I recently conducted a study on athletic coaches at small liberal arts colleges and how they go about developing character in their programs. I was particularly struck by a statement from “Jennifer,” one of the participants in the study:
I think the challenge with defining character is that every word you use to define it, you need to define those words . . . a simple way to define character would be “consistently doing the right thing,” but then you have to define “what is the right thing . . . who chooses what right means?” So, you end up going down this rabbit hole . . .
Jennifer’s response made explicit a difficulty that many coaches encounter when asked to define character: To even begin thinking of a definition is to step into a semantic labyrinth of context-dependent meanings. When asked for their definition of character, many coaches will immediately offer a list of virtues they prioritize in their program. I’ve written about the kinds of virtues that coaches prioritize elsewhere. Here, I want to focus on the various identities that coaches seek to foster. These identities provided a narrative structure for the virtues that coaches saw as important in the character development process.
As the coaches I spoke with reflected on their own understanding of character, many of them offered definitions along the lines of “It’s who you are as a person,” “It’s the sum total of an individual,” or “It’s being a good human being.” On the surface, these definitions appear to be vague and unhelpful, but I found them to communicate something insightful. Character is not only a matter of what (i.e., virtues) but who we are as human beings and the teleological ends that define us. Just as coaches could not define character without talking about specific virtues, they could not talk about being a “good human being” without referencing a range of identities that make us fully human.
Within the context of coaching a sport, it is no surprise that the “athlete” identity is the most salient. It is an identity that is heavily dependent on objective and quantifiable performance. Although this can be a source of stress and anxiety for athletes, coaches tend to see value in connecting the athletic identity to other performance-oriented roles where, perhaps, the stakes are higher than winning or losing a game. The most obvious example would be the student/academic identity that all college athletes also inhabit. Another example would be the professional/career identities that student-athletes will assume after graduation. One coach reflected, “what kind of students will they be? What kind of bosses will they be one day? I try to tie what goes on during practice to what happens after.” Coaches pointed out that the virtues necessary for being a good athlete, determination, for instance, overlap significantly with those required to be a good student and employee.1
Although performance identities seemed to be the most readily teachable through sport, coaches also pointed out a wide range of relational identities that they address with their athletes. Within the context of the sport, there is a subtle shift from “athlete” to “teammate” as an identity that has less to do with individual performance and more so with a communal effort that relies heavily on certain moral and civic virtues. Friendliness, respect, compassion, and accountability were some of the most common virtues that coaches identified as constitutive of being a good teammate. Coaches also noted that the teammate identity and its virtues were easily translated to other relational contexts and identities. Some spoke about being a good neighbor or citizen, while others emphasized friendships and dating relationships in college. Rather than competition, it was cooperation, even in the midst of conflict, that provided rich soil for these identities to develop.
The final type of identity that coaches addressed was an “ultimate” identity that ordered all the others. These ultimate identities provided a metanarrative—a more comprehensive account of being human—that gave greater meaning to the performance and relational identities. Coaches at pluralistic institutions with no religious affiliation often referred to the identity of a “leader” as something that could be expressed in every other identity. Those that coached men’s sports also spoke about the importance of being a “good man,” which had implications for many of their other identities. It is worth noting that far fewer coaches (male or female) of women’s programs mentioned developing “good women” in any similar way. Coaches at Christian colleges and universities commonly referred to an “identity in Christ” that enlivened their other identities. Christian coaches also spoke about leadership and gender identity, though the Christian identity and metanarrative gave these coaches more specific moral language with which to talk about all other identities.
Some Encouragements and Cautions
One thing we can learn from athletic coaches is that sports have great potential for good identity formation, which is an important part of character development.2 The moral value of sport is apparent in at least two ways. First, the identities inherent to sports (i.e., being an athlete and a teammate) are very similar to other performance and relational identities that coaches and athletes inhabit. There is good reason to believe that the virtues used to define performance and relational identities within the sports context are highly transferrable to other identities and contexts.3 Second, the coach-athlete relationship is a thick bond that goes beyond teacher and student.4 Coaches have far more access to their players and keep themselves accessible as well. This puts coaches in a position to model a wider range of identities and virtues.
Some coaches, however, raised concerns that serve as important cautions for those looking to be more intentional about character development in sport. Many coaches talked about having the right priorities. However, quite a few coaches described their own struggles to order their other identities accordingly. The most common observation among coaches was that the time spent in their sport was disproportionate to the importance they thought their professional and athletic identities should have in their lives. Some coaches described themselves as “martyrs” who overworked themselves in service of their athletes, but also acknowledged that they were contributing to an unhealthy culture of striving for their athletes.
Christian coaches are not immune from the temptation to over-prioritize their athletic and professional identities.5 Although Christian coaches often, and rightly, note that Christ calls us to excellence in all areas of our lives, it is a reality that identities and their standards of excellence frequently compete with each other. This is why, in my research on Christian coaches, adding practices like prayer and worship was only part of the equation. Properly ordering their athletic and professional identities also required these coaches to set strict boundaries around their work time, regularly disengaging from coaching and training.
There is an important lesson here, not just for coaches, but for all educators in Christian contexts. Whether on the field or in the classroom, Christian educators should look for ways to acknowledge their various identities and those of their students. A scientist, for instance, might consider how their own work habits in the lab encourage students to properly order their student identities in a way that promotes their wellbeing and reduces the likelihood of burnout. It is equally important for Christian educators to continue to seek wisdom about the proper place of each of their identities and to teach their athletes to do the same.
- It’s important to note that I am only talking here about moral similarities between athlete and professional identities. Whatever legal similarities one might draw between the two is a different discussion entirely.
- Perry Glanzer, “Building the Good Life: Using Identities to Frame Moral Education in Higher Education,” Journal of College and Character 14, no. 2 (2013): 177–184.
- Blaine J. Fowers, Jason, S. Carroll, Nathan D. Leonhardt, and Bradford Cokelet, “The Emerging Science of Virtues,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 16, no. 1 (2021): 118–147.
- Sophia Jowett, “Coaching Effectiveness: The Coach-Athlete Relationship at its Heart,” Current Opinion in Psychology 16 (2017): 154–158.
- Gregg Bennet, Michael Sagas, Davis Fleming, and Sean Von Roenn. “On Being a Living Contradiction: The struggle of an Elite Intercollegiate Christian Coach,” Journal of Beliefs and Values 26, no. 3 (2005): 289–300.