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Cultivate character in your athletes

By Jerry Lynch

What you achieve in athletics is directly related to the depth of your coaching character–the way you coach, and whether you lead from your heart. This is not simply a matter of your chosen coaching style; to be successful, you must superimpose your unique personality traits on strong underlying qualities of character that reflect uncompromising principles. Florida State University’s Bobby Bowden is a good example of a coach in whom "what you see is what you get." Bowden disarms even his opponents with his sense of humor and simple values. When he stood before five thousand of his peers at a coaching convention and claimed that his greatest strategic advice for defending long passes was to "back up," serious note-takers cracked up with laughter.

A six-month bout of rheumatic fever and the harsh realities of World War II put things into proper perspective for Bowden in his early teen years. His remarkable achievements as a coach have not shaken that solid moral foundation. His commitment to family, firmly held faith, and love of people are as genuine as FSU’s status among the elite college football programs in the nation.

Players respond to Bowden immediately, recognizing his genuineness. Recruits and their parents compare Bowden to his less assured or less forthright peers and thereafter commit to the Tallahassee school. Have all of his athletes always demonstrated the values Bowden lives by and espouses? No. But that could be said of any coach in the modern sport era. What is so refreshing about Bowden is that despite all the publicity, scrutiny, and money that have come with national championships, he has remained the open, honest, and unaffected person he was when he started coaching at Samford in 1959.

Character is a virtue, something that is indicative of moral strength, goodness, personal integrity, and conscience. It is the essence of this chapter and the keystone of creative coaching. In this chapter you will learn how humility, flexibility, acceptance, fairness, and integrity are important components of character, and you’ll learn how coaches who strengthen these traits and creatively instill them in their athletes become successful.

Your words and actions are the manifestation of your character–so if you want your athletes to trust you, be a trustworthy person. Don’t promise more than you can deliver, and don’t say things you don’t mean. Such mixed messages confuse athletes. College coaches sign recruits by promising they’ll be impact players in the program and will get plenty of minutes. However, once an athlete is committed, if it turns out that he is more valuable to the staff and team in a role that is different than what was promised, the staff will use the athlete as they see fit, regardless of the promise. Better for a coach to say how much he would like to coach an athlete and state a vision for the player, assuming everything works out as expected. It’s tempting to promise the moon, but no one can predict the future. Promise instead that you and the staff will work diligently to create opportunities for the athlete to grow and improve.

When athletes see cracks in the dam of a coach’s character, and therefore the program’s integrity, they may choose various routes to safety. Some will remain with the program but "check out" emotionally, making it unlikely that they’ll live up to their athletic potential while in that environment. Others choose to leave the program for the promise of something better elsewhere.

On the other hand, coaches who demonstrate impeccable character wind up with athletes who, barring outside pressures, stay with their team and play with heart. Not only is this commitment to a program better for the team in the long run, it also benefits the individual athlete’s development as well; athletes tend to play better in environments that are predictably safe and secure.

Athletes are usually more relaxed, focused, and willing to "go the distance" with coaches of good character. We all perform at higher levels when we’re in a safe environment. For example, Dean Smith, former head basketball coach at North Carolina, is widely acknowledged as having set the standard for coaches who lead with good moral character. He always treated his athletes with respect–as grown, responsible men who deserved to be trusted, listened to, and cared for. He was always fair yet firm in carrying out the rules of his program. The star of the team received the same treatment as those who rode the bench. Because he treated them well, Smith’s athletes were able to play up to their potential.

You might be thinking to yourself that good character alone certainly cannot ensure victory on the scoreboard. You’re right. Some of the best, most respectful, fairest people on earth could not produce a championship team to save their souls. Moreover, many unethical coaches have won major championships. But if you look at the pool of coaches who have been most successful, you will find that competent coaches with good character will get more from athletes than coaches with questionable ethics. Character may not help a coach to create the best athletic team, but it will help that team to be the best it can be.

When you lead your coaching with good character, you’ll feel confident in your ability to develop champions, to lead effectively, and to experience consistent success. Staying in touch with the power that comes from character diminishes your fear, tension, and anxiety; it will drive you to seek and achieve continual excellence in all that you do.

This is an excerpt from Creative Coaching.

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