Applying discipline, building character

First Posted: 2/3/2015

During my coaching career I always had a pile of books on the table next to my bed. For every coach, the stress and demands of the season eventually turns into an exhausting preoccupation with their sport, in my case, basketball. I often sought refuge from the dilemma between the covers a good book. My favorite reading has always been historical novels and biographies but occasionally I stumbled on a book containing a sports theme that captured my imagination. My all-time favorite book, one that had a powerful impact on my coaching philosophy, may come as a surprise to you.

“The Death of a Salesman,” a three act play written by Arthur Miller and published in 1949, is considered an American classic. The book won a Pulitzer Prize and the play has performed on Broadway many times, winning numerous Tony Awards.

The book revolves around the story of Willy Loman, an aging salesman whose life is unravelling. But the character who caught most of my attention is his oldest son, Biff, a once promising athlete whose personal flaws submarine a potentially bright career. The preferential treatment Biff is accorded because of his athletic prowess prevents him from confronting his shortcomings. That theme resonates far too often today in our sports obsessed culture.

Biff’s success in sports is much more important to his father, Willy, than it is to him. He places Biff on a pedestal and overlooks his mistakes, coming to his defense whenever others confront him because of his behavior. By the time Biff is in high school he has become so arrogant he is unable to take directions from coaches or teachers. In the end, Biff is unable to accept a football scholarship offer from the University of Virginia because of his academic shortcomings.

When coaches, parents or administrators give athletes a pass in spite of bad behavior they are sending a message that the player is above reproach and can expect to be treated differently than others. Keep in mind the vast majority of athletes at every level do not fall into that category. But, in too many cases, gifted athletes are shielded from the discipline they deserve because their absence would hurt their team or be an embarrassment to their school or organization.

One of the things I learned in my coaching career was that kids want discipline. They may not act like it, they may rail against it, but deep down, adolescents want to know where the lines are drawn. And if those lines are moved for certain individuals, everybody on the team understands that any talk of discipline is just lip service.

Everyone who has worked in education will agree that just about everybody supports the idea of strict discipline and swift punishment for offenders … until one of their own is on the spot. Then, far too many demand compassion and leniency or cry that the process is unfair. When adolescents find themselves in hot water, the last thing they need is rescued. It is in those times of adversity, young people develop character by confronting their own problem head on and working out the solution, even when it means a just punishment. Parents and coaches who intercede on their behalf are simply robbing them of an opportunity for personal growth and sending exactly the wrong message. Over the years, I gained genuine respect for those parents who supported coaches and schools forced to apply disciplinary measures for their kids.

There are plenty of athletes, at every level, who exhibit outstanding character and are terrific role models but to credit their participation in athletics for their formation is a bit of stretch. I believe that as coaches, we can help young athletes form character but, in the final analysis, it is families that are most responsible for character development. If the reverse were true, it would stand to reason that professional athletes, who have had a lifetime of coaching and athletic experiences, would be our most ideal citizens in terms of character development. Unfortunately, an alarming number of these players are less than ideal in terms of personal behavior and responsibility. When I see these cases I often wonder if the athletes in question were shielded from punishment in the past because of their talent and never forced to confront their own character limitations.

Coaches and parents have the responsibility of teaching our athletes and kids the value of resiliency, the art of getting back up after being knocked down. That act of redemption does not only apply to recovering from a difficult loss or poor personal performance. It can also apply to life. Almost every adolescent (and we were all there once) has made decisions and mistakes they regret. Let’s hope that in the moment of misery they created for themselves, they are surrounded by caring adults who support them by allowing them to grow from the experience.

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