe again.

We often teach youths to be Sympathetic rather than Compassionate  by accident when we try to use shame or identification to help them understand another person’s pain. “How would you feel if I did X?” or “It could be you dealing with X,” might make the child learn to feel bad about X, not because they can imagine what it is like, but because they have been scolded and shamed about it.  “How would you feel if someone took your home away, and you didn’t have anything to eat?” or “You might end up on the street one day, too, if you’re not careful,” might make a child frightened or guilty about the issue of homelessness without ever getting them to actually trying to understand what a homeless person might feel.  A person who is frightened or guilty about an issue like the homeless, might in turn become resentful about the topic; they don’t like how the idea of homelessness makes them feel, and might either avoid it, or try to deal with it by dealing with the homeless in an impersonal or heavy-handed way ( such as advocating vagrancy laws, or lobbying for the town to give them an incentive to go somewhere else.)

Real compassion comes from experience. A person has to see a homeless man and talk to them, using Empathy, to understand what it is really like, and decide that they want to help in an effective way for the right reasons. Which might best be done by getting the child to volunteer with the family at a homeless shelter for a holiday meal.  If you want to teach someone compassion for those who suffer from depression, the best way to do so, other than deal with depression themselves, is to see a friend or family member go through it, or volunteer at a crisis center.

People with powerful imaginations tend to be better at Empathy – they need fewer experiences with pan and trouble to be able to guess what another person might be feeling.

Sports offers a chance to directly experience defeat, frustration, minor injury, conflict with teammates, and goals that they may not be able to attain.  It gives them a chance to see others doing the same.  In every sport there are winners and losers.  There are team members who are popular, and ones who struggle.  There are some who are celebrated, and some who will have to feel left out. And a young athlete will usually be on both sides of that equation.  They will lose, and knowing what it means to feel like they have lost, be able to see that same disappointed feeling their opponents when they win. The Compassionate young athlete then shows respect for their defeated opponent by shaking their hand, thanking them for a good (challenging game), and makes sure that the losing team feels respected.

A Coach: does his bets work fostering compassion by focusing on sportsmanship.  He makes sure that his team respects the other team, and observes the rituals of sportsmanship, like the bowing or shaking of hands, in order to make sure that his team has the ability to show that compassion.  He also lets his team feel loss, at least for a short period of time.  If they don’t know what defeat feels like, how can they possibly empathize with the other team, let alone, understand how that might bring pain to their opponents.

This why the “everybody’s a winner” mindset is dangerous for a team; it rushes to escape that bad feeling, rather than letting kids learn from it, and thus diminishes their ability to empathize with others.  In the process, it also means winning and losing lose all meaning and value;  If the members of your team see nothing wrong with losing, how can they imagine that it might disappoint the team they defeated, or want to help them feel respected for their athleticism in spite of the loss?

A Parent: it’s likely that teaching your child empathy is a high priority for you… and it is no easy task.  Helping your child have direct experiences with loss and disappointment, be that through volunteering with those less fortunate, letting them learn some life lessons on their own, or just being a good example can help so much more than demanding your child “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” Trading guilt and shaming tactics in for opportunities for them to see others struggling, and to feel good helping others is far more valuable.


Failure is inevitable. No athlete can win every match, meet every goal, and excel in every aspect of a sport.  Even the best athletes learn their best lessons through failure.  Being disappointed by failure, or frustrated when our solid effort was not enough to meet our goals is a miserable feeling.  There are times when it can make you want to quit even something you love.  Especially when you are met with repetitive failures. Learning to keep trying even when you are disappointed, angry, or frustrated is an important skill, and one that has been terribly eroded by the culture of “everybody’s a winner”; we try so hard to avoid hurt feelings that we rarely let the useful bad ones happen.

It’s when you maintain discipline in your training regime, even though you are tired, or when you push hard in a game where you have only a slim chance at winning that some of the best growth happens.  It’s when young athletes persevere in spite of their negative feelings that they learn the best leadership skills, reinforce their discipline habits, and experience the greatest rewards of challenge-seeking.  Most importantly it is when they learn the most about Agency: feelings, outlook, and attitude are all choices.  We can choose to indulge in bad feelings or we can master them; we can choose to feel like victims, or choose to make decisions that give us power over our lives; we can choose to brood on our losses or decide to learn from them.  It is when we persevere in the face of blockages and losses that this becomes its clearest.

A Coach is a driving force for athletes during training and during the game.  Frustration or despair during a game is the greatest threat not just to morale and team cohesion, but also to the personal growth of young athletes.  This is where the pep-talk and encouragement comes in.  A good coach learns how to redefine success when the chips are down during a game.  If winning is still possible, it is time to drive your young athletes to push themselves above and beyond their usual performance, but when it is not, your job is to tell your team how to still succeed even though they do not win the game.  You do this by setting personal goals; to get them to exceed previous performances; to treat the game as an intensive training session, or to work on their teamwork.  You push them to make the other team’s loss feel costly and hard, so that at the end of the game when the players shake hands, they can do so with pride.

A Parent should focus on training and exercise here.  Making sure that your child holds themselves accountable for doing something to improve their game every day, whether that is watching a game, practicing, exercising, reading about the rules, or spending time with the teammates. They key in parenting a young athlete to keep trying is to make sure that they have no “zero days” where they have done nothing that improves their game.  Sometimes that will mean just taking out the time to go throw a ball around the backyard, or just talking about an upcoming game. But the more you help your kid engaged with and excited about the game, the more they will persevere.

Ultimately parenting for perseverance will be something you do elsewhere more often than in sports; especially schoolwork.  I find that when they are having trouble rising to the whole of an assignment or subject, treating it like a game you cannot win, by setting them new goals, or different ones that are more manageable is often the way to help them build the confidence to tackle their trouble area completely later.

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

  1. Brian, hope you’re feeling better.

    What about the young athlete who is always on the losing team and never gets celebrated, always struggles and is always left out? What lesson is passed on in this case? Especially if you are not an “athlete” but just someone who plays the game. This sounds like the description of the child for whom the sport is the be-all and end-all: the sort of person who believes their sport isn’t a matter of life and death, but is more important than that! (Google the quote!)

    1. Like most of my blog, these articles should be taken as the subordinate clause of a syllogism: If you want X, you should Y. In this case, the X is “If you want your child to get the most out of a youth sports program.” I wrote it based on the request of parents of a few kids who really have the sort of focus and dedication to do what I have described, and the parents have a desire to do their absolute best too foster that.

      If a kid merely “plays a game,” then only a little of this is useful. Of course, sports are expensive, and I would imagine that any parent who invests in a game because their child wants to play (rather than because they want their child to play) is going to find this useful. If your kid just wants to play a game, then there is an upper limit to the age, size, and price of the program you are going to want to invest in for your child; instead you ought to find what they are passionate about and do that to the utmost, instead. I could easily write articles about using the teaching of science, playing of FRPGs, or Community Theatre for character as well

      And this does also assume a certain quality of parent which is becoming unfortunately rare, as well.

      As to the kid on the team of eternal almost-rans, I would start by saying “first, realize that this is not normal; something is very wrong with your team, and it needs better leadership.” Then I would encourage that child to do what they can to coach their fellow players. And if he or she can’t engage them, then they’ve found the problem. If he or she can… but they don’t improve, then there are some mysteries to solve, which is a challenge. Such a child will, with a good mentor, still gain despite being on a losing team. And if they remain serious and can check their frustration, I would encourage them to move on to another team or another league.

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