A Lesson Learned from Youth Sports

By Dave Zimmer

My little 10-year-old boy was up to bat – my little lefty. I love to watch him play baseball because he loves to play the game. The pitcher wound up and let go of a fast ball traveling at about 38 mph. The ball missed the strike zone by a few feet and hit my son in the upper arm. The ball was not traveling fast enough to hurt him, so he just ran down to first base. As my son was standing on first base, I saw the opposing coach signal to his pitcher. The pitcher then ran over to first base, shook my son’s hand and told him he was sorry. At that moment, baseball really did not matter. That act of sportsmanship was more important than the game.

Measuring success
It also pointed out the importance of a coach with values and his priorities in order. As coaches, it is only natural to want to be successful. In my 12 years of coaching, I never went into a game with the intention of losing. However, we did lose our fair share of games. Does this mean that a winning coach is successful and a losing coach is unsuccessful? I guess it depends on how you define success. A coach should not be measured on wins and losses alone. My son’s team won their game that night, but the opposing coach was successful because of the valuable lesson he taught his pitcher and team.

There is a poster from Character Counts that says the following: “A good coach will make you a better player. A great coach will make you a better person.” According to this definition, we should all strive to be a great coach because the opportunity is there.

As coaches, sometimes I do not think we realize the influence and opportunities we have with our players. Sports are full of teachable moments. Dealing with winning and losing, dealing with a bad call, handling adversity and learning your role on a team are just a few examples.

How a coach responds to these situations is critical because our players hear what we say and see what we do. After all, we (the coaches) are the same people who are able to get teenagers to get to a weight room at 6:00 a.m., pay hundreds of dollars to attend summer camps and go through painful conditioning drills. A lot of parents cannot even get their kids to make their own beds, so do not tell me that coaches do not influence their players.

Coaches need to seize the opportunity to also teach beyond the sport. Your players are a captive audience. Take advantage of the opportunities to teach them about character. Take advantage of the opportunities to demonstrate and model character.

I know there are some coaches who feel it is strictly their job to teach the sport. My problem with that idea is this. At some point in every athlete’s life, his or her athletic skills will no longer matter. However, will there ever be a point in a person’s life in which their character does not matter? Michael Jordan was one of the greatest basketball players to ever play the game. Does it matter today how well Michael Jordan can shoot a basketball or do a crossover dribble? No.

However, it does matter today what type of person Michael Jordan is and it will continue to matter for the rest of his life. When you think about this, just put the names of your players in the place of Michael Jordan.

Role and responsibility
As coaches, do we need to teach our…

* Volleyball players how to bump, set and spike? Definitely
* Football players how to block and tackle? Absolutely
* Basketball players how to shoot, dribble and rebound?
Without a doubt

It is also our role and responsibility to teach our players the fundamentals of life because those fundamentals will be with them forever.

Some of you still probably have the issue of winning on your mind. Believe me; I am not opposed to winning. I was also able to experience a fair amount of this in coaching. I just do not think it is the most important part of sports. Can you teach and model this character stuff and still win games? Maybe you want to ask Dean Smith, Tom Osborne or John Wooden. If I am not mistaken, these were three coaches with exceptional character and integrity. I think they may have won a few games also.

This world can always use people who are kind, caring, dependable, trustworthy, respectful, responsible and who play by the rules. Coaches can play an integral role in the development of such people because of the tremendous influence they have with their players. The athletic skills coaches teach their players will last them a while; the life skills they teach their players will last them forever.

After my son’s game that night, I talked to the opposing coach. I told him how much I appreciated what he was trying to teach his players. I also talked to my son that night after the game. He even thought the pitcher’s gesture was pretty cool. It was a great lesson and it happened at a Little League game.

David Zimmer is a teacher, coach and high school principal in Nebraska. He runs workshops for coaches on Incorporating Character into Coaching. Dave can be contacted through his website at

Leave a comment: