Good Ideas: The Character Coach


CB063459One of the nice/strange things about my job is that it strongly resembles being a parachute jumper. You drop out of the sky into interesting places, where you meet people, explore, and look for patterns.

In the past two weeks, I’ve had in-depth conversations about performance with two professional sports teams, two schools (one inner city, one private), one special-forces unit, and one huge multinational business.

Here’s the weird part: in a profound way, they’ve all been the same conversation.

They’re all obsessed with that elusive, magical quality we call character. Grit. Resilience. Reliability. Ownership. Because, as the work of Paul Tough, Angela Duckworth, and others have shown, character supports performance the same way a concrete foundation supports a house.

So it’s with a sense of karmic happiness that I bumped into this remarkable story about a high-school football team in Ohio that was struggling with precisely the same issues, and which found a straightforward solution that’s worth sharing.

Actually “struggling” is putting it kindly. Until a few years ago, Bedford High’s team was terrible. The team was in shambles. No discipline. No identity. How bad was it? The coach, Sean Williams, says that when a Bedford player scored, his teammates on the sidelines would yell and complain because they should have been the ones who scored.

Then, two years ago, Coach Williams made an innovative move that surprised everyone.

He brought in a character coach.

Like many useful innovations, this one feels completely revolutionary and forehead-slappingly obvious at the same time. The thinking goes something like: we have a strength coach and an offensive-line coach – so why in the world shouldn’t we have a coach to focus on the most important element of all?

So Bedford did. Two times a week, led by a 31-year-old entrepreneur/coach named Keith Tousley, the team started gathering in sessions that were part motivational seminar, part group therapy. From the article:

On Monday, to accompany his talk, Tousley gave players a worksheet titled “How we WILL BEAT Kent Roosevelt.” Every player sat quietly and filled in blanks as he spoke. The worksheet had nothing to do with X’s and O’s. Among the sentences players completed were:

“Find ____ in what you are doing.”

Answer: Joy.

“Stay _____ .”

Answer: Humble.

“Compete for something ____ than yourself.”

Answer: Greater.

One of the benefits of this approach stems from the fact that character is contagious. A Bedford player  named Tyvis Powell was one of the first to get on board with the new program, and now,  according to Williams, “all these guys are mini-Tyvises.“ Another benefit is that improvements in character tend to cascade into every other area of the team and individual success — classroom, family, and beyond.

So, did the experiment work? Let’s just say this year’s team is 9-1, and playing tonight in the state playoffs.

The real question is, is this a model that could be adopted in schools, businesses, teams? What are the challenges/opportunities involved with establishing “character” as a distinct quality to be improved? What do you think?

UPDATE: Bedford won 21-14, advancing to the state semifinal.

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10 Responses to “Good Ideas: The Character Coach”

  1. Neil Pickup says:

    Hi Dan,

    Interesting read. I’ve been reading around “coaching mental toughness” and developing character, coaching at a middle school age range. Have you any resources or examples that look at ways in which younger players than those mentioned have looked at whole-person development, trying to encourage the culture of positive/supportive risk-taking? At present I use discussion/decision-making drills, peer review, emphasis on process over results… but always on the look out for other ideas that work well!


  2. Ron says:

    Great article and point. And I bet the twice a week meetings weren’t very long. I think the Miami Dolphins could use a bit of this training as well.

  3. Michael says:

    The article is a great example of how important the mental game is and how it can serve to be a useful tool in any capacity. I particularly enjoyed reading the part about how the coach’s philosophy was to get these guys engaged with the cognitive approach. I read that success comes from being mentally prepared and can be the difference between success and failure on or off the field.

  4. John Davis says:

    2 snapshots – in my first year of coaching many many years ago (soccer) I asked the players on day one what the term “osprey” meant, as that was our team’s mascot. One kid raised his hand and said, “well coach, if we are the ospreys, it must mean loser.” My mission was set and we went on changing the way we saw ourselves, team and school….winning the championship that year and many years afterwards. #2 – My soccer academy in Charlottesville Va dedicates 25% of its contact time with athletes in the classroom teaching mental skills – learning how to manage the conversations in our heads – included in those discussions (often from sports psychs, a world cup winning coach) are those less often discussed items of developing team culture, athletic humility, “process versus outcome”….the difference (we’re told via feedback) we make is astounding…bottom line – Teaching athletes how to language their thoughts is one of the greatest gifts coaches can give them….at ETM Soccer Academy, we do just that! Love your blog, Daniel. Thanks – John Davis, Director, ETM Soccer Academy.

  5. Darrick Ware says:

    I am a football coach at McKinney High School in McKinney, Texas. I have seen first hand the incredible impact character has in success. Because of this, another coach and I created a character curriculum designed for high school athletes. This curriculum is used by coaches and players all over the nation. In the book Talent Code, Coyle talks about how talent hotbeds are created, deep practice, great coaching, and thousands of hours of hard work. The Curriculum entitled A Football Journey teaches players the principles of Daniel Coyle, Carol Dweck, Paul Tough, Malcolm Gladwell, and many other great authors. It is absolutely incredible what happens when you teach kids about the growth mindset, deep practice, and character.

    I have found that investing in the character of my players is one of the greatest gifts I can give them. Seasons come and go, but what is learned last a lifetime.

    Darrick Ware
    A Football Journey

  6. Mike says:

    I 100% agree with Coach Ware. I have been a teacher for over 15 years and by far the most success I have had is in combining the ideas and research of Growth Mindset (Everyone has the capacity to learn and improve), Grit and character (this is HOW we work hard) and Brain Ed or Myelin (this is WHY we work hard). Everything else is secondary. Not unimportant but if we strive for, model, and instill high character and hard work, great things happen.

  7. djcoyle says:

    Hey Coach, Thanks so much for sharing your insights and resources — people around here are going to find them very useful!

  8. djcoyle says:

    Hey John, Thanks for sharing your team’s story. I love it — especially the 25 percent figure!
    PS — I’m gonna be in Charlottesville — speaking at Charlotte Country Day — in mid-February. Come by!

  9. Bill Dooley says:

    For Neil and Others:

    Here’s a great resource:

    Only a tiny number of those involved in sports will derive any material benefit from their play. There are some college scholarships out there. But of the youth athletes you know, how many would you expect to make a living with their sport for even a year by age 30? How many, on the other hand, will at age 30 reflect – possibly on a daily basis – the values and Life Lessons learned through athletics?

    The common answers to those questions – even among college coaches – are “none of them” and “all of them”. That says everything about the importance of the life skills element of the sports experience. That will be what these players really take from sports, more enduring – and therefore more important – than anything they learn about a particular sport. Former NBA player Bob Bigelow puts it this way:
    “What we are in youth sports to do is to develop better children.”

    While Bruce Brown’s focus is on college athletic programs, I’ve used his ideas with much younger players. Particularly worthwhile are his sections on the “Qualities of Great Teams” and the “Qualities of Great Athletes”. They provide a great foundation for the character development component that should be part of every sports program.

    P.S. Anything upcoming in Colorado, Dan?

  10. djcoyle says:

    Hey Bill, Thanks for sharing the book — looks tremendous. And I’ll definitely keep you posted if I’m in the CO neighborhood!

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