How Sports Teach Character

Illustration of two young football players walking off the field with their arms around each other's shoulders. The coach stands in the background, watching proudly.
Gabe Caranza

Legendary U.S. Air Force Academy head football coach Fisher DeBerry has quite an impressive record. He's the winningest coach in the history of service academy football — with three conference championships, 12 bowl games and enough records to land him in four halls of fame.

Throughout his remarkable career, however, "Coach" was far more concerned about winning with his family than about winning on the gridiron. That's why, amid all the demands of Division One football, Coach and his wife, Lu Ann, mapped out a game plan for their two children, Michelle and Joe. "We raised our kids in the church, had a family night once a week and always took summer vacations," he says. "It was about being there for them."

Life lessons

Not surprisingly, Coach's game plan for his kids included sports. During their high school years, Michelle competed in soccer and Joe in baseball and football. Athletics presented priceless opportunities to help his kids develop character, according to Coach. He used their successes and failures, their victories and defeats, to teach them valuable life lessons.

One lesson he drove home often was the value of determination and persistence. "You're not always going to win the game," he told them, "and you're not always going to ace a test. The only way you become a champion is to get back up when you're knocked down."

His kids also learned to work together as a team, to value the gifts and abilities of others, and to show compassion for people in pain.

The final score

Coach recalls the moment when he knew his lessons had hit home with his son, Joe. It was the semifinals of the state football championship, and Joe's team was down 14–0. They fought back hard in the second half and were an extra point away from sending the game into overtime. Their team felt confident that with a win they would go on to take the state championship. But the kicker missed the extra point; the game ended 13–14.

"Of course, everybody wanted to blame the kicker," Coach says. "But the picture in The Gazette on Sunday morning was of Joe walking off the field with his arm around the neck of that guy."

It's not the final score that counts, Coach says. It's character.

This article first appeared in the October/November, 2010 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was originally titled "A Father's Game Plan." If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. Get it delivered to your home by subscribing for a gift of any amount.

Copyright © 2010 by Focus on the Family. Used by permission.

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