Helping High School Athletes Build Character and Learn Life Lessons With Respect To Their Self-Worth and Confidence

Kevin ChristianCoaching Blogs, Illinois HS Cross Country, Illinois HS Track & Field, Opinion Leave a Comment

By: Patrick Sheridan

(Lucky) Head Boys’ Cross Country and Head Boys’ Track and Field Coach at Elmwood Park High School

Originally Submitted 3/24/19

“Character is that which reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses to avoid.” –Aristotle

Whether we like it or not, contemporary high school coaches have to train young men and women for something more difficult than any type of athletic competition they could face.  The qualities and traits necessary to excel in that 19th Track and Field event or final Cross Country race called life are not being gotten at home from the family unit. Coaches are tasked with this immensely important responsibility.

I know zero about college basketball (couldn’t name a player to save my life).  The last 2 times (and only times) I followed were when the Bulldogs of Butler, my wife’s Alma Mater, made the NCAA Championship Game back to back years in the mid 2000’s!  However, this story is resonating on a different level with me (especially since I am sick and incapacitated). The mind does amazing things…so does NyQuil.

The Tom Izzo (long time Michigan State Head Coach, right?) incident from Thursday, March 21, 2019 jumped out at me as I wrestled illness and blankets.  Apparently the Spartans won the game, the first round of the Big Dance aka March Madness. At some point, during which the Spartans went on a 10-0 run, there was a time out and Tom Izzo verbally, and even close to physically, targeted a freshman player.

I 100% disagree with the over the top verbal and physical intimidation and Bobby Knight-esque tactics/way he acted/reacted/responded (not sure if this is ‘typical’ of him).

However, the ‘accountability’ angle that was the supposed impetus for the actions by Izzo, and the lack of a coach accepting an athlete giving up or not giving total effort is something at my core, and I see and agree with that in this situation.  At least it made me reflect. The incident is way too extreme, but the press conference was intriguing.

“What’s wrong with challenging a kid that makes some mistakes?” Izzo asked.  I agree with that question, but I feel his ‘methods’ went too far. This is college (‘pro’ atmosphere at a level like Michigan State) yet this athlete is a college freshman (‘true’ freshman?).  The pressure and stakes are so high, maybe it puts this situation in a different light/category, but we coach high schoolers who will likely never be on a team again…other than families, offices, friends, communities, etc.  The overwhelming majority will be ‘professionals’ not in athletics, but in areas far more important and long lasting.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been coached by the legendary Mr. Joseph Newton for Cross Country and Track and Field at York High School, from the Fall of 1996 through the Spring of 2000.  After continuing to ‘live the dream’ for four years in Track and Field at Millikin University, I entered the world of coaching upon graduating in the Spring of 2004. Mr. Newton continued to be a mentor and tremendous force in my formative years as a new coach, much as he had when I was a awkward teenager seeing him during summers and after school for four years.

I was bombarded with lessons and tips for life and how to navigate it smoothly.  It seemed the main thing I needed to possess and exhibit were things called the Eternal Verities.  

I cannot be blind or naïve to the fact that Mr. Newton’s actions sometimes were controversial or even a bit much for most.  Insert story here. However, the foundation on which he stood and adhered to is in every fiber of my being, and I’m damn grateful for it.

  • Being on time
  • Looking people in the eye when talking to them
  • Holding oneself and teammates accountable
  • Accepting responsibility for one’s’ choices
  • Being prepared
  • Doing what’s right, especially if it’s hard
  • Having integrity
  • Not compromising one’s morals
  • Working hard and being nice
  • Helping others who can not help themselves, etc.
  • Handling adversity is a good thing
  • Admitting when wrong and saying sorry
  • Showing character, not being a character
  • Honesty – in the end, your word is all you have

However, perhaps the most important lesson I learned from him is that you can’t treat every athlete the exact same way. Each young man comes a different walk of life.  They each have a unique past and have varying perspectives and experiences. Everyone develops differently and comes from a different upbringing and background. This is evident in the classroom, halls and well as on the course, track and field.   

Some of the teenagers we work with need to feel directly challenged while others have not quite developed a coat of armor, resilience and confidence just yet.  Some crave discipline while others want to get a taste of leadership.

All of them though, want to belong to something greater than themselves.  And each of them want to be loved and appreciated. They want to be seen as individuals too.

All of us learn through our individual experiences and especially from our mistakes.  High schoolers are no different and show this on a daily basis during their formidable teenage years.  A lot of ‘mistakes’ and poor decisions, whether ill conceived or not thought about at all, have to be addressed.  The question is not if we ‘should’ respond and address these mistakes but rather ‘how’ we should respond. The manner in which we respond and act as coaches is one of the most impactful things we can do as coaches.  It makes all the difference in the world to the student athletes.

The harsh reality is that some student athletes will break our hearts as a result of choices they make.  

Regardless of what type of person they are and what they did, no matter how dumb, half brained or whatever, afterwards, you have to show them some T.L.C. (Tender Loving Care).  This is why athletes ‘checking out’ with their coach each day matters. If there’s things needed to be talked about and it gets delayed 24 hours, I feel bad. What is essential is that an established and genuine relationship exists between the coach and the athlete.  This is paramount, as kids can sniff out a pretender from genuine love. This creates trust.

