Nov 26

Sports Builds Character(S)?

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Oh no! What else is heading our way? If you read any recent newspapers you must be aware of the ‘CharacterS’ in professional sports, those who thrive on shock or grab public attention with their ‘exotic’, provocative, or even violent behavior. So, let me ask You: given the doping, and all the violence on and off the playing field, does this traditional and perpetuated myth ‘Sport Builds Character’ still hold true nowadays?

We like to suggest that the ultimate aim of a sports program is to be successful but that coaches need to avoid the pitfalls or ‘traps’ of winning in the pursuit of winning. Connected closely to our philosophical discussions on winning and losing in previous newsletters is it our decision whether or not to engage in moral education of the participants? Many coaches tend to shy away from this because they consider it part of parental responsibilities. Yes, once-upon-a-time even the church had such a function! Modern society nevertheless has changed so much that the number of ‘intact or two parent families’ is declining. That means more responsibility has shifted to schools and sports programs – whether we like it or not.

Athletes come to us from various backgrounds with various value systems and ideas about acceptable behavior. The opportunity to play or swim on a team may be the only chance they get to develop a ‘valuable’ relationship with peers and/or adults. Sports participants are highly influenced by the latter, especially by the actions and leadership of coaches. In many instances, coaches take on the role of the ‘substitute parent.’ Positive interaction between the coach and team members therefore becomes paramount. We have to point out, however, that the value system of children is basically ‘set’ (developed) by the age of eight, according to sociologists and sport psychologists. This projects coaches into the position whereby they either reaffirm accepted societal values, help to strengthen those values, or the coach’s behavior provokes athletes in a way that they start to challenge group values (common among the 12 to 15 year old group).

Coaches within the ‘Training’ model (October Newsletter) tend to dictate rules for group behavior. The participants frequently violate such rules because they see it as a challenge or to ‘get a rise out of the coach’ (ditto that for school regulations).  How many rules did you breach in your lifetime? Frustrated coaches may resort to punishing methods such as running a mile, requiring ‘X’ sets push-ups, sit-ups, ‘killer laps in swimming’, etc. The ‘revenge’ or reaction versus pro-action behavior denotes the classic example of struggle for control (military) and superiority versus one of discipline management (modern pedagogy). Coaches seem to forget that children join sport programs foremost to get involved in physical activity – instead of being punished with the same. Many a times, coaches are even unaware that their actions are counter-productive, namely that a participant may rebel more or drop out all together. I hear former athletes talking about their experience as having ‘lost respect for the coach.’

On the other hand, the ‘Educational’ model (October Newsletter) encourages the learner-centered approach, which involves children and youth in the moral process. This means that the team as a group rules on a ‘set of values’ – those, which are acceptable to the group as a whole. The group also establishes the consequences for violating norms of behavior. Any infringement is seen as a transgression against established group norms and an offense against the so-called ‘common good.’ My experience in the past has shown that this approach was less frustrating to me as a coach because the athletes started to ‘live by their rules and standards’ and take responsibility for their own actions through peer pressure. In addition, the consequences for infringements were usually more severe than if I had established them. Even the youngest participants became very creative in their discipline scheme. We developed a seasonal contract for behavior, violations and as A, B, and C consequences (C resulted in the removal from the team). Each athlete, the parent and the coach signed the contract. It worked! We no longer had to defend the consequence for conduct violations. We determined however that any consequential action had to benefit the ‘common good (duties to be performed within the operation of the team).

The ‘worship of so-called sports heroes’ has become a North American dilemma. Since young viewers are easily influenced by the actions of their ‘heroes’ it is crucial that coaches teach participants to discriminate between right and wrong actions in sport as early as possible. They also have to alert to the fact that ‘there is the athlete and there is the person.’ While we may admire the athletic talent we may not like the personal characteristics of that same athlete.

I was always asked throughout my career as an elite athlete to name ‘my heroes or role model.’ I guess my answers were disappointing to many, based on the reactions I received. I had two role models. One was my German maternal grandmother ‘Oma’ Weinzierl (her last name). She had the biggest impact on me because she gave me ‘John Wooden wisdom’ for life. She always told me… ‘Above all else, Moni (short for Monika) keep a sense of humor and be able to laugh at yourself.’

My other role model was the late German philosopher, philanthropist, humanist, and medical doctor Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), whose works I started to read when I was 12 years old. He not only established a missionary hospital in the Republic of the Congo (Zaire for a time) in Africa but also wrote as early as 1933 on the decline of mankind when science, technology and power start to divorce society from ethical standards.  “Civilization and ethics,” part II of his book “The philosophy of civilization” shaped my outlook of life in the post WW II era of my youth, which was guilt-ridden with the overwhelming events that occurred within my parents’ generation. Schweitzer received the Nobel Peace Price in 1953 when I was in the second year of a 9-year prep-high school program. Moral reasoning therefore has become a big part in my life. It has shaped my outlook in coaching – although I had to re-discover my inner self and my philosophy in order to make a true difference for my students, athletes and coaching staff, that I mentored and still do.


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