A Little Philosophy

How do you make sure your coaches follow an ethical path? Ask them to each write their own coaching philosophy statement.

By Dr. Dennis Docheff

Dennis Docheff, EdD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance at Central Missouri State University and a former football, basketball, and track and field coach.

Athletic Management, 17.3, April/May 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1703/gpphilosophy.htm

One of your coaches discovers that his best player has broken a team rule. The player remains eligible for conference play, but would sit out one game if the internal rule is enforced. Yet the team is undefeated, with the biggest game of the year coming up. Will the coach make the player sit out? Are you sure?

Ethical dilemmas are a common aspect of athletics. Most coaches intend to act in an honorable manner, but the pressure of competition can sometimes get in the way of doing what they know is right.

What can athletic directors do to enhance the possibility of ethical behavior among their coaches? One strategy is to ask them to create a personal philosophy statement.

Creating a personal philosophy statement allows coaches to think about what is important to them, put those thoughts into writing, and communicate them. Then, when ethical dilemmas arise, each coach has a written, personal guide to help him or her make the right decision. If properly written, it reminds a coach that crossing the ethical threshold doesn’t serve the coach’s priorities and thus is not in the coach’s best long-term interests.

However, it can seem daunting to put together a philosophy statement. Here is a way to break the task down into a six-step process.

Write a list. The first step to building a statement is to create a list of everything important to you in life—everything. If television is important to you, list it. If chocolate makes your day, list it. How about your professionalism? Winning? Exercise? Try to include everything that may impact your daily behavior.

Consider creating the list over several days or weeks. This allows time for reflection when developing your ideas. A partial list might include friends, family, television, food, my sports car, influencing student-athletes and students, the success of my student-athletes, winning games, championship titles, lifelong learning.

Prioritize your list. Next, prioritize each item on the list so that: 1 = very important, 2 = somewhat important, and 3 = moderately important. Our partial list may now look something like this:

Friends: 2
Family: 1
Television: 2
Food: 3
My sports car: 3
Influencing students: 1
Success of athletes: 2
Winning games: 1
Championship titles: 2
Lifelong learning: 1

There is no right or wrong in this process. The items listed and the numbers next to them should reflect the true feelings of the coach compiling the list.

Create the statement. Look at all the #1 items and write a paragraph or more that links them together. If some of the #1 items do not seem to fit what you want to say, it is okay to leave them out. And you may decide to "upgrade" a few #2 items because they help to define what you are truly about. Use the priority numbers as a guide only. Elaborate and add text to bring out what really inspires you on a daily basis.

In some settings, it may be appropriate to include only those items that are truly relevant to the job. In this case, the narrative statement becomes a reflection of your professional philosophy, but is no less effective.

The following is an example of the opening of a philosophy statement: "I love to learn, and learning inspires me to teach others. Through coaching, I hope to positively influence today’s youth, so they might be good citizens tomorrow. Patience, kindness, and love directs my interactions with athletes. Although I like to win, it is imperative that I do so in a fair and just manner. I believe in doing what’s right."

Publish it. When people think of publishing, they typically think of books or magazines. But coaches have many avenues to publish their philosophy statement. The simplest way is to place it in a frame and hang it on the office wall. Another idea is to post it in the locker room where athletes can read it. Other avenues for publishing the philosophy statement include:

• sending a letter home to parents
• putting it in a school district newsletter
• placing it on a Web site
• printing it on 3x5 cards to give to your athletes
• submitting it as an article to the local newspaper
• including it in a preseason packet for athletes and their parents.

Imagine your statement as a letter telling parents how strongly you believe in doing what is best for their child. By reading about your philosophy, parents will gain an appreciation of your work, and will be on their way to becoming strong supporters of your program.

Put it into practice. The most importance part of the process is putting the philosophy into action. One way to do this is by setting one or two monthly goals that are directly related to your philosophy, and checking your work at the end of each month. Another idea is to create a term "report card," either on your own or with a mentor or partner to gauge progress toward your larger goals. Or try keeping a journal, where you write about your daily activities, then reflect on how well your behavior matches your philosophy.

Review it. The final step is an annual review of the philosophy statement. As people grow and mature, things that were once important in their lives may change and thus their philosophy may change, too. Even if the philosophy statement remains the same from year to year, reviewing the document will refresh your perspective.

Certainly, trying to live out a public philosophy puts pressure on a coach. It’s risky and it takes courage to tell people, "This is what I’m about. Please hold me accountable." When athletes and parents know the coach’s philosophy, they expect behavior that matches those beliefs every day.

However, writing and reviewing your philosophy will help you coach in a manner that truly represents who you are. It will provide you with a foundation to solve the ethical dilemmas that are bound to come up over the course of a season.

A personal philosophy statement will help you make tough decisions. It will give you a base when emotions are high (or low). When your frame of reference goes awry, it will remind you of what really matters. And the longer you use it, the more likely you will reach your goals.