Linchpin to Character Development in Youth Sports

14925653_1085213871592513_3693275286782202252_nLast weekend, I had a mini-rant on Facebook about character development and sportsmanship, a rant in which I said, “youth sports coaches and parents who can’t handle bad calls or losses disgust me.” Here’s the problem with my rant: I have many friends who coach in a variety of sports. Some are calm, cool, and collected in their dealings with officials and questionable calls. Others are much more animated and verbose. While it felt good to vent at the moment, I don’t feel comfortable telling my more animated acquaintances they disgust me, so in this post, I’ll use less offensive language to discuss this issue.

Does Youth Sports Actually Build Character

I’ve been kicking around the following question for some time now. Do youth sports really build character in our athletes? Traditional wisdom says yes, and I’d like to believe that youth sports do indeed develop character; however, I find myself less and less convinced these days. On any given weekend, I see coaches and parents displaying something other than the character I wish to instill in my players.

Before I get too far along, let me clarify what I mean by character. First, I mean character in the moral and ethical sense of the word, as in sportsmanship and the way we treat opponents, officials, and teammates. Second, I’m referring to character as a set of non-cognitive skills such as perseverance, self-control, grit, and mental toughness. These non-cognitive skills, as Paul Tough describes them in his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, are perhaps the greatest benefit our young people can take away from their youth sports experience.

Builds Character or Reveals Character

This is a topic Kirk Mango explores in his 2013 article, Character Building and Competitive Sports Participation-Do They Mix? I love the distinction Mango makes with regard to this question.

“Rather than merely accepting the traditional assumption that competitive sports builds character, it might be best to conclude that sports participation actually reveals one’s character. And due to their very nature, sports offer athletes and teams the opportunity to build their character through the choices they make based on the environment they are in and situations they face.”

Mango goes on to say “a conscious, determined, intentional effort and focus (by all those involved) to shape one’s character through participation in competitive sports can become part of the solution…. it is not something you assume will happen; it is something everyone works toward making happen.”

That’s the key! Youth sports provides many character building opportunities; however, to capitalize on these opportunities, parents and coaches must make a concerted effort to do so. They must take advantage of teachable moments, and ultimately, the teachable moments are not the easy times when we are racking up the wins and all the calls are going our way. The teachable moments that shape the character of our young people are the moments filled with frustration and disappointment.

Victim Mentality or Mental Toughness

What are we teaching our athletes about how to handle adversity when we rant and rave for three innings about a questionable call and then blame the umpire for the loss in the post-game huddle? Instead of teaching mental toughness and accountability we are teaching a victim mentality. I’ve never heard a successful coach or player say whining and blaming others is their secret to success. Quite the opposite, mental toughness is a key character trait of champions. The moments following a blown call is when we teach mental toughness. Talking about mental toughness at practice is all well and good, but mental toughness is learned in the heat of the battle. Mental toughness is taught through parents and coaches modeling what mental toughness looks like at the most difficult times.11071626_736687679778469_4926900623913636243_o

Next Play

Also, champions focus on what they can control. Champions focus on executing the next play as opposed to dwelling on the last play. To borrow a golf line, the best way to recover from a bad shot is to start thinking about the next shot. At some point in the competition you have to move past the questionable call and play ball. A parent and coach’s inability to move past the last play is interfering with the athletes focus and thus their performance. It’s a performance issue.

To return to the original question of youth sports building character in our athletes, sport in and of itself does not build character. Character, both good and bad, is developed by these young players observing the authority figures around them when difficulty rears its ugly head. How we as parents and coaches handle a questionable call or a bone headed play by an 8-year-old communicates to our athletes how they should respond when disaster strikes in a game. Are your actions developing mental toughness or a victim mentality?

Who’s Doing It Right

Let me leave you with another question. Select baseball and softball organizations have some blurbs on their website or Facebook pages about how they strive to develop character and teach sportsmanship. Unfortunately, I think many of them are coming up short. The cynic in me believes that the “we teach character and sportsmanship” blurb might be more about marketing rather than values and convictions. So, here’s the question: what teams and or coaches believe their character and sportsmanship blurb? Who out there in the youth baseball and softball community are living up to what they say they believe?