Building Character

Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's Notebook. Email the author at sjordan@alaskalife.net.

It's easy to start feeling noble when talking about the virtues of coaching. Instilling characteristics such as good sportsmanship, fair play, teamwork into impressionable young minds - isn't that what coaching is all about? (heads should be nodding up and down at this point...) Yet, how are these things taught? I'll bet you can look at any coach's practice plan and you won't find sportsmanship, for example, on the agenda. Can you imagine a practice plan that looks like this?

Practice plan for 12/5/00

  1. 15 min Warm-up and stretching
  2. 10 min FC layup - Laker drill
  3. 10 min Sportsmanship drill
  4. 05 min Fair play discussion
  5. 05 min Water Break
  6. 10 min "Respecting your Opponent" (guest speaker)
  7. and so on ...

What really happens is coaches organize their teams and pursue the goal of playing the best basketball they can. Kids learn about sportsmanship and teamwork, for example, as the season progresses, more or less as a by-product of playing team sports. But, what if you want to be a coach who really cares about building character?

Character Building - What is Character, Anyway?

Character building ... what are we talking about exactly? A person's character is the sum of those inner qualities that distinguish him/her from other individuals. OK, sounds good, but what do we mean by inner qualities? 

Well, some inner qualities are granted at birth. Have you ever noticed how some players are inherently more aggressive than others, or how some players seek leadership while others look for direction? Those are examples of inherited traits, and they are very difficult (if not impossible) to instill in another person who lacks them. 

The other kind of quality is the system of values that each person elects to adopt as they mature in life. Young players are generally quite impressionable. Kids spend a lot of time and energy sampling, testing and changing values. Their vacillating tastes in music, dress and hairstyles are good examples. When they meet people that appeal to them for whatever reason, they adopt certain values that person is perceived to possess. The result may be positive or negative, but the child ultimately decides if those values are added to the character set or not.

It is the latter value system that a coach has an opportunity to influence. You are not going to make lions out of lambs, nor are you going to make leaders out of followers, but you can help players understand the strength that comes from within a person (or a team - ideally, there is no difference) with firmly established values. A coach can say (and demonstrate) "Here are the values that are important to me, and this is why they are important. Our team will operate under these values, and they will be followed by everyone within the context of our basketball program." You can phrase it better, perhaps, but that is the gist of it.

Define Your Values

A useful exercise is to sit down and list the values that are important to you as a coach. Perhaps you do not even know what kind of coach you are! Once you have identified values that are important to you, then you are ready to influence a team. If you do not know your values, you are not ready to coach, because you have no compass, no standards to follow. Its not a question of what is the right thing or the wrong thing to believe. The question is, "Who are you?" Remember, a person's character is the sum of their values. I think the quote goes, "Know thyself and to thine own heart be true". If I messed that up, send me an email!

There are three areas of character building that a conscientious coach may wish to develop during his time with players. At least, these three items are important to me. They are strength of spirit, teamwork and respect. Of course, each of these terms encompasses many things, but these stand out as categories. If you disagree, that's good. Write your values down. It helps to understand what is most important to you.

Strength of Spirit

You cannot have a strong team that is made up of weak individuals. Its like making soup with stale ingredients. The individual flavors can certainly augment one another, but if none carry much taste, the broth is thin.

So, strength of spirit is on top of my list. To put it another way, I value people who are strong-minded, and I want my players to be firm in their convictions, beliefs and commitments. How do players become established in these things? They need to acquire three critical attributes:

  1. Identity - A player must understand and accept identity. Who are you? Where do you belong? For example - I am a person of value. I know what values are important to me and what I care about. I belong to THIS team, THIS is MY school, etc. The coach may realize that a player needs help with identity. The way to help is to explain to the player where he/she fits in, how they can help the team and what characteristics the player already has that are special to the team.

  2. Sense of Purpose - Why are we here? Now, that's a timeless question. Within the scope of sports, though, the player is here to help my team. The players and coaches represent the program. Everything that is done, such as skill improvement and conduct management, supports the main purpose - helping the team.

