Coaches Who Care
Maintaining Integrity in a High-Stakes Profession
Coaches are caught, not taught. Coaching is a profession that follows the apprenticeship model. There are no ethical guidelines or coaching certifications required to coach in America. Sure, there are state high school regulations and NCAA Rules, but you don’t have to look hard to find those rules being bent. Often times, especially in college, the ones bending the rules are highly successful coaches, and they are the ones influencing younger coaches on how to operate in the profession.
Coaches are role models and important moral influencers, and they can play a role in the moral character development and prosocial behavior of athletes. This is particularly true in college, when parents are no longer a daily presence, and student athletes often spend more time with their coaches than anyone else1.
So, in this week’s 3 point’s, I’ll examine how to avoid a win-at -all-costs mentality, in a world where we are often defined by wins and losses.
1. A team of researchers at the University of Minnesota sought to understand how coaches achieve continued success in a highly competitive environment while still acting in ethical ways and embodying and practicing the virtues associated with the coaching profession.
They chose to study exemplar coaches with successful track records at Division 1 Power Conference schools because of the immense pressure to win these coaches face. They defined a morally exemplar coach as a coach that fits most, if not all, of the following characteristics:
Has high ethical standards and conducts him- or herself with professionalism.
Consistently receives high ratings/evaluations from his or her athletes for being a caring and concerned coach/is perceived by his or her athletes as being a caring and concerned coach.
Follows institutional and organizational rules and policies.
Honors the game by demonstrating sportsmanship and showing respect for the rules, opponents, officials, athletes, and self.
Demonstrates a willingness to put the well-being of his or her athletes ahead of self-interest and/or winning.
Teaches and inspires good character and sportsmanship in his or her athletes and others.
In order to qualify for the study, coaches had to be nominated by their AD, a fellow coach at their school, and at least one coach in their conference for their character and professionalism (safe to say I don’t think Lane Kiffin and Jimbo Fisher nominated each other). The researchers then interviewed 12 coaches with the most nominations.
2. They found consistent themes from the interviews with the coaches. Here are the highlights along with quotes from coaches interviewed:
Coaches demonstrated having a strong moral compass in comments regarding having core values (especially that of focusing on the well-being of their athletes), and sticking to those values despite the intense pressures of their job.
“To me it comes back to “who do you really want to be?” and are you staying inside of that?”
One of the distinct ways that coaches described their ongoing personal and/or professional moral growth was through self-reflection and learning from experiences and mistakes, which included acknowledging their own imperfection.
“Every day I just ask myself, was I efficient and did I do my best today? There’s a lot of self evaluation that goes into every single day… One time I remember I wasn’t very patient with a kid. … I called her that night and I apologized.”
Coaches felt having love, compassion, and respect for others and teaching those values to their athletes was a part of being an ethical coach. All of the coaches commented on their work being largely about their responsibility toward others— their athletes, their sport, and their communities.
“What it means to be a coach is, number one, to first realize that we work with people. We're in the business of people. We're not in the business of winning and losing or trying to. At least I'm not in the business of trying to accumulate results and rewards and so forth. But we're in the business of people and we have the ability to really impact people's lives.”
High standard for self
Coaches illustrated through their comments the high standards they set for themselves as coaches and as people.
“I think, number one, you have to set a good example. … You better expect out of yourself what you’re expecting out of your players, so I better conduct my life in the proper manner, too, with how I live my life, and what I stand for, … and treating people the right way. I think if you don’t do that, how can you pass it on to your players? So I think that’s the most important thing. We have to be a good role model in everything we do.”
Gratitude and a general sense of positivity were reflected in many of the participants’ interviews. Coaches felt gratitude for their job as a coach, gratitude toward others, and gratitude for life experiences.
“I know that the time that I spend within my program, of shaping young women’s lives, is a privilege that I get to have a direct impact on a small part of what they will become in the future, and that’s because of me. … So I think it’s a privilege, it’s an honor, and something I’ve very proud of, because not everybody could do this job.”
3. So who do you really want to be as a coach? What are your values? Here’s an exercise (modified from Dr. Russ Harris) to give you a start:
Imagine that it’s ten, twenty, thirty years from now, and you are celebrating your retirement. You’re surrounded by former players varied widely in age, from your first team to your most recent team, and all of the coaches that worked for and with you.
Imagine that they took turns sharing their experiences with you as their coach, boss and colleague—about what you stand for, what you mean to them, and the role that you have played in each of their lives. Imagine them saying what you would most like to hear (This is not about what they would realistically say—it’s about what, in an ideal world, you would love to hear.)
Imagine them describing your character, your strengths, and the ways in which you have contributed to their lives.
Now: Write those down and ask yourself, “Did my actions model my values today?”