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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

Youth Sports Are About More than Just Winning

A good coach offers life lessons
By Rick Hess — June 18, 2024 4 min read
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In one of our “Straight Talk” exchanges this spring, Jal Mehta and I discussed the crucial role that sports can play for so many kids—and where we’re falling short. Well, that exchange prompted a lot of thoughtful feedback, including a missive from blogger Mike Kayes that really resonated with me. Mike has spent 29 years coaching basketball in Mooresville, N.C., and pens a blog that discusses how sports, education, and spirituality can help develop character. I thought it worth sharing. Here’s what he had to say.

—Rick

Thanks for taking such an interest in youth sports. I think it’s always an appropriate time to talk about this topic—not just during March Madness—because a properly focused youth sports program has extraordinary power to develop character.

I recently finished my 29th year of coaching basketball. I am the head varsity boys’ coach at Liberty Prep Christian Academy in Mooresville, N.C. My nearly three decades of experience coaching have clarified the importance of sports to kids and teenagers.

For one thing, the connection between a coach and player often becomes very special—much closer than any other relationship outside students’ families. Why? Because sports reveal character and make kids vulnerable to failure as well as success. Powerful bonds can be established through these emotional moments if coaches handle them with poise, grace, and self-control. Players can learn invaluable life lessons, like how to win with class and lose with dignity, while respecting the officials and their opponents.

The most impactful coaches integrate sports into the overall education experience. I have always sought to do this by, for example, leading devotions before every practice. These aren’t exclusively faith-based. We also talk about real-life stuff like personal integrity, social media, drug use, how to interview for a job, and family problems. I also periodically review school performance. I set a high bar and expect all players to get good grades. I’ve discovered that many smart kids are bored and that the kids who are underperforming in the classroom have no one who believes in them—nor do they believe in themselves. We work on this throughout the season. Also, in everything we do, we emphasize teamwork and servant leadership. In this regard, we follow the words of legendary college basketball coach John Wooden: “It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.”

The very best coaches, who consistently focus on developing character and teaching life lessons, realize they won’t definitively know how well they coached until years, if not decades, later. I always tell parents that I judge my coaching success by how good of a dad the players become later in life. Do they give back to their community? Are they civic-minded? The win-loss record of any particular season may be important for the year-end sports banquet, but its impact is relatively short-lived.

An example from my own experience is instructive. As a basketball coach, I once cut a player in 6th grade because he refused to cut his hair. While he was one of the most talented players, he was also one of the most selfish. In my judgment, his hair was too long, and it inhibited his court vision. I also knew, from conversations with his mom, that his long hair was part of his identity. I decided he needed to cut it—not only to see the court better but to realize that every player needs to put the team before himself. Fast forward to high school: This player became my starting shooting guard and was one of the team’s best players. He then became a coach in college. We still keep in contact 15 years after I cut him in 6th grade. I’ve even heard that he recently told his younger brother to cut his hair before basketball tryouts. This goes to show the ripple effect of character development.

Unfortunately, many coaches miss this opportunity to build character by focusing too much on the season’s record. In these situations, the coach focuses too much on his or her ego. When coaches scream and yell at officials, which happens all too often in sports today, this sends a bad message to players: that if things don’t go your way, it is someone else’s fault. When a winning-at-all-costs mentality replaces character development as the primary goal, there is often too much pressure on athletes. How an athlete competes and their level of effort should be the focal points—not an obsession with the final score.

Today, schools are missing a huge opportunity to build character and teach life lessons through sports. This is the case for two reasons: Youth sports participation levels remain way too low, and there is too much emphasis on elite or travel teams. In my own state of North Carolina, only 20 percent to 25 percent of high school students compete in scholastic sports. That’s way too low. A target participation rate of 70 percent or higher should be the goal. For those playing sports, there’s often too heavy a focus on getting to an elite level at the expense of building character. While emphases on both winning and character development are not mutually exclusive, the primary focus should be on the latter. In my experience, a focus on winning at all costs tends to hinder character development, while a focus on character development will, over time, produce winning teams.

When I was an athletic director, I reminded each coach that the players will listen to everything you say, and some will remember what you teach for the rest of their lives. There is no doubt that good coaches can have positive, life-changing impact. In order to get those positive experiences into kids’ lives, there needs to be a greater effort to involve students in youth sports.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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