  3. Self Confidence - Self confident people can state the following: I know I can do my job. I know I will do my best. I know my parents, coach and teammates will support my efforts. There is no doubt about these facts.

If you are fortunate enough to join a group of individuals who are like-minded in their identity, purpose and confidence, you are in for a remarkable experience. The power of unity is immense. Notice there is no mention of athleticism here. Its purely dedication of purpose. When each team member is bonded in this way, the team becomes one person, and as one person, can finally hope to achieve its true potential.

Weakness of Spirit

Obviously weakness of spirit is not a value to cherish, but it bears discussion to more fully understand strength. If you have the ideal team as defined above, then you are as good as you can be. You have no weakness as a team, so you are invincible in that regard. If you play another team who is in their ideal state, then a great basketball game is about to take place. But chances of that happening are remote. Ultimate teamwork is hard to both attain and retain.

It is very important to understand the signs of weakness. Late in the game, you may recognize vulnerabilities in your opponent. Or, more importantly, recognize indications that your own team is breaking down. Perhaps if you catch it early enough, you can make an appropriate substitution or time out and instigate a positive change. In the long run, recognizing signs of weak character will help you focus on individuals that need the most attention.

There is an article called "Analogies" on this site. It contains references from the Art of War by Sun Tzu. This excerpt describes the concept of reaching your potential. To me, invincibility is achieving ultimate teamwork. Invincibility is a good word because teamwork is something your players can create and perfect, yet it is something your opponent cannot destroy. The only way you lose your teamwork is if you let it erode.

From the Art of War: "The skillful warriors in ancient times first made themselves invincible and then awaited the enemy's moment of vulnerability. Invincibility depends on oneself, but the enemy's vulnerability on himself. To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself. Thus the good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat, but cannot make certain of defeating the enemy."

What are the attributes of weakness?

  1. Loss of Identity - First, consider the "who are you? question. When players are surrounded by negative values, they may forget the positive virtues they possess. The most powerful of the negative influences are friends who introduce temptations such as drugs, alcohol, resentment of authority, aversion to work and derision of good study habits. Players who use profanity, denigrate other people and their efforts and show little respect for others are declaring that they are abandoning their better values. Its possible that all they need is an adult influence to reaffirm their original value system. What they must understand is that the negative behaviors listed above are all signs of weakness. 

    For instance, use of profanity is a sign that a person is weak in self control and too insecure to accept responsibility for personal actions. People who observe a player swearing will judge the inner qualities by what appears on the outside. Take heart when your opponent exhibits such behaviors - it is a sign you have the upper hand, unless, of course, you lower yourself to your opponent's level.

    A player cannot hope to be competitive while participating in illegal substances, avoiding work, clashing with those in authority and getting poor grades. You cannot go anywhere in sports and also have these things as part of your identity. Again... who are you? What kind of person do you want to be?

    Secondly, consider the "where do you belong" question. One reason benching players is so detrimental to team play is that it eventually fractures unity. When players are not allowed to contribute, they will disassociate from the team. They will choose to no longer belong. They may talk about quitting or moving to a new school or simply cease to expend much effort. Remember, the player's purpose is to help the team succeed. If the coach removes the opportunity for the player to fulfill the purpose, the player will take no satisfaction in being part of the team.

  2. Loss of Purpose - When players become consumed in their own self interest due to media attention, pressure for scholarships, concern over playing time or simply desire personal glory, it is obvious that they have lost their purpose which is to help their team. True teammates accept roles, change roles or create roles to meet the needs of the group. Sometimes, as painful as it may seem, the best way to help your team is sitting out and giving your teammate a chance to contribute. There are many ways to support your team while on the bench. Watch for weakness in the opponent. Keep your teammates' attention on the game or aspects of it. A team will unite if it faces external competition. If the competition (for playing time, attention, points, etc.) is internal, the team will become divided. Sometimes, when players are unruly, inattentive or lackluster, it helps to ask them, "Why are you here?" Sometimes, being kids, they forget and succumb to various distractions.

