If you ever participated in a sport, who would you say played a significant role in the development and enhancement of that experience? Most people think of a coach. As a track and field coach of 12 years, I have sought to provide formative experiences for my athletes. As a student researcher at the Thrive Center, I want to know how to make sports a positive formative experience for all athletes.
Competition can often evoke the worst in people, so how might a coach use competition to build virtue? A coach can provide a narrative to an athlete’s experience, especially a young athlete experiencing a difficult loss or making a tough decision on the field. This narrative involves framing the competition as a test of one’s character and a learning opportunity, and at the same time avoiding narratives that frame the competition as a test of one’s worth. I teach my athletes that we can test what we have learned in practice, and we can learn from the experience.
However, it is important to note that developing virtue and character in the midst of wins and losses begins before competition. This narrative must be told from the beginning of the season and reinforced across time. For example, the disappointment of a loss is a prime opportunity to work on the virtue of patience coupled with the character strength of perseverance. I share with my athletes that hard work does not end and begin with each challenge; it is an ongoing process. The ways in which a coach discuss- es disappointment can impact how athletes process their emotions. I’ve heard coaches say, “Remember the disappointment and pain you feel now and work hard to never feel it again.” I avoid this kind of negative motivation at all costs. It may motivate some kids, but not in a healthy, sustainable way. Instead, I tell my athletes, “If you tried your best, that is all anyone can ask of you. If you think you could do something different, let’s try it out in practice and get ready for next time.” It takes courage to compete in sports. I affirm the courage I see in my athletes after competition.
Young athletes have high hopes and expectations, yet have little control over many of the outcomes of a competition. I had an athlete who worked incredibly hard in and out of season to achieve his goals. He went into section finals as the top runner. In the middle of his race, he tore a tendon in his foot and he finished in the middle of the pack. We talked a lot about his disappointment. I helped provide a positive narrative for his experience. I shared with him the meaning of patience and perseverance and how I saw those character traits in him. He was able to be patient, continued training after such a devastating loss, and had great success as a collegiate athlete. This young man showed great poise and control in difficult situations. He did not develop great character alone. He had years of caring coaches who shaped a value for character beyond success, and he was able to shine.
Wins and losses, trials and triumphs, all have their place in our formation. Coaches, much like teachers and parents, can be God’s hand and feet in the world, drawing athletes to learn and experience the goodness of God in all aspects of life. Coaches who understand this reality and use all aspects of the sport to provide meaning and purpose to athletes are doing a noble work in the kingdom of God.