Most people involved in sport agree that proper behavior makes the sport better and that character matters. While there is a great amount of attention paid today to ideals of sportsmanship, or positive relational character — respecting self, teammates, opponents, and the game — there isn’t a lot of consideration paid to the influence that an athlete’s or coach’s character actually has on performance. Besides the evolution of “sportsmanship” programs throughout the United States – which are intended to heighten awareness about the realities of sport today – the relationship between character and performance is seldom addressed. Despite the logical link between character and performance, may coaches dismiss this as an intangible factor that can’t be measured.Performance and relational character are not mutually exclusive. Tom Lickona and Matt Davidson, authors of Smart and Good Schools, suggest that performance character focuses on the diligence, perseverance, and self-discipline necessary to a commitment to academic, athletic, and other areas of excellence. They claim that moral or relational character embodies the traits of “integrity, justice, caring, and respect – needed for successful interpersonal relationships and ethical behavior.”
Character strengths such as hope, perseverance, creativity, and zest are but a few traits which, when habituated, provide sport participants the greatest opportunity to improve performance and enjoyment. Hope is about goal-setting and optimism, creativity is about finding alternative strategies to improve performance, and zest is about the enthusiasm that players and coaches bring to the field.
An athlete who has developed a strong character can call on a foundation of well-formed habits in aspiring to true excellence. The competition of the sports arena, together with a personal goal to optimize performance, challenges the athlete to continually stretch his or her abilities through deliberate practice, a focused and effortful rehearsal. Peter Greer, former headmaster of Montclair Kimberley Academy, said that we must will good habits and improved skills; we can’t just wish them to happen.
What separates successful performers from others is the ability to make the most of what they can control in their aspirations for optimal performance. This doesn’t mean that anyone can become an elite athlete, but it does mean that athletes can strive to perform to the best of their ability levels – aspiring to excellence as individuals and as members of a team. Malcolm Gladwell supports these assumptions. The “physical genius” wills performance, rather than wishes it. Deliberate practice requires concentration and doing what needs to be done. This provides the athlete with the knowledge of what to do at the right moment on the playing field. Gladwell writes:
What sets physical geniuses apart from other people, then, is not merely being able to do something but knowing what to do – their capacity to pick up on subtle patterns that others generally miss. This is what we mean when we say that great athletes have a “feel” for the game, or that they “see” the court or the field or the ice in a special way. If you think of physical genius as a pyramid, with, at the bottom, the raw components of coordination, and, above that, the practice that perfects those particular movements, then this faculty of imagination is the top layer. This is what separates physical genius from those who are merely very good.
Marcus Buckingham and the late Don Clifton, authors of Now, Discover Your Strengths, have framed the development of good habits or strengths in what they call the “anatomy of a strength.” They ask five important questions:
- What are your strengths?
- How can you capitalize on them?
- What are your most powerful combinations?
- Where do they take you?
- What one, two, or three things can you do better than 10,000 other people?
When athletes and coaches can answer these questions, it can be empowering for individual and team performance and enjoyment.
By learning about character strengths and ways to build and apply them, coaches and athletes can be guided to acknowledge, own, and apply their own strengths, to value their authentic selves, and to increase both their collective and self-efficacy.
Buckingham, M. & Clifton, D.O. (2001). Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: The Free Press.
Gladwell, M. (1999, August 2). The physical genius. New Yorker.
Lickona, T. & Davidson, M. (2005). Smart and Good High Schools: Integrating Excellence and Ethics for Success in School, Work and Beyond. Self-published.
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