  3. Loss of Confidence - When players lose confidence that they can do their job, they will attempt to displace blame and responsibility. They will fault each other, the coach, the referees, the equipment or anything else that seems culpable. This is a sure sign that a player has lost confidence. Other outward signs signal loss of confidence, such as profanity, excessive fouls and trash talking. Confident players accept responsibility for their actions. They retain self control because they know they have the ability to make positive changes.

If you overhear such talk, there are problems to correct. Action is required. The problems will not get better on their own. It would be far better to stop practice and talk than to work on physical skills. 

Teamwork

Teamwork is one of those popular words coaches like to use and everyone acts as if the meaning of the word is understood. Yet teamwork is a complex idea and is envisioned differently among individuals. To some, teamwork is simply one player helping another, and that is an acceptable definition. To others, it means a change from personal identity to a collective identity. The second definition of teamwork gives one a glimpse of the power a team can wield. Following are components of teamwork. Add your own as you see fit.

  1. Unity of Purpose - The basic definition of a team is a group of individuals joined in a common goal. The fundamental goal of a basketball team is to achieve the objective of a basketball game - to win the game by scoring more points than the opponent in the time allotted. Generally, the goal of a team is not learning skills or equalizing playing time. You can make these into goals, but then you are missing the point. The objective is to win the game. Teaching fundamental skills and playing all of your players are sound coaching philosophies that enable a team to achieve its goal - winning the game.

    So the premise of creating a team is making sure every member is participating for the same reason. That goal must be clearly stated and accepted by every member. If even a single player is pursuing a different purpose, the team will suffer. Once the goal is defined and accepted, then the plan can be built. We now have direction. As long as the goal is in sight, the plan can be as flexible as needed. Creativity and innovation have an important place as long as they move the team toward its goal as efficiently as possible. 

    The concept of unified purpose seems simplistic, but it is harder to achieve and maintain than you may imagine. Obstacles to unity are common, everyday human short-comings: failure to communicate and self-interests. Let's look at communication first.

    1. The most frequent communication breakdown is not stating the team goals. Everyone assumes what the goals are and as the season goes on, those assumptions change all the time. 
    2. The second communication problem is lack of organized planning. Although the team may have established a goal, no one is coordinating the effort to get there and no knows if the team ever achieves the goals or not. The result is confusion and frustration. 
    3. The third communication dilemma is lack of feedback from the participants. Its all fine and good to state a goal and a plan, but every member needs to accept it, follow it and contribute to its perfection. Team members who do not offer suggestions and ideas are not fully participating. Coaches that deny input from players are ignoring their closest and most valuable resource.

    Now let's talk about self interests. Once the season is underway, various players will undoubtedly become frustrated at some point, even if the team is doing well. Why? Because their personal goals are not being met. Being human, it is very difficult to give up that personal identity to assume the team identity. Players who are not realizing their personal goals - points scored, playing time, coach's attention, whatever - will eventually express dissatisfaction. The reality is that if the player cannot take on the larger team identity, then the team potential is compromised. If the coach adjusts the plan to suit individual goals, then the team is weakened. I am not saying the coach is always correct or the plan is always perfect, but if a change is made to appease the player rather than help the team, its not a beneficial change.

  2. Trust - Lets assume that we have established a goal and a plan. All team members are willing to work together. The team follows the plan, but due to inexperience working together or insufficient time developing skills, the team appears unsuccessful. This situation is a major test for the team. Improvement depends on the collective strength of spirit. If the team believes the plan can work and has the patience to improve over time, success will come. But, success will require trust in the coach, the plan, most importantly, each other. 

