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Teaching Character Through Sports

Wednesday, March 7, 2018  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

School athletic departments carry a lot of responsibility. Of course they strive to teach each player the skills to succeed in a chosen sport, honing their talents and preparing them for competition. They safeguard each player’s physical well-being and help them recover from injuries. But there are other lessons to be taught: good sportsmanship, respect, loyalty, integrity, and service to others. While not many young athletes will continue to play their sport beyond their high school campuses, few will forget the life lessons they gained on the court or on the field.

At Holy Spirit Preparatory School in Atlanta, character education equals skill development in the athletic department. The athletics mission and vision statement speaks to spiritual, intellectual, social, and physical growth. In fact, No. 1 on the list of values is “Making love of God and love of neighbor the core principle of every athletic activity.” In day-to-day life, that means that every athlete is expected to live up to certain standards.

Head Football Coach Shawn Coury meets with each player and his family at the start of the season to review the expectations. “We use words that build people up, they show respect to other players, teachers, and coaches, and they act brotherly,” Coury said. “Their relationship with each other is most important to being a team.”

In summer workouts, Coury dedicates two meetings per week to leadership skills and making good decisions. He offers different scenarios to the players and they discuss how they might respond in the situation. “Pause before you react, get your mind right, then get it done,” Coury said. “I tell them, ‘Everything you do, make a difference.’”

And that can be challenging during an intense game when plays aren’t going their way and players can easily get frustrated. It can be difficult to remember the Biblical virtues that they learn off the field but Coury and his team work reminders into everything. On Thursdays, the team holds a walk-through practice and then goes to chapel together. Sometimes he pulls a player aside for a chat. “We talk to them constantly about our virtues and core values,” he said.

The team completes a major service project together every year. One year they took a mission trip to Mexico and another year they assisted with a home-building project in Kentucky.

At Father Ryan High School in Nashville, Elizabeth Elfers, dean of campus ministry and student life, works closely with the athletic department on multiple service projects for student athletes. Every sports team either participates in a service project of their own choosing or is meaningfully involved in a school-sponsored project.

For the past five years, Father Ryan has hosted the Special Olympics of Middle Tennessee, welcoming 400 participants to participate in track and field events on campus. Nearly 200 students – mostly athletes — volunteer at the event, greeting athletes exiting buses, selling food at concessions, setting up and taking down equipment, and helping at the competitions. Last year, the entire boys’ soccer team volunteered for the day, and senior Emily Carletello helped to manage the entire event. “It’s a great opportunity for students to put their passion to use and their faith into practice,” Elfers said.

Another way that the athletic department seeks to inject character education into its program is by supporting the Workers’ Rights Initiative. In 2012, after learning about the plight of international garment workers – who make many of their athletic uniforms – and the lack of fair practices and fair wages in countries including Indonesia, China, and Vietnam, the Father Ryan athletic department decided to take action. In theology classes, students first study this plight as part of Catholic social teaching.

Secondly, the school decided to sew a Jerusalem patch on its athletic apparel over the brand logo of the companies whose work practices are not in keeping with Catholic social teaching, choosing not to advertise for those companies. The school is seeking to replace athletic apparel with that from approved companies as old jerseys wear out, as they are able to do so within budget. “Finding a reputable company with a manageable price point is an ongoing challenge,” Elfers said. “The patch is a sign of our solidarity with workers around the globe that we stand for the dignity of every human person. The patch is a reminder to us to ask the hard questions, to continue that exploration, and to educate.”

While service programs and global education provide great opportunities to teach students about character, schools also look at everyday behaviors as teachable moments. At Battle Ground Academy in Franklin, TN, students, parents, and coaches are expected to adhere to specific sportsmanship guidelines that the school implemented a few years ago. For example, student athletes are required to Treat your coaches with respect” and “Always be an ambassador for BGA on and off the field.” Parents, in turn, are expected to “Respect the judgment of game officials,” among other rules. BGA even offers guidelines for student attendees at games, such as: “School Spirit is a great thing: do it with CLASS!”

Fred Eaves, athletic director at BGA, and other administrators worked together to decide on their expectations in athletics and communicated those to students and parents through team practices and at parent meetings. They also have taken the opportunity to reinforce the guidelines at events. If someone is being disruptive, Eaves or another administrator will try to take the person outside the gym or to the side of the stadium to discuss. However, sometimes they have seen officials call for security personnel to handle an issue directly.

“Officials aren’t signing up anymore because they’re tired of being yelled at,” Eaves said. Disruptive behavior is fairly rare from BGA students and parents, he noted, though it took about a year to cement the new guidelines.  

“We talk a lot about modeling behavior and how athletics is a vessel for becoming a great person in society, or a great parent or a great coworker someday,” Eaves said. “We try to interact with each other with respect.”  

So while schools enjoy winning state championships and seeing athletes sign commitments to play college sports, they also recognize that their athletic departments can operate with a mission-minded focus. “Coaching presents a rare opportunity to a teacher, chaplain, or administrator – an occasion for students to see you in an entirely different context, dealing with a venue that is so important to a great many of them,” said the Rev. Daniel Heischman, executive director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools. “Good coaches can have an extraordinary impact on students, and it is an opportunity for students to see you living out your values, such as fairness, integrity, resilience, and graciousness both in victory and defeat.” 

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