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Should Coaches Do Character Building?

Last week, three University of Oregon football players were hospitalized following a workout supervised by the strength and conditioning coach.  The suggestion from many media outlets is that the workload was sufficiently excessive that it posed a danger to the participating athletes.  Whether the ultimate suspension of the strength coach for one month without pay is a reflection of his complicity or a capitulation to political pressure (e.g. scapegoating) is something we may never know.  Hopefully, the university conducts a thorough internal investigation and addresses whatever issues, systemic and personal, contributed to this unfortunate outcome.  Regardless of the strength coach’s culpability here, the popular narrative that certain coaching practices build character warrants further scrutiny.

At least one of the hospitalized players was reported to have developed rhabdomyolysis.  Assuming this report is true, it indicates that the workout was highly misguided from a physiological perspective.  There are very few documented incidents of rhabdomyolysis occurring during actual collegiate and professional American football games.  Rhabdomyolysis is reflective of a substantial degree of muscle damage, a level unlikely to be attained atraumatically in American football.  Consequently, the physiological rationale for subjecting American football players to a rhabdo-inducing workout is non-existent.  Nevertheless, biodynamic transfer is generally not cited as a justification for these types of workouts.  Mental toughness and, more broadly, character building is.

Sport coaches often look to the military, the special operations community in particular, for “character building” and “mental toughness” training.  The bastardization of military style training for mental toughness development is expounded upon here and here.  Even the military does not regard these types of workouts as training.

Training and selection, not the same…

Scouting and recruiting are necessarily much different in the world of sport than in the special operations community.  The department of defense cannot watch film on a civilian conducting a direct action mission or freefall parachute insertion in a hostile country.  Military recruits generally have no specific aptitude for the types of disciplines in which they hope to ultimately engage.  There is no peewee, high school, and collegiate special operations forces from which to evaluate talent.  Moreover, there is no perfectly transferable way to simulate combat stress in untrained recruits.  Inducing extreme physical duress in conjunction with sleep and food deprivation is often the best the military can do before it invests millions of dollars into legitimately training a special operator.  If these selection courses sufficed as job specific preparation, special operators would redo their respective hell weeks prior to each overseas deployment.  Fortunately, meticulously designed, highly transferable predeployment workups prevail instead.  Consequently, the purpose the sporting world mistakenly draws from military style workouts is better served by more contextual means.

Coaches are teachers and educators.  They should focus on adequately preparing athletes for the physical, psychological, intellectual, and tactical environment they will encounter on the field of play.  The process of preparing and competing may indeed help develop critical thinking ability, emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, an ethical framework, and other attributes suggestive of “character”.  Coaches who deliberately seek to develop abstract qualities like mental toughness are essentially attempting to character build.  No doubt some coaches influence the people with whom they come into contact in profoundly constructive ways.  However, the line between extreme, premeditated efforts at character building and a coach’s self-absorption is blurry.

Those who are most qualified to instill character in others (if that can even be done) are presumably people of exemplary character themselves.  High character people typically don’t regard themselves as such.  Instead, they hold themselves accountable for the qualities that they value in other people while continually seeking improvement.  They lead by example.  We all intuitively know a good coach/teacher/leader when we see one.  The best leaders inspire us because they exemplify the qualities we seek to develop in ourselves.  The worst leaders are the ones who behave in a manner that undermines that which they demand from others.  Good leaders don’t need to demand that others defer to their authority because they want the people with whom they interact to regard their work as intrinsically meaningful.  The difference between a strenuous training session that elicits an appropriate adaptive response in an athlete and one that temporarily satiates an emotional void in a coach is considerable.

Retired CMSgt (then TSgt) Davide Keaton was one of my instructors at the Pararescue Indoctrination Course in 2004.  I remember all of my instructors there fondly, but Keaton stuck out.  Unofficially, “Indoc” is a selection course, not a training course.  Keaton had no reason to invest very much in the course attendees.  Around eighty percent of the candidates in each class wash out.  Nevertheless, Keaton is one of those people who just “has it”.  He treated every candidate with dignity and respect without compromising the standards of the course.  We did not want to disappoint him.  We did not fear him but respected him immensely.  To fear him would have been to fear everything we aspired to become.  He was invested in everybody, even those who were eliminated.  He was sincere and compassionate but simultaneously firm.  He enforced the standards of the course without personalizing anyone’s failures.  He wasn’t a gatekeeper but somebody who helped refine a process that generally selected the most qualified people for the job.  He didn’t have to tell us how to behave amongst one another.  His personal conduct and the course itself reinforced what was expected of us.  Keaton recently retired from the Air Force after 30 years of military service.  His commitment to his own professionalism likely inspired others to respond in kind.  Sport coaches would be better served learning from someone like Keaton than from punishing workouts that have very little to do with sporting success.  Keaton never lectured us about toughness and character.  He was too busy cultivating it in himself.