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By Dr. Arthur Schwartz 

As a long-time Little League coach, I have never believed that “playing a sport doesn’t build character…it reveals character.”

My experience tells a different story. I can’t tell you how many times one of the kids I coached—now in their early 30s—will see me at an event or at a park and tell me, “Coach, I still remember your three rules: hustle, have fun, and learn the Game.” 

I was thinking about my coaching experience when I read the latest issue of the Journal of Character Education (JCE). The editors invited two scholars, Jennifer Agans, and Andrea Vest Ettekal, to curate a special issue on character and youth sports. 

Each of the nine articles they selected fascinated me. Briefly, here is a brief synopsis of four that opened my eyes: 

The article by Samantha Bates and Dawn Anderson-Butcher laments that while most states mandate that school-based coaches receive training on coaching tactics and techniques, only 8% of states mandate training on integrating sportsmanship or character development into their coaching. The authors end their article by highlighting the stress high school coaches face to win rather than fostering good kids who have fun playing a sport.

Helene Jorgensen, Colin Deal, and Nicholas Holt examined the role of parents and sports. The study revealed that parents use several strategies to connect sports to character, including (1) reinforcing core, universal values such as respect and responsibility; (2) seizing teachable moments to talk to their child about the importance of confidence, goal setting, leadership, etc.; (3) supporting their child’s independence and decision making. 

I can’t stop thinking about the article by David Light Shields and Christopher Funk. Collaborating with the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the researchers developed a survey instrument completed by over 2,000 college freshman student-athletes across the United States. The aim of the survey was to investigate what predicted a student athlete’s moral integrity and sense of purpose. The research was grounded in what Shields and Funk call “contesting theory” – that student-athletes think about competition differently. Metaphorically, some athletes have a “competition-is-war” disposition, while others have a “competition-is-a-partnership” orientation. Earlier research by Shields revealed that partnership orientation is a significant predictor of positive sportsmanship, including higher levels of empathy.

The results of their current study were eye-popping. First, their “contesting theory” strongly predicted perspectives on integrity. Student-athletes with a “partnership orientation” are significantly more aligned with the behaviors of integrity (honesty, following the rules) compared to the athletes who are metaphorically at “war” during a competition. Second, the “partnership orientation” predicted the student-athletes who intentionally sought a positive purpose or had found their purpose. In short, the research by Shields and Funk shows that the strongest predictor of purpose and integrity is a “partnership” approach toward competition. This orientation focuses on pursuing personal and team growth rather than mere victory. 

The last article in JCE’s special issue was written by Pete Paciorek, the head of Leadership & Character Development at the IMG Academy. The article explores why coaches should care less about wins and losses and more about becoming a coach of character. One line from the article is still stirring in my soul: “Are we as coaches concerned most with hoisting the championship trophy in the air at the end of the season, or raising up stronger character in our youth?”

Please click here and subscribe to the Journal of Character Education to read this special issue. Each article is brimming with wisdom and insight on the relationship between sport and character.

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