Coaching for Off-field Success

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.4, April 2006,

Worried that the culture of athletics is sending more and more student-athletes down the wrong path, Mark Richt decided to take a proactive step when he became Head Coach at the University of Georgia in 2001. To address the issue, Richt brought in Bobby Lankford, a character education coordinator from a company called Winning with Character.

Employed as an independent contractor, Lankford is viewed by Bulldog players as an assistant coach. Though he has nothing to do with offensive or defensive schemes, Lankford is on the sidelines at every practice and game, encouraging and counseling Georgia players. His area of expertise is character development.

Every week of every semester, players, who are grouped by class level, meet with Lankford and other Georgia coaches to talk about values such as honesty, fairness, and responsibility. During the 30-minute sessions, which are held on Thursdays, players examine how they can improve their decision making in those areas.

“We deal with the tough issues that kids are facing today,” says Lankford. “We get into issues like recreational sex, STDs, drugs and alcohol, respecting and honoring women, and unplanned pregnancies. A lot of the issues we address are constantly changing, and we adjust our program to keep up with those changes.”

One lesson that consistently strikes a nerve with coaches at all levels teaches athletes about responsible sex. The program teaches male athletes to treat women the way they would want their sister treated.

“We find most of our current issues in the newspapers and on TV and also bring in personal experiences from the coaches,” says Lankford. “For certain lessons we bring in outside speakers. For example, when we did the drug and alcohol lesson here at Georgia, we brought in our county sheriff. When we did the STD lessons we brought in an expert from our local board of health.”

The Winning with Character program is available to high schools and colleges, no matter their size. In addition to Georgia, the program is also used at the University of Maryland, the University of Alabama, and about 20 high schools across the United States. This year the Atlanta Braves will implement the program into all levels of its farm system.

High schools employing the program usually have a representative from the school, typically a coach, trained by Winning with Character to administer the lessons. At Division I schools, there is usually a point person from the company, someone like Lankford, trained to lead the program and bring assistant coaches up to speed on facilitating the curriculum.

“We teach the same things at both the college and high school level,” says Lankford. “But at Division I schools we custom design the program to fit their history and tradition.”

Dr. Sharon Stoll, CEO and founder of the Center for Ethical Theory and Honor In Competition and Sport (E.T.H.I.C.S.) at the University of Idaho, and a partner with Lankford in the Winning with Character company, draws up the lesson plans for Georgia and other schools offering the program. Stoll has long researched the values and morals of athletes, and in 2004 she concluded a 17-year study in which 72,000 athletes—from junior high to college-age—completed questionnaires designed to measure their moral reasoning.

“In sport we have moved away from honorable behavior, and there’s more of an emphasis on winning at all costs,” Stoll told The Associated Press. Stoll’s study concluded “the environment of athletics has not been supportive of teaching and modeling moral knowing, moral valuing, and moral action.”

To encourage coaches to share their personal experiences, and to further develop the curriculum, the company sends out a monthly report asking each coach what they see at their school. In an effort to broaden the educational efforts, coaches are also asked to raise these topics informally with players. “We send the lessons to the coaches in advance and try to make them understand that it’s not a lecture and that if they bring these topics up and facilitate discussion, the kids will want to talk about them,” Lankford says.

While the program is suitable for the entire athletic department, Lankford says schools should take their time before expanding it. “We recommend that schools use the football team as a pilot program for at least the first semester, and ideally the first full year, before incorporating it in the entire athletic department,” says Lankford. “That gives the coaches some experience and time to work out the bugs.”