    Trust is such a key issue when things go wrong. Players make mistakes (as do coaches). A supportive team accepts mistakes. Some coaches balk at this idea because in their pursuit of perfection, mistakes are intolerable. But acceptance of mistakes is not being soft, it is being realistic. Its simple math, really. Players miss wide open lay-ups, coaches make illogical substitutions. That's OK - everyone is trying to help the team, but just made a mistake. 

    Trust is when a play is blown, and though disappointed, the other players accept it and move on without complaining, making excuses or casting blame. They know their turn will come after a while. And, most importantly, they know they can count on the same player to be successful the next time that situation arises. Trust isn't believing in someone as long as they are perfect. Its believing that teammates are trying their best and will usually succeed if given an opportunity to do so.

    Where trust breaks down is when individuals stop trying their best to help the team. It is readily apparently when one person isn't working hard or demonstrates lack of commitment in any number of ways. Lack of commitment is very demoralizing. Once a player can't be trusted, then teamwork potential is limited.

  3. Self Sacrifice - True teamwork is possible when the individual identities blend into the collective purpose. This requires a sacrifice of individual goals and adoption of the team goal. It doesn't do much for personal glory, but the power derived from a united group is so much more than the same number of individuals can generate independently. In a competitive world like basketball, such sacrifice is essential if the team is to be best of teams. Its too much of a load for one player. Teams that depend upon a star are simply not strong enough. They can only defeat weak teams. If you want to get to the top, you need everybody to get there.

    Its not unusual to see coaches in the self sacrificial mode. Many put in amazing hours and effort to help their team. Players may or may not understand the concept of self sacrifice, but when they do and they succeed, it is a joy that they will seek out for the rest of their playing days. When the team is enlarged to include parents and/or the community, the power increases accordingly. Think of the many, many times you have seen parents vs coaches vs players and the destructive effect that strife produces. What if the opposite were true?

Respect

Respect is one of those things that works best when given, but is at its worst when its expected. It is such an ugly thing to hear players demand concessions from the team to satisfy their need for "respect". Parents are worse than players, at times. If their child isn't given special consideration, it becomes an issue of respect, or lack of it, towards the player or the family. By the very nature of the word, the issue is at once personal and highly emotional. The irony is that when a person demands something as a show of respect, that action demonstrates that person's lack of respect for the other party. Its a no win scenario.

Listed are three types of respect. All of these are examples of respect given, not demanded.

  1. Towards the program - Healthy respect means that you hold others in high esteem. You respect your teammates because of their abilities and their dedication to your common goal. Your respect for them should be a powerful motivator for you to train hard and to properly conduct yourself on and off the court. Why would you shame those you respect? Remember, you are part of them and they are part of you. A perfect team is like one person. 

    Players should also show respect and courtesy to coaches. A player that argues with a coach or blatantly shows disrespect by yanking off a jersey, removing shoes, sulking or not listening is clearly not seeking to support the team. Coaches should have little tolerance for disrespect. It is a cancer that will spread and kill a team. I say "little" tolerance because sometimes players behave disrespectfully in ignorance. All that is necessary is an explanation. If that is the case, a player's character can be improved from a negative situation, without drastic disciplinary action.

    Respect towards referees is also a must. One, penalties (like technical fouls) really hurt your team. Two, when you show frustration towards officials, you are telling the world that have lost control. You are trying to blame the referee instead of accepting consequences for your own actions. And, three, you can't play without refs. Think about it for a minute. Without referees, you might as well go out to the playground and argue all day.

    Coaches are not off the hook here. Coaches set the example for demonstrating respect. Its more than how they behave towards players, officials and administrators. It how funds are managed, recruiting is handled and how words are chosen for media. If these things are conducted with respect for the program, the needs of the team are best served.

  2. Towards yourself - It takes a lot of self respect to succeed in sports. One must believe, trust and even admire oneself somewhat. It takes a lot of courage to perform complex or strenuous athletic feats under pressure. Players will have great difficulty if they believe they are unworthy.

    When conditioning drills are underway, and players are struggling to push themselves, degrees of self-respect will show among individuals. Some give up easily. Some push on, holding themselves to a higher standard. They respect themselves too much to stop early. Players learn to respect themselves more once they begin to understand how much they are able to accomplish. 

