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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