For most American sports fans, this is an incredibly exciting week. It marks the beginning of the men’s and women’s NCAA College Basketball tournaments (a.k.a. “March Madness”). Each year, these tournaments bring a unique blend of drama, heartwarming human-interest stories, intriguing match-ups, and — each year without fail — upsets by underdog teams. For some, these tournaments are more exciting than the World Series or the Super Bowl.

One of the more compelling aspects of the NCAA tournaments is the profound impact of coaching. Whether the team is a household name, or an underdog squad known by very few, coaches roam the sidelines barking out encouragement (or stern correction) to their players. Players respond with maximum effort. It is truly a magical thing to observe. In reality, the tournament games are merely the culmination of months and months of hard work and coaching throughout a grueling season.

This coaching phenomenon is not unique to college basketball. ALL coaches, in ALL sports, at ALL developmental levels, have profound influence on their players.

At Character.org, we are passionate about helping coaches and teachers use their unique influence to develop strong character traits in their athletes. We greatly admire coaches and athletes that understand the power of their influence on others.

One of the people who share our passion is Dale Murphy. During his stellar 18-year professional baseball career, Dale won numerous honors, including back-to-back National League Most Valuable Player awards. He spent the majority of his career with the Atlanta Braves, where he is still one of the most beloved athletes in Atlanta sports history.  

Since his retirement from baseball in 1993, Dale has dedicated his professional life to helping coaches develop powerful life and character strengths in their athletes. Among other initiatives, Dale created the I Won’t Cheat foundation which provides a character education programs to schools, youth sports leagues and summer camps.

In Dale’s book, The Scouting Report: Youth Athletics, he offers valuable advice for parents, coaches and team sponsors alike, but what I found most interesting was his philosophy on character development in youth sports. He opens his book with a powerful slogan from the Positive Coaching Alliance: “Transforming youth sports so sports can transform youth”.  

In Dale’s mind, that is really what youth sports is all about — transforming youth. To the extent we can transform youth sport cultures and youth coaches, we can make a real impact toward this noble goal.

He’s certainly not too idealistic, sharing eye-opening statistics from Clark Power’s ‘The Sport Behavior of Youth, Parents and Coaches,’ within the first few pages. “Among coaches, 8% encouraged their athletes to hurt an opponent, 7% condoned cheating, and 20% had made fun of a team member with limited skills.”

While upsetting, the information shouldn’t come as a shock, as we regularly see similar messages in the news. About a month ago, Rob McManamy wrote an article about the Jackie Robinson League Scandal. A few weeks before that, Dave Keller wrote this article about the high school basketball game with a final score of 161-2.

It almost makes you want to give up on youth sports entirely. Why then is Dale Murphy writing this book? Why did we recruit him to be a keynote at our upcoming conference? Why is the 2015 Forum on Character Education dedicating a number of sessions specifically to character in sports? Because, despite the corruption that exists in youth sports, there is still tremendous potential for character development. Thankfully, Murphy is working hard to engage coaches in important dialogues about their influence on the lives of youth.

In his book, Dale promotes “Three Primary Responsibilities” for coaches — advice that any educator could use:

“No. 1: Create a positive atmosphere in which players can achieve and learn.” Character education can’t exist in a school or on the field unless every student and player feels safe. Youth sports can provide opportunities for children to develop self-esteem and experience feelings of unity with their teammates, but only if coaches and players first establish a trusting environment.

“No. 2: Teach proper fundamentals.” While this may initially seem exclusive to sports, Murphy’s not simply talking about learning to bend your knees when you’re up at bat. Teaching the fundamentals means helping children to build a foundation of character that they can grow on. And how do you build that foundation? Practice. Practice Practice.

“No. 3: Demonstrate to each player that you care.” We’ve previously emphasized the importance of building strong relationships between students and teachers, but Murphy reminds us that we need to hold those same standards for coaches and players. He explains that one of the best ways to build trust is to let every player participate in the game. Benching players sends a clear message, you care more about the win than the kid.

There is a great synergy between youth sports and character education. As Dale outlines, children learn many core values through their participation in sports: optimism, independence, respect, responsibility, to name a few. But the specific lessons that children learn through sports are not nearly as important as how they learn them. Good coaches teach in ways that allow lessons to stick with children throughout the rest of their lives. Tip Fallon’s recent post, “Character Development: on and off the field” is a perfect example. Did you have a coach that influenced your life? Let us know in the comments.


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