    Some coaches are big on discipline. Discipline is really respect for the team and oneself. Players follow rules and protocol because they care about the program and the people in it. One way to get people to conform is to punish them, but a better way is to have people conform themselves to the team out of respect. That is the strongest discipline. For more on this topic, see the article on discipline on this site.

  3. Toward your opponents - Respect for your opponents is the basis for sportsmanship. You play fair and play hard because you hold your opponent in high regard. There is no real victory otherwise. Did you win because you cheated? How good does that feel? Did you win on a technicality? Kind of hollow, don't you think?

    Do you show disrespect for your opponent by not playing hard? It is really humiliating for a team to lose to a group of players who are goofing around and still winning because of a gross talent mismatch. As a coach, if your team is winning by a huge margin, you still have an obligation to show your opponent respect. Employing a full court press all game to run up the score is NOT what I mean. Instead, run your half court offense more patiently and reduce the amount of floor you are defending - but still play hard. A blowout is a blowout. You can't change that. But you can still respect your opponent. That's the kind of respect that reflects well on your program and builds character in your players.

Getting the Message Out

Coaches who are truly concerned about the intangible benefits of the sport make a point of explaining what is important to them. That gives a team direction. With direction, expectations can be set. With direction and expectations in place, the coach can stipulate behavioral boundaries for the players. These boundaries are the rules by which the team will abide. With direction and expectations in place, the rules make sense.

There a several methodologies that may be employed to convey the coach's values.

As Needed

Surprisingly, many coaches literally do nothing unless the need arises. Perhaps the season comes and goes and, in the end, everyone is happy. If a problem crops up, or the players exhibit undesirable traits, then the coach deals with it as the situation merits. The benefits of such practice is that it saves time and planning. The coach can concentrate on the sport of basketball and avoid discussing sensitive issues. Its quite possible that many coaches are uncomfortable talking about character building and may not have the tools to do it well.

The downside is that players may not be sure what to expect. When they do something that requires disciplinary action, they may not understand where the coach is coming from. Coach may seem inconsistent, unfair or biased against certain players. Without a standard to follow, action may appear mercurial and over time, contradictory.

The Big Speech

Perhaps the most popular method of conveying expectations is the Big Speech that takes place at the start of the season. The coach may express values, rules, expectations and penalties to his audience, then not much more is said until a problem arises. In a established program, this may be all that's required as the coach's values are well-known and proven over time. It may not be necessary to put a lot of time into character education, especially if your are dealing with mature, older players.

If this is the style you use, be sure to tell the players what is expected, the reason for the rules, and what the penalties are for infractions. Cover specific examples, good and bad, that demonstrate what your talking about. Describe what teamwork means to you. Describe the character traits you wish to see developed. In other words, give the kids an idea where they are headed.

The problem with this approach is that its possible no one will remember what was said once the balls start bouncing. Or, the Big Speech may be remembered differently by individual players. Also, the targeted audience may only be the players. Its very important that the parents understand the values you are promoting. If the parents are informed and on your side, the players will conform. If not, the parents will become player advocates, and question everything without the knowledge of the coach's presentation. So, if the Big Speech is your style, I suggest you include the parents in your audience, or have a separate meeting for their edification.

Contracts

Some coaches lay out the rules up front when the season begins, then not much more is said until an incident occurs. Other coaches go so far as to draft a contract. The advantage of a contract is that the rules and expectations are spelled out and their acceptance is documented for future use. Another beneficial aspect of the contract is that it can (and should) involve the parents and coaches as well as the player.

Contracts aren't a perfect answer, however. Uncooperative parents may look for loopholes to enforce playing time for their child. Coaches may find themselves limited by their own verbiage and lack the flexibility they need for special situations. Worse, a coach may not honor the contract by breaking the rules for a favored player. When that happens, discipline and unity go down the drain.