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Coaches Should Be Role Models

Opportunity and responsiblity for having a long-term impact.

WindRanch, CCL
Source: WindRanch, CCL

A recent study concluded that coaches have more impact on the lives of young athletes than parents, teachers, peers, school, and religion. I'm a little skeptical about this claim, but it is beyond dispute that coaches have a significant influence on the young athletes that they coach.

Coaches can be one of the most influential figures in the life of an athlete. Their influence can continue long after the season (and career) ends. This implies that coaches have a moral responsibility to have a positive influence on their players. Coaches will impact their players, and it is up to them whether this impact is for good or ill.

This is not merely a responsibility, but also a tremendous opportunity. What determines the nature of a coach's influence on athletes? There are many factors in play, but a primary one is the character of the coach. A coach must be a person of character. They must display moral courage, compassion, humility, respect, honor, and integrity. These are demanding traits, especially when the culture in many contemporary settings is about winning at all costs and seeing opponents as enemies.

In fact, one barrier to being a coach of character who develops character in her players is the overemphasis on winning. I'm a coach, and I value winning. But some coaches seem to think that sport is war and winning is all that matters. But more than winning matters: winning in the right way, respect for oneself, and honoring the game all matter as well. It's better to lose with honor than win without it.

Coaches, then, should seek to be moral exemplars. But of course, they will fail. We all do. As Jan Boxill puts it:

"We cannot expect [coaches] to be perfect. Coaches are human and fallible, but in accepting the role of coach, they accept the responsibility of developing excellence in those they teach," (p. 16).

This calls to mind a recent failure of my own as a high school soccer coach. A referee let an opposing player kick my goalkeeper. It was a clear foul, and a dangerous one. I said something inappropriate to myself on the sideline, but within earshot of some of my players. This is out of character for me, and at a subsequent practice, the players were discussing it.

I called them all together, told them that while I had good reason to be upset, using that language runs counter to my moral and spiritual beliefs. My hope is that this, in some small way, will stick with them. We talk about character, and I try to model it on and off the field. One important aspect of character is taking responsibility for our failures and doing what we can to rectify them. This will be more useful to my players in their future than any soccer-specific skill I teach them.

My hope is that more coaches take the responsibility and the opportunity of seeking to be a role model, an exemplar, for their players. If we are intentional about this, we can make a difference that will last a lifetime.


Photo by WindRanch, CCL

USADA, What Sport Means in America (2010).

Jan Boxill, "The Coach as Moral Exemplar," in The Ethics of Coaching Sports, ed. Robert L. Simon (Westview Press, 2013), 9-17.

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