After Landon Donovan scored a goal in the 91st minute against Algeria to move the U.S. into the round of 16 in the World Cup, there was a spike in Internet traffic which surpassed the traffic generated by the 2008 election of Barack Obama. At CNN.com, Steve Rushin observes that the U.S. has finally caught World Cup fever, giving as evidence his father-in-law's enjoyment of "the first few innings" of a match, and the presence of a brand new Manchester United license plate in his church parking lot. As someone who loves the sport, I am hopeful that the momentum will continue to increase, both for the U.S. team in this World Cup and for soccer more generally in the United States.
As someone with kids that play the sport, I have another hope. My hope is that their involvement in soccer (and other sports) will help to build their character in positive ways. I'd like them to learn to cooperate with others, work together for a common goal, respond appropriately to victory and defeat, and grow in virtues like courage, humility, patience, and perseverance. This seems naive, given not only the headlines involving star athletes involved in illegal drugs, sexual assaults, and cheating by using performance-enhancing drugs, but also the behavior of coaches, parents, and players in youth sports. Is the cliche "sports build character" true, or not?
It seems to me that participation in sports can build character, but it doesn't just happen, we must be intentional about it. Parents and coaches need to demonstrate through their words and actions the values of sports that translate well into daily life, including respect for oneself and others, fairness, grace in defeat, humility in victory, and the virtue of self-denial.
But how can this be accomplished? I'll have more to say about this in a future post (here and here), but for now I'd like to suggest a book that I've found helpful as a coach and parent by Craig Clifford and philosopher Randolph Feezell, Coaching for Character. It not only discusses the moral values relevant to sports, but gives practical tips for teaching these values and encouraging their formation in the character of young athletes.
The answer to our question, then, is yes. Sports do build character, though there is potential for this to happen much more than it does. Whether or not we come closer to reaching that potential, like so many other important issues in our lives, is, ultimately, up to us.
For more interesting writing on sports, see The Allrounder