Deep down, most high schoolers, not so deep for some, want to know, and be told, that someone cares about them, will be there for them and will love them…no matter what.  Coaches are parental figures (Proxies? Replacements? Stand ins?) more so now than ever before in society today. If that relationship is established, and the athlete knows you care about them, they’ll run through a brick wall for you.  Conversely, the coach will do anything they can to help them…not just in high school.

Something almost all high school athletes struggle with is honesty.  If an athlete breaks their word to their coach, trust is broken at some level.  There are 3 things you can’t get back in life:

  1. Time (clocks don’t go backward)
  2. Missed Opportunities (being ready on the day, peaking at the opportune moment, taking advantage of the opportunity, etc.)
  3. Spoken Word (once you say it, you can’t change the fact that it was said)  ***this one is my most difficult of struggles***

On a recent Thursday, a junior on the Track and Field team, who floats between sprints and mid distance, asked me if he should do the sprint workout or the specialized mid distance workout.  I asked him what he wanted to focus on this year, and where he saw himself helping the team most. We identified his strength and place in the 400/800, rather than the 100/200. He agreed that running the mid distance workout made sense.  He looked me in the eye.

We have had a relationship of trust since his freshman year.  He trusted me to get him better as a runner and as a person. He bought into the workouts and the  racing strategies prescribed. It was clear he was bought in because he briefly (for about a month) pole vaulted mainly because he saw how much I care about the event and how much fun the pole vaulters had.  He even runs XC in the fall and loves it/the team…but isn’t crazy about long distance running). The magnetism of sports did its job!

He is deaf and has ocular implants and growing up came with its hardships.  He lives with and was raised by his grandma. Upon entering high school, he was not allowed to play football due to his medical history and the risks involved.  He found his way to Track and Field because said “it looks fun, I want to try it.” He has since found his niche in high school through athletics. He wears anything Elmwood Park Xc/T&F related and has become an athletic young man. Every day is a joy to see him ‘do his thing’ and to just be another ‘one of the guys’.  He is an Elmwood Park Tracklete through and through, the kind of kid you want to go to practice for.

Outside, as the mid distance workout started that day, I saw him doing timed 100’s (the sprinter workout).  As he finished and hunched over to catch his breath, I crouched down and sternly called his name, repeating it a few times as oxygen was short in supply and the brain takes longer to process anything.

I asked him what was he doing.  He gave a confused then saddened/embarrassed puppy dog look and I loudly said, “why are you doing the sprinting workout?”  Nothing. I repeated it.

He responded with the common, “well, I, uh, um.”  

I let him phase out the stalled response and there was quiet for several seconds.  I walked closer to him and looked him in the eye and said, “what conversation did we have 18 minutes ago?  What did you ask me? Did we discuss it and was the decision you made agreed upon?”

He sheepishly, and almost child-like, said, “that I’d run the mid distance workout.”  

I asked, “why did you decide to do the sprinter workout then?  You looked me in the eye and said you’d run the mid distance workout.”


I paused then said, “you gave me your word that you were going to run the mid distance workout.  Did you know at that moment you were not going to run it and instead were going to run the sprinting workout?”

He replied, “yes”, now recovered and back to standing up.

“So you knowingly lied to my face?”


“That’s your word you gave me, and if you break it, how can I trust you?  How will I be able to make decisions with you or have discussions and believe you?  This isn’t about the workout. This is your character and you as a person. If you truly wanted to rather run the sprinting workout over the distance one, tell me.”

I then asked him, “are you going to be successful in the sprints or mid distance?  Will you be in the Conference or Sectional Meets in the sprints or mid distance? In what area are you able to help the team be it’s best?  In what area do you have the most joy and fit in?”

“Mid distance.  Coach, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t just apologize as a reflex!  Try to think about things. Your decisions and actions say a lot about you and your character.  You know better.”

“I know, Coach.”

That was the end of our encounter/discussion. Two days later we had another mid distance workout (an important time trial and predictor workout).  I didn’t seek him out to be there, but when the warm up routine started that Saturday, he was towards the front’. When the time trial started, he pushed the pace and kept it honest.  

I have no clue how fast he will be this season or next year as a senior.  It doesn’t matter. Hell, the truth is he will probably not even remember it.  In fact, his times will probably get faster as he gets older. I know my times and heights have improved with age!

I don’t know if he truly understood the gravity and weight of that exchange/conversation, which lasted less than two minutes.  It’s my hope that in 3, 5, 10 or 30 years when he’s someone’s boyfriend, husband, father, employee/boss, colleague, neighbor, friend or citizen, and he’s in a situation where he has to make a choice or decision that is truly difficult, that he chooses the one with integrity and honor. It may not be the popular or easy one, but it will be the one that he can go to bed at night with.  He’ll have a clear conscience and an intact spirit. He will be better for it. And so will the people in his life. If that happens, he wins. We win.

As another Mr. Newton once said: “People forget how fast you did a job, but they remember how well you did it.” –Howard W. Newton

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