Recently at the IPR office, after I gave an overly detailed analysis of my volleyball team’s recent performance (I am the head coach of a girls varsity volleyball team at a local high school), I was accused of taking sports seriously. Guilty as charged.
In my mind, coaching parallels teaching, and both involve a sacred duty to help boys and girls, young men and women, progress toward their full development as human persons. Excellent coaches serve as mentors, role models, counselors, and teachers. They inspire, motivate, support, console, encourage, and challenge their players. They model virtue and look to instill it in their players.
Excellent coaches have a player-centric approach, grounded in the recognition of each player’s immeasurable dignity and worth, a hopeful appraisal of each child’s potential, and sincere, authentic love for each player. This approach to coaching requires constant reflection. Since each player is unique, it is imprudent to treat all players the same. Basic fairness demands that all players adhere to particular standards, but different approaches are required to bring out the best in each player. It may require courage if parents, administrators, or others push interests that diverge from the actual interests of the players and the common good. This type of approach also requires patience and restraint, as high school athletes are children and will inevitably make mistakes. This does not mean that there should be no consequences, but it does mean that all forms of discipline should reflect the common good of the team and each player, not the coach’s anger, insecurity, pride, or pettiness.
When a coach lets his or her ego drive their coaching, it is the players who will suffer. Players need to be able to put their trust in their coaches. Players need to know that their coach cares more about each of them than about his or her own career win-loss record, reputation among other coaches, or sense of power and control. Coaching is either a form of service or a dereliction of duty.
The Value of Sports
This season, my volleyball team won the division and tournament championships and finished as the 2nd ranked team in DC. My players improved as passers, setters, hitters, and servers. As proud as I am of these accomplishments, I am even more delighted by the development of each of my players as persons. To see them fight through adversity, emerge and grow as leaders, develop increased consideration for their teammates, and believe in themselves made this season a deeply fulfilling and rewarding experience.
Sports can give us thrilling moments of instant glory that we can enjoy looking back upon even years later. The memory of hitting a game winning basketball shot and getting lifted onto my teammates’ shoulders is something I will probably never forget. There are homeruns, goals, blocks, touchdowns, and wins permanently etched in my memory. While it is fun to recall and reminisce about such times, the true lasting impact of playing sports is often from more mundane moments, the small things that over time build character. The cliché is that sports builds character. Others have argued that it in fact merely reveals character. In reality it does both.
Sports can provide an excellent vehicle for breaking down insecurities and fostering an authentic sense of self-worth among young people. This is acutely important for girls, who live in a culture where they are constantly bombarded by messages and images designed to degrade their sense of worth, often so that cosmetic, clothing, and various other companies can maximize their profits. Being part of a team, seeing hard work turn into concrete accomplishments, and playing with dedication and integrity are just a few of the experiences that help young people overcome their insecurities and start to recognize their own dignity and worth. Coaches should be tough and demanding with high expectations for each of their players, while providing their players with the opportunity and assistance they need to achieve success and fulfill their potential. Sports can help young people to feel more comfortable in their own skin, give them access to real joy, and teach them to value authenticity. These experiences teach them that character, not their image, is what really matters.
A good coach teaches his or her players that time is precious, that it’s not to be wasted. This approach to sports is rooted in gratitude for every moment of life. The result is the desire to infuse each of one’s actions with passion and a commitment to excellence. This is why a coach should demand only the best from his players and praise them when they display first-rate focus, effort, and desire. When they fail to display these, the coach has the responsibility to challenge them and demand more. Through this players start to shift their focus away from their natural abilities and external outcomes and toward the things they actually control.
Part of the commitment to excellence is “playing the right way.” While the purpose of sports is the pursuit of victory, respect for the sport and a commitment to maintaining one’s integrity demand adherence to particular rules and norms. In a culture where many embrace moral relativism, players are exposed to right and wrong. When they internalize this, they increasingly value things like fairness, integrity, and justice. These values will not disappear the minute they step off the court or field.
One reason I love coaching girls is because sports can break down gender stereotypes and make plain the fundamental equality of men and women. At the beginning of the year, I made it clear to my team that our goal was to win a championship. Numerous people (all women, incidentally) told me that I was putting too much pressure on my players, as girls cannot handle the type of pressure that boys can. I refused to believe it. If girls lack perseverance, tenacity, and grit, it is a cultural blemish, not the product of something innate. Our season showed the folly of such low expectations. It is clear that if we demand tenacity, toughness, and grace under fire from girls, we will often get them. I witnessed what countless coaches across the country surely see: girls playing through injuries, rising to the occasion in critical moments, and single-handedly willing their teams to victory. It is clear that there are no gender-based limits to the human capacity for determination and courage, and playing sports helps girls to comprehend this fact.
Being part of a team teaches kids the value of community, which is especially important in our hyper-individualistic society. They learn how to help others and how to be helped by others. They learn how be leaders and how to embrace roles that bring no glory or acclaim, but are essential to team success. They learn the value of listening to others, as well as speaking clearly and honestly. They see that the common pursuit of communal goals often leads to greater individual success than the selfish pursuit of individual goals. They learn how to be dependable and to place their trust in others. They learn that autonomy and individual preference are not the ultimate ends of human existence.
Finally, one of the most valuable experiences that comes from playing sports is losing. Getting crushed, edged out in heart-breaking defeats, and struggling through flat performances are experiences that can teach kids the appropriate way to deal with failure. A typical response to such scenarios is to evade responsibility by blaming others, to become dejected, to quit or stop working as hard, or to grow anxious and insecure over the possibility of future failure. In learning how to deal with stumbles and missteps, kids learn how to pick themselves up off the ground and keep charging ahead. They learn how to use mistakes as opportunities for growth, as foundations for future success. Losing also gives coaches the opportunity to teach the importance of humility. By embracing humility, players learn how to lose with grace and to win with magnanimity. They learn that all success is finite and that that which is enduring—one’s values and character, especially the way one treats others—is of far greater importance than momentary triumph.
In short, players can learn the meaning and value of virtue and how to live virtuously in their everyday lives. Within this context, the responsibilities associated with coaching are extensive and invaluable. Coaches had better take